Legal Nightmares If Only They Were Bad Dreams...

Legal Nightmares

We've all heard stories—harrowing tales of crazy lawsuits, mishandled misunderstandings, shady dealings, outright fraud. From loony shareholders or unit owners, corrupt staffers or belligerent neighbors, the legal imbroglios residential buildings get involved in make for good reading—as long as they don't involve you.

The New Jersey Cooperator recently spoke with Scott Piekarsky, an attorney with Piekarsky Schettino in Hackensack; David Byrne, an attorney with Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville; and Robin Habacht, a property manager with Monticello Management in Leonia, and asked them for their juiciest tales of legal woe. We added a few from our own personal experiences, and present them to you now. The stories are like something from an off-Broadway play, or a dime novel, or a B-grade horror movie—imagine the taglines!

"Walk the Walk"

Byrne tells the story of a pastoral condo development down the Jersey shore where a vocal and somewhat erratic resident created tension amongst his neighbors and board during meetings. He'd scowl at people, and get right in the faces of anybody who dared cross him. He even boasted that he had a number of guns, and wouldn't mind using them.

At this point, the board went to chancery court and got a restraining order against the truculent resident. When he showed up to testify, the gentleman was as brash and belligerent as he'd been at board meetings (though to be fair, he didn't threaten to shoot up the place). The judge, threatening jail, barred him from attending any more association meetings. Eventually—and mercifully—the surly fellow sold his condo and moved…but not before thoroughly undermining his HOA's sense of peace and tranquility.

"The Squatter"

According to Byrne, an older man renting an apartment in a high-rise condo building in Jersey City died. The unit owner was looking forward to renovating the place and putting it on the market for the first time in decades. But who should materialize out of the woodwork but the late tenant's ne'er-do-well son, who proceeded to squat in the apartment, like Butch and Sundance in the house where they made their last stand.

In the Wild West, of course, deputies could storm the place guns a-blazing and oust the interloper, but New Jersey hasn't been the Wild West since the Burr-Hamilton duel. Now it's the lawyers who do the storming—and at press time, attorneys for the unit owner are still working on it: the squatter is still holed up in his late father's rented apartment.

"The Secret of my Success"

Piekarsky recalls the story of the owner of a condo in a suburban complex who decided to run his business from home. That's well and good if your business is that of say, a freelance real estate writer. When your company is located in a residentially-zoned cul-de-sac however, and there are employees, UPS guys, and various vendors descending on the place at all hours, it's probably time to look at renting legitimate commercial space.

When the neighbors' complaints and reproaches from the board became too much of a distraction from the at-home businessman's bottom line—or perhaps when he expanded into the Asian markets—the audacious entrepreneur sold his unit and moved.

"The Bikini Diaries"

Habacht recalls a situation in Wayne, where a woman lived in a ground-floor unit near her condo complex's swimming pool. Seemingly apropos of nothing, she decided to make war on the pool company. She made repeated, bizarre requests—like demanding that the pool temperature be set near maximum, even on the hottest summer days. When the company complained about her behavior, she filed a sexual harassment claim, alleging that pool lifeguards routinely peered into her windows.

Feeling that the woman was more of a headache than the job was worth, the pool company threatened to walk off the job—but this was the middle of July in a crowded condo complex, so leaving was not really an option. The association board barred the woman from the pool; she then promptly filed suit against the board for punitive damages.

This sort of thing usually gets settled long before seeing the inside of a courtroom, Habacht says. With the ADR law, most internecine battles do. But in this case, the board didn't wish to settle. It took almost three years, but the association got everything dismissed, and the judge threw out the resident's punitive damages claim as well.

"The Letter Writer"

A man owned several units in a co-op building in Fort Lee. According to Byrne, for reasons clear only to himself, he was constantly feuding with the board. In a vain attempt to curry the sympathy of his neighbors, he would write and distribute long treatises explaining in exquisite detail just how certain board members were doing him wrong. The letter writer himself became every bit the nuisance he claimed the board to be.

The situation took a turn for the worse when the resident began filing lawsuits against the board and co-op. Calling and emailing one of the board members at all hours to vent his grievances, he claimed that hairs from people's cats were getting on his infant's clothes via the washing machine, to name just one example. Eventually, the board was forced to get a restraining order, which he generally ignored. (It did, however, get him booted from the annual holiday party.)

As a result of all this, a sizable chunk of the co-op's budget went to legal fees. At the board meeting that year, the incorrigible resident began berating the board for spending so much money on attorneys, demanding to know how and why the money had been allocated.

"The legal fees," the board president calmly explained, "were incurred because you kept harassing the board members and filing frivolous lawsuits."

The shareholder didn't understand this at all - but eventually, and to the great relief of the board, he sold all of his units and moved out of the building.

"The Drunken Master"

A man is his early sixties lived in a condo on the second floor of a four-story brownstone in Hoboken. His mobility was in decline, and if he lost his footing and fell, it was impossible for him to get up. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy drinker, so he tended to fall quite often. He would drink enough to throw off his balance, tumble over on the way to the bathroom, unable to get back up.

The first time he managed to crawl to the telephone and call 911. Calling the ambulance and EMT proved expensive, however. So the next time he fell, he didn't call. He just lay there on the floor, and hours—sometimes days—would pass.

The sanitary ramifications of the situation aren't hard to imagine. Eventually, the hallway and stairwell outside the man's apartment became sickeningly unpleasant. Fearing the worst, the resident's neighbors forcibly entered the apartment and found him, naked but for a tattered bathrobe. They helped him to his feet and into the bathroom, but he refused to let them call an ambulance. Over the next year or so, neighbors found the man in a similar predicament four or five times, each time worse than the last.

Residents also feared he would start a fire when smoking his pipe. Over the same year, the fire department was summoned twice to put out small fires in the man's apartment.

Because the building was a condo, there was not much that could be done, legally. There weren't enough units to absorb the cost of hiring an attorney to evict the man, and there was concern over where he would go if he were ejected from the building. When he was sober, clean, and suitably attired, the man was a charming fellow—but still, neighbors felt that he was a ticking time bomb. It was only a matter of time before he burned the building down, or worse.

(Being one of the neighbors—one who'd helped him on several occasions—this reporter sold his apartment rather than wait for the inevitable. I'm told that he died without taking any of his fellow unit owners with him.)

Recourse in a Bad Situation

There is always recourse when these situations crop up. Communication is key, especially in the early stages, before things get blown out of proportion. Being nice can go a long way.

"You get a lot more with sugar than vinegar," Piekarsky says. "Approach civilly. Let management do it. If it can't be resolved, then give it to legal counseling."

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is required in New Jersey before any sort of HOA-related dispute or grievance is allowed to go to trial.

"[ADR] usually works," Byrne says, "or has a good chance of working. You don't see a whole lot blowing up into a major thing. Management handles a lot of problems."

Sometimes, though, the best way to resolve a problem is for the rabble-rouser to find a new address. "Sometimes," Piekarksy says, "the biggest problems move on."

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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