Q&A: No-Pets Rule

Q I am having an issue at my co-op in New Jersey. I have an outdoor cat, who is  impossible to keep indoors. Before I moved into my co-op in September 2012, I  was completely unaware that the co-op has a "no outdoor cat" rule. I never got  a copy of the bylaws and my realtor was even unaware of this regulation.  

 A few years ago outdoor cats were allowed, but they changed the rule. No one  informed me of this rule before I bought the unit, in fact, the building  boasted being "pet friendly" in their ad. Now I am being imposed with $50 fines  because "someone saw my cat outside." They have no proof or evidence that  anyone actually saw my cat outside. Every now and then he gets out during the  day and there is nothing I can do about it. I have tried to reason with the  board to allow me to have him outside only at night, but they refuse, although  there are numerous other cats roaming the property, who myself and my neighbors  have seen. I don't even see anything in the rules that says that they are  allowed to impose fines for this! What should I do?  

 —Need Help in Hoboken  

A “When you purchase shares of a co-op, you are given a proprietary lease, which  also refers to the co-op’s bylaws and house rules,” says Melissa Volet, a shareholder attorney at the law firm of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville. “Even if you are not provided with these documents at closing, you have notice  that they exist and that you are subject to them as a leaseholder. You can request these documents from management.  

 “The proprietary lease, bylaws, and house rules (governing documents) provide  boards with a certain amount of authority relating to the governance of the  association. Boards have a duty to uphold rules and regulations to protect the health, safety  and welfare of its residents of the association. It is common for associations to prohibit pets of any kind, because pets can  produce frequent loud noises and can cause damage to common elements, e.g.,  grass, common hallways, etc.  

 “Boards are compelled to comply with the governing documents when implementing  rules and regulations or amendments to its documents. Some governing documents require a vote of the membership to implement new rules  and regulations, while other governing documents allow just the board to vote  on the new rules and regulations it seeks to implement. A vote of the membership is almost always required for amendments to bylaws. For example, if the bylaws allowed residents to have pets, it is likely that the  bylaws would require a vote of the membership to amend the bylaws to prohibit  pets.  

 “Fines are often imposed for violations of the governing documents. We advise our associations to make sure that there is proper documentation of  the violation, e.g., photographs or a complaint signed by a witness prior to  imposing fines. Without sufficient evidence to prove the violation, associations are unlikely to  be able to enforce the violation and/or collection of the resulting fine.  

 “It is important to review all of your association’s governing documents to determine: (1) whether the association’s board had the authority to prohibit pets; (2) whether the association has the  authority to implement fines for violations; and (3) whether the association  has either a signed complaint from a witness or a picture of your outdoor cat  to support the imposition of the fine. If there is such proof and authority, as a member of the co-op, you are  obligated to comply and find a way to restrain your cat or risk fines and legal  action.”  

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