By Alyssa Gautieri
Odor-related complaints are more common than you’d think—whether it’s cigarette smoke in outdoor common areas, the lingering scent of food in hallways, or the smell of perfume penetrating the walls.
According to attorney John LaGumina, of LaGumina Law Firm in Purchase New York, an association has the obligation to get involved in most odor-related complaints.
A board’s nuisance rules will play a big part when dealing with official complaints about odors caused by residents, LaGumina said. Nuisance rules discourage and prohibit residents from doing anything that unreasonably annoys or interferes with another resident’s right to peacefully possess, use or enjoy their home and property. While nuisance rules tend to be general and broad, the board can use these rules to address specific complaints regarding smoke, food smells, or unsanitary conditions causing odors that impact one or more residents.
From cigarette and marijuana smoke to strong perfumes and unsanitary conditions, LaGumina pointed out issues in addressing different odor-related complaints.
Not only is the smell of cigarette smoke unenjoyable to most bystanders, second-hand smoke can have detrimental health effects. According to LaGumina, “if a board receives a second-hand smoking complaint, it has to be addressed.”
“For decades, the law said that the board had no responsibility for what happened inside a unit, including smoking. There is a persistent trend in recent case law, however, that holds that boards now have the duty to do something. Courts are increasingly likely to penalize boards for doing nothing about a smoking complaint,” he said.
“If the association receives a complaint about smoking, that presumably violates the nuisance rules that are already in place,” LaGumina said. Thus, “the board can send a warning letter and if the conduct continues, the board can eventually fine the resident.”
“Residents do not have the constitutional right to smoke and outright smoking bans, if properly adopted and approved by the unit owners, can be upheld,” LaGumina said. Most governing documents also give the board alone the ability to adopt regulations concerning smoking in the common areas—which include decks, terraces, and patios.
To ban smoking inside a unit, at least two-thirds of the unit owners would have to agree to amend the governing documents. Even without an interior smoking ban, a board can still, on their own, enact a new rule and policy that second-hand smoke complaints will be considered nuisances and result in warnings and fines.
If a resident with asthma or allergies is filing second-hand smoke complaints, it could become a more serious issue. “If an adjoining resident has a medical condition that makes them more sensitive to second hand smoke, the board’s duty to take action escalates,” said LaGumina.
According to LaGumina, the board could also hire an engineer to look at the building and decide if anything could be done to better seal off units and stop smoke from penetrating adjoining units.
If there is a complaint from a resident about the use of marijuana, the association would follow the same steps as recommended for a second-hand smoke complaint—most often issuing a warning followed by a fine for breaking the nuisance rules.
“The board is not under any duty themselves to contact the police, and police departments often may not respond to calls regarding marijuana use. However, the board can remind the complainant that they have the right to contact the police,” LaGumina said. “Unless the board members witnessed the smoking, the board usually does not have the ability to make a first-hand complaint to the police.”
If a resident is prescribed medical marijuana, condominiums and HOAs are required to offer a reasonable accommodation to their no smoking rules. If a resident complains about the use of marijuana by another resident who is legally allowed to use marijuana, LaGumina suggested speaking to the resident with the legal marijuana prescription and trying to arrive at a compromise.
Whether it’s the scent of a homemade meal in the oven or the stench of burnt burgers after a barbecue gone wrong, it’s not uncommon for residents to complain about lingering food smells that come from their neighbors. Even if the smell is a good one—such as cookies baking in the oven—proper ventilation should not allow residents to smell food that’s cooking next door.
In the case of a complaint, the association should follow the same steps as they would for any other nuisance, according to LaGumina.
If an association warns or fines a resident who is responsible for distracting food smells, it must be careful to avoid any discrimination. “Any food smell policies put in place definitely need to be uniform to prevent a discrimination lawsuit,” said LaGumina.
If there are many complaints about surrounding food smells, the associations could contact an engineer to see if there are any defects or ways to improve ventilation. “Many of the older condominiums don’t have the basic ventilation that helps circulate the air for food smells,” LaGumina said. “The association can certainly set up an inspection policy and try to require owners to install kitchen fans and encourage unit owners to use kitchen fans.”
Body Odor & Perfumes
It’s possible that a resident is allergic to the perfume used by another resident, or that a resident has an especially noxious problem. “Anything that causes annoyance to other residents can be considered a nuisance,” said LaGumina, who noted that these body odor or perfume issues are not very common.
These issues should be handled as a smoke complaint would be. The association can resort to the typical clause in most governing documents that bans noxious fumes or odors.
If a resident is hoarding, it will likely become evident to their neighbors over time—and there may also be a smell that emanates from their unit. In these cases, an association must tread lightly; a resident may be hoarding due to a mental health condition or another ailment or infirmity. The situation can be treated as a nuisance, although more extreme measures may be required.
“Hoarding situations are unfortunate, and once they arise, it takes a long time for them to go away,” said LaGumina, who added “there are different ways for a board to approach a hoarding situation.”
According to LaGumina, the association can write a letter to Adult Protective Services (APS)—an agency that helps elderly adults (65 years and older) and dependent adults (18-64 who are disabled), when these adults are unable to meet their own needs. APS may come out to inspect the situation to determine if the person is endangering themselves.
The association can also contact the fire inspector as hoarding conditions can constitute a fire hazard. “The association may have to be persistent in these tough situations,” said LaGumina.
Keep in mind, regarding access to a unit that may be hoarding, board members or managing agents do not have the right to enter a unit unless the owner agrees. Without such permission, a court order would be needed which could involve costly and time-consuming litigation.