Q&A: Dealing with Abusive Behavior

Q We are a small seasonal condominium complex in need of guidance. Problems with the owners of one of our units occur every summer. The most recent incident, a repeat of incidents that have occurred in the past, involved abusive language and profanity in the presence of renters and their children when our teenage pool monitor attempted to correct this owner’s child who was doing something that was not allowed in the pool area. A verbal expletive was directed to the young monitor. The safety rules are posted and are clear concerning what is and is not allowed by the pool and on the deck.

These individuals continually and openly criticize board members, using derogatory and offensive language, a result we believe of the board’s need to call them to task in the past for serious infractions of the rules involving certain installations when such installations were prohibited in the bylaws in one case and required prior board approval in another.

The board has been reluctant to impose penalties—believing that to do so would only serve to exacerbate an already volatile situation—but it has become increasingly clear that this overt, hostile behavior and refusal to abide by the rules should not continue to be tolerated. Do you have any recommendations for dealing with this situation?

—Exasperated in Englewood

A “It seems that almost every association has an abusive resident,” says attorney R. Bruce Freeman of the Westfield, New Jersey-based law firm of Woehling & Freeman. “ However, the tools available to an association to protect itself from abuse are somewhat limited by the theory that a condominium governing body, like all political bodies, is inherently subject to criticism. In other words, to some extent, this problem 'comes with the territory.'

“Having said that, there is a line separating acceptable criticism and dissent from abuse. Based on your description, your situation seems to go over this line. I would therefore suggest a progressive approach in dealing with this resident. I state this not only because a progressive approach may have the best chance of success given the nature of the resident, but also because it will appear more reasonable to a court, if legal recourse is ultimately required.

“I would begin with an attorney’s letter requesting that the abusive behavior be discontinued, and advising the owner that the attorney’s fees incurred in addressing this matter will be shifted to the owner, if permitted under your governing documents. If that is unsuccessful, the next step would be to employ the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedure that is required for condominiums, by inviting the resident to an ADR hearing to attempt to work out the dispute between the resident and the association with the help of an ADR committee. The committee serves as a voice of the community, increasing the pressure on the abusive owner.

“If this does not work, the next step would be to formally suspend the resident’s membership privileges, including access to the pool facilities. In some communities, the police will enforce a notice of suspension of membership privileges on the basis that it constitutes a trespass should the resident ignores the suspension notice. If this does not work, the next step would be to employ fines imposed on an accelerated basis for each abusive incident. This means that the first fine might be $50.00, the second $100.00, the third $150.00. Once these fines begin showing up on the owner’s account history, it may cause his behavior to moderate.

“Finally, in the event that all else fails, an action in Superior Court restraining the owner from engaging in abusive behavior could be brought. If this is required, having taken a progressive approach will greatly benefit the association’s position to the court.”

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