Dealing with bad neighbors can be one of the most frustrating experiences. Chances are there’s at least one chronically objectionable person who goes out of their way to disrupt the peaceful functioning of a community.
What is more difficult, however, is defining the word “objectionable”. “Some members are labeled as ‘difficult’ when they really are just espousing views that may be unpopular or different from those held by the board or a majority of the other members,” says Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder attorney with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale. “Some of the best association leaders started out as ‘difficult’ owners.”
There are obvious, unlawful actions such as physical assault or trafficking drugs which constitute grounds for arrest – but for the more gray areas – building managers and boards can help manage tricky situations while avoiding exposure to liability themselves.
“One of the most common issues in community associations is rule enforcement—but ironically, industry surveys show that fully 90 percent of residents in community associations recognize that such rules protect the value of their unit and provide for the quiet enjoyment of their property,” says Andrew Fortin, senior vice president of communications for Associa, the largest association management company with offices nationwide including about a dozen in Florida.
“At the same time, the old adage that rules are made to be broken also plays a part,” Fortin says. “Folks strongly support rules, but then will seek exemptions for an issue that’s particularly close to their heart. Issues that commonly set off arguments between neighbors are often exterior items like clotheslines, political signs, satellite dishes and solar arrays that people feel are unsightly, or that somehow infringe on their private property.”
The line is crossed when a dissident resident stops debating the issue civilly and starts making personal and/or defamatory statements about the board or a manager. “A group of residents who disagree with an outcome might form their own rogue board, set up a rival association Facebook or web page and engage in actions that can be deemed libelous or threatening,” says Fortin. “When such statements are published electronically via social media, it may become a legal issue. While not common, such personal attacks may require the board to seek a cease and desist letter.”
“In most situations, all but the most troubled residents can be handled internally by a responsive board and a competent manager. According to Fortin, property managers are typically the first responders to a situation involving a difficult resident. This highlights the truly unique role that the community association manager plays, and highlights the challenges of their job. After all, managers assist with producing budget and financial statements, understand how to run a meeting, have a working knowledge of governing documents and applicable state statutes—and often serve as counselors or mediators in highly-charged disputes,” he says.
“Having a clear and consistent process for resolving disputes between neighbors related to the association rules, or between a resident and the board helps set expectations, provides transparency of process and ensures residents have a consistent process available,” Fortin says. “Most issues are aggravated not by the resolution, but rather by the lack of clarity on how to engage in resolution. This vacuum of information allows residents to project their fears and insecurities into the void, which only adds fuel to the fire.”