HABITAT

CONFLICT OVER HOUSE RULES

Conflict Over House Rules

Oct 02, 2018

Bruce Cholst, Shareholder, Anderson Kill

I spent the better part of five years litigating 941 Park Avenue vs Braun. This case was the ultimate in vanity litigation. The two parties' egos and expenditures far outweighed their common sense. Nonetheless, the case generated several important giveaways to the board.

 

A familiarity with the building's unique interior layout is crucial to understanding and appreciating the case. This is an elite building, consisting only of duplex units. With one exception, each duplex apartment alternates the main entrance from floor to floor. The main entrance always opens on the living quarters of one of the apartments. So Apt 3A, for instance, has its main entrance on the third floor, and 3B has its main entrance on the fourth floor. The exception is the second floor, which has both of the living quarters on that floor. There is no main entrance on the first floor. It had probably been designed that way to accommodate professional space that had previously existed there. Consequently, the two second-floor apartments have main entrances on the same floor. So it's a very small area which in that one floor receives a lot of use because they have two families. In any event, because they are shared main entrances, called vestibules, historically there have been disputes because both families had unrestricted access.

Conflict Over House Rules 

The conflict between the residents of two adjacent units in a Park Avenue cooperative, both of which had units with main entryways that open onto a shared vestibule, presented a unique problem for the cooperative's board to resolve. (Braun v. 941 Park Avenue)

 

The board decided to address the issue in 1983 with a house rule. It said that when the downstairs rooms front onto the main entrance (the vestibule), the owner of that apartment has dominant rights and can receive guests there, receive their mail there, and decorate that hallway. It seemed to work fine because throughout the building everyone had two vestibules and one of them was a vestibule they could decorate and the other one they agreed not to use. The problem with that house rule is that it ignores the unique situation of the second-floor vestibule, shared by two owners. And that problem remained under the radar for 14 years because the parties got along, and they shared the vestibule comfortably.

 

But then, in 1997, and in 1998, the two second-floor owners moved out. There were now two new owners whose personalities mixed like oil and water. They immediately started fighting over the use of that one crowded vestibule. It became a real crusade. Board members got letters and counter letters seven days a week, Sunday included, and it just didn't let up.

 

Both parties came to 30 board meetings, complaining. It was tying up the entire building’s operation. So the board tried to mediate. When that failed because of the two egos that were involved, they decided to impose a new house rule that specifically targeted the two owners of the second-floor vestibule, and no one else. Under the amended house rule, the second- and third-floor vestibule owner got to treat the second-floor vestibule as his front door. He got to decorate it. He got exclusive privileges to bring guests in that way, to have guests up there. One of the unit-owners was told that guests required an escort and the building had the staff provide an escort. So that was the house rule, which governed the second floor-vestibule. Both parties sued, each side claiming that they were the target of discrimination. Each one said, “We are second-class citizens and our right to a front door is being stripped.”

 

The trial lasted three and half weeks. It was appealed, and the appeals were monumental. But the co-op won and the rule was upheld in all respects, except for one minor exception: the escort rule. That was appealed, citing three issues. First, is it a rule that specifically targets one or two isolated shareholders? Is it discriminatory, because it doesn't apply building-wide and therefore constitutes disparate treatment?

 

I argued that this was a situation where the second-floor vestibule was unique in its layout, and the whole idea behind discrimination is that you're taking similarly situated people and treating them differently. This was not a similar situation, because the vestibule was unique. So the court's decision stands first and foremost for the proposition that you can have a house rule that is specifically targeted when the situation that’s being addressed is unique, and you're not treating similarly situated people differently.

 

The second issue was the claim that this was an arbitrary and capricious house rule, and therefore unreasonable. The bylaws enabled the board to enact “reasonable” house rules. Had that word reasonable not been in there, the board would have been able to claim protection under the Business Judgment Rule. Since there was no bad faith here, the court having decided that there was no discrimination, the rule would have been upheld under the BJR. But the use of the word reasonable eradicated the BJR, and we had to demonstrate to the court that our rule was reasonable. That was no easy task.

 

You should look at your house rules and especially at the provision regarding the board's power to enact house rules. If there is a restriction that any rule be reasonable, you should consider amending that word out of existence so that you could claim the protection of the Business Judgment Rule.

 

The third issue is that the owner of one of the units claimed that he never received notice of the amended house rule that applied to his unit. And that gave me a few gray hairs because it was a valid argument. The board never did specifically notify him, but it was in the board minutes. Fortunately the the court bought my argument that he could have and should have discovered that through due diligence and a review of the minutes.

 

The takeaway for boards is that they ought to provide a copy of the house rules to everyone and require all prospective purchasers to fill out an acknowledgement that they have read the house rules and understand them.

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