By Alyssa Gautieri
In this day and age of social media and email, it’s easy for people to hide behind a computer, cell phone or tablet and say all kinds of things to and about others. This can go on day and night due to the accessibility of these platforms. In the setting of condominiums and homeowner associations, board members and their actions are frequently the source of many emails and social media posts and comments.
Regarding what unit owners can publicly say about board members (whether or not the comment takes place on the internet), board members are subject to the same libel and slander laws as anyone else, according to John J. LaGumina, Esq., partner at The Lagumina Law Firm, PLLC in Purchase New York.
A board member is not considered a “public figure,” which does not offer any more leeway to those making disparaging and/or false comments. With that being said, LaGumina noted that unit owners have the right to their opinions. “Sometimes boards can go a little too far. They cannot control what unit owners think,” he said.
A unit owner has the right to express his or her opinion, for example stating that he or she does not feel the board is managing the association’s affairs properly or is not spending money wisely. However, “a unit owner does not have the right to accuse a board member of stealing money unless they have actual proof,” noted LaGumina. “A line is typically crossed when frustration boils over and results in exaggerated contentions and dubious conspiracy theories.”
LaGumina noted a few examples of harassment including: angry unit owners accosting and abusing board members during meetings, a unit owner who followed a board member across town, a unit owner who called a board member over fifty times over one weekend, and unit owners who have threatened or have actually engaged in physical altercations with board members.
“Board members certainly don’t sign up to volunteer to get abused,” said LaGumina, who noted that in cases where board members are consistently abused, it can become very difficult to find people to run for the board.
“Owners are supposed to elect board members to manage the community in the manner that those elected think best. Confronting or harassing board members for the way they handle the community’s affairs — even though there is no specific written rule prohibiting harassment of board members— can be considered a violation of the spirit and intent of the bylaws,” according to LaGumina. The bylaws call for a representative democracy with volunteer board members elected from amongst the unit owners to manage the affairs of the community as they feel best. LaGumina noted that if unit owners are not happy with the current board, their legal remedy is to use their votes to try to elect new board members more to their liking rather than spreading misleading rumors or intentionally maligning the board.
Harassment often takes place on unregulated platforms on the internet, which LaGumina called the “Wild West” for the spreading of rumors. “Social media and chat rooms are fertile grounds for exaggeration about community association boards. It’s become an issue for some boards, and has even resulted in libel and slander lawsuits recently,” he said.
At the end of the day, LaGumina reiterated that “we are a free country, so it is difficult to control what people say on [the internet].”
LaGumina highlighted the steps that an individual board member can take to attempt to resolve a unit owner from harassing one or more board members.
Try to de-escalate the situation: A board member’s attitude is essential. “Take measures and use words to respond in a way that de-escalates the situation. I know that it’s easier said than done, but that will often go a long way to reducing tensions and potential for harassment,” explained LaGumina.
Get the attorney involved: “In the more extreme cases, you could speak with the association’s attorney and have a letter sent to the offending unit owner to address any false or slanderous statement.
Warn and fine: “If the situation has really escalated, a board can warn and, if the conduct is not cured, issue fines,” LaGumina explained. Depending on the association’s governing documents, fines may even be collectible in the same manner as unpaid common charges are, so this could be pointed out as well, LaGumina noted.
Get the police involved: If the above methods fail and the unit owner persists, it may be time to get the police involved. According to LaGumina, under the state Penal Law, “there are different definitions, types and degrees of criminal conduct that may be involved, but that is something for the police to decide. If the board member feels that the harassment has risen to the level of a crime, then they can and should contact the police.”