Dealing With the Disruptive How to Handle Problem Residents

Dealing With the Disruptive

The vast majority of condo and HOA residents are regular folks who wouldn't dream of disrupting life in their community by harassing their neighbors, bombarding their board and manager with endless complaints and threats, or filing lawsuits at the drop of a hat for every little thing. That being said, the unfortunate truth is that there are people who seem to thrive on doing these very things; maybe one of them even lives next door to you.

The bad behavior of chronically disruptive or objectionable residents can make life difficult for property managers, board members and neighbors alike. It's not okay—and dealing with it is both a challenge and something of an art form.

The Usual Suspects

Occasional nuisances are just part and parcel of communal living—anybody can have a flare of temper or break a rule once or twice. In those cases, stress, ignorance, or some other mitigating factor may be in play, but there are situations that cross the line into something more serious. A truly disruptive resident is someone whose behavior disturbs the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of other residents’ homes frequently enough, or to such an extent that quality of life in the community is negatively impacted.

It's this frequency of transgression that sets the truly disruptive resident apart. “While there is no set definition as to what a disruptive resident is, it often involves the type of behavior that affects multiple people or persists over a long period of time,” says attorney Stewart Wurtzel of the Manhattan-based law firm of Tane Waterman & Wurtzel, P.C.     

While it may not feel like it if you're sharing a common wall with a disruptive neighbor, most pros agree that the lion’s share of disruptive residents are actually pretty mundane; noise being by far the most common resident complaint in multifamily buildings and associations where people are literally on top of one another or living side-by-side. Cooking odors and pets come in a close second and third.

On the management side, the headaches typically come from individuals who bombard their manager's office with a steady stream of complaints and grievances, says Tony Nardone, MBA, CMCA, AMS, the managing partner of Corner Property Management in Springfield. “They e-mail every little thing,” he says. “They're very needy people. Any little thing that they can latch onto, they'll complain about time and time again.”

According to Dennis Estis, an attorney and partner with the Iselin-based law firm Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP, “You have unit owners who not only will get up and complain but will disrupt meetings,” he says. “They totally monopolize the meeting and ignore reasonable requests. I also know of several instances when disruptive unit owners have come into a manager's office to scream and yell, carry on, and make threats; they will do that literally every other day.”

Annoying and problematic, sure—but then there are the situations that veer into the truly dangerous or destructive. “Certainly any behavior that is a danger to neighbors or staff cannot be tolerated,” says Wurtzel. “Physical threats or assaults, banging on doors, causing intentional flooding are all types of conduct that require stern action by the board and management.”

So also do situations in which the disruptive resident is suffering not from just a rotten attitude, but bona fide mental illness. “We do have people who are mentally unstable,” says Elaine Warga-Murray of Regency Management Group LLC in Howell. “If you're managing a hundred communities and several thousand homes, that's inevitable. We have people who call us weekly—sometimes daily—saying that people are coming into their home, or looking in their windows. One person called up every day and said that the [local utility] was intentionally leaking gas into her house.”

Wisdom to Know the Difference

How can boards and residents distinguish between situations that are just another day in condo living and ones that are truly unacceptable, or dangerous? Whether the situation is a violation of the rules or a verbally abusive resident, the common denominator in all tough situations is that the behavior negatively affects the effective management or quiet use and enjoyment of the property. “I think the tipping point is when there is sufficient evidence that the person is becoming a real annoyance to his or her fellow unit owners,” says Estis.

Residents who are repeat offenders or get downright ugly at every meeting may tempt the board and management to turn a blind eye or give up. After all, it can be emotionally draining to squabble back and forth with a resident who just doesn’t understand why they’re in the wrong.

Boards and management, though, must be careful not to become too lax. “If the resident’s offensive conduct is severe enough to disturb the health, safety and welfare of other neighbors, the failure to take any action could potentially constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability. If the board takes no action, and the resident who is being bothered brings suit against the offending unit owner or shareholder, the odds are very good that the board will be named as a defendant in the lawsuit. If the conduct is severe and of a physically-threatening nature and something happens, which results in injury there is the possibility of negligence claims being filed as well,” Wurtzel explains.

Experts say that boards may be held liable if they contradict the governing documents or fail to act for the purpose of the collective good, and instead implement a decision that benefits themselves or doesn’t take into account all the parties involved. Boards that don’t take action could hurt their chances in court, too.

That being said, not all situations require the board to play the middleman, especially in personal conflicts between residents. Legal pros note that while boards are not necessarily obligated to get involved in disputes between individual owners—and in many instances they should avoid getting involved entirely—it may be in the best interest of the board to step in if the mere enforcement of a governing rule would resolve the dispute.

When a board has taken action, by sending a warning letter to the offending party, charging fines, or issuing a public notice, all to no avail, it may be time to lawyer up and start thinking about commencing more decisive legal action against the problem resident.

The Right Way to Deal

As appealing as it may sound to fight fire with fire (sending threatening emails back or taking up nightly saxophone lessons yourself), those rebuttals often only provide temporary relief and create further animosity. Effective strategies should address the problem at the core.

Boards should start by having clear and unambiguous rules in place. The rules should describe different types of conduct and provide for actions that can be taken if they are violated including written warnings, fines or seeking formal legal counsel if the situation is unresolved. More importantly, boards should strive to enforce the rules to show residents that they are serious about them being followed.

In the case of someone who's not well, and whose illness is impairing their ability to function rationally, “That's much more difficult,” says Warga-Murray. “You call the police and the utilities, but after a while there's not a whole lot they can do. In those cases, we've been fortunate that we've been able to get social workers through the county to visit them, but it's still a very lengthy process.”

If an otherwise healthy resident continues to break a certain rule, documenting each instance with the date, time and description can go a long way in helping solidify the problem. According to one property manager, “At one point, we had a resident that was continuously creating a disturbance and lacked respect for anyone. He felt that the rules simply did not apply to him. To address this we created a file and eventually took him to court in order to have him evicted. The documents in his file included incident and police reports in order to illustrate the problems he was creating.”

Of course, direct communication is crucial as well. The refrain among both legal and management pros is that most residents with an issue simply want to be heard—and managers and boards play a key role in this situation. Issues tend to escalate when the resident feels that he or she is being ignored. As Estis points out, “Sometimes the people who are complaining a lot have a good reason to complain. Sometimes there's a fine line between the difficult or disruptive unit owner and the unit owner who actually has some basis for their complaints, whose board doesn't want to hear from them.”

By approaching situations head on and giving the resident the attention he or she deserves, the board and manager are much better positioned to resolve the conflict without litigation or lingering acrimony. Addressing disruptive behavior can be an onerous task for both residents and boards. Establishing and most importantly, enforcing, clear-cut rules and a professional and patient demeanor go a long way and can help quell even the most rebellious of residents.     

Freelance writer Maggie Puniewska and Associate Editor Hannah Fons contributed to this article.

Related Articles

Row of the new townhouses in Richmond, British Columbia.

Aesthetic Standards

How to Enforce These Important Rules

New York City, United States - March 3, 2016: Cinema lights illuminate a film set on a small street near Chinatown

Licensing Your Building for TV & Movie Shoots

Lights, Camera, Action?

Holding Orderly, Efficient Annual Meetings

Holding Orderly, Efficient Annual Meetings

It’s Not as Hard as It Seems!