Addressing the Epidemic of Bad Behavior
By: Brendan P. Bunn
Across our client base, we have been witnessing an apparent uptick in incidents of bad behavior by community association owners and residents. Here are some examples:
- A disturbed resident in Northern Virginia, after two months of harassing neighbors and damaging common areas, was finally taken into custody by a SWAT team (after barricading himself in his unit) for various alleged crimes and/or harassment of his neighbors. Significant damage to the unit and common areas resulted from the various incidents.
- A resident in Central Virginia, after months of threatening other residents enjoying their community lake, barricaded himself in his garage, threatening to harm himself with a weapon. After a standoff with law enforcement he was finally taken alive, armed only with a pellet gun.
- An owner in a DC high-rise, after repeatedly snipping the building’s fire alarm wires (believing he was being monitored by a developer) was arraigned for vandalism and ultimately visited by mental health authorities – but later died in his unit, apparently by suicide.
Unfortunately, incidents like this are not isolated to our locality. In communities elsewhere, truly frightening violence has occurred. A Florida board president and her husband were killed in December 2022 by a resident who had a dispute with the board. That same month in Toronto, a 73-year-old resident — in the midst of a dispute with his condo board — shot and killed five people, three of whom were directors. This past summer in Georgia, an angry owner sued her association — and later shot the building manager and engineer before being apprehended.
Causes? Identifying causes that lead to patterns of scary or aggressive behavior in common interest communities is never easy. Is it the long-term consequences of the pandemic? Is it the acrimonious, polarizing state of our politics? Is it the effect of social media platforms that allow fact-challenged people to find one another and share conspiracy theories?
Whatever the causes, it seems something is in the air.
Strategies. When an association finds itself facing bad resident behavior, determining the right strategy to address the situation is paramount. All situations are different. Some residents may be mere nuisances, rudely treating managers and neighbors, but never quite crossing the line into criminality. Others migrate more clearly into unlawfulness, while still others have problems driven by mental illness rather than criminal animus. While all situations have unique qualities, here are tips and strategies for some common situations:
- Outreach to Owner. Remembering that a difficult resident is usually a co-owner in your community, informal outreach by a director or staff can be useful, particularly if there are any vestiges of a neighborly relationship in the mix. This can be a good first step if the misbehavior is on the minor side, and the association is trying to nip the problem in the bud.
- Outreach to Family or Social Services. If a resident is engaging in light criminal activity or more nuisance-like behavior, it is often due to mental illness. In these cases, it may be wise to contact the resident’s family, if the association has contact information. It is increasingly common to collect “emergency contact” data, which can be useful if intervention by family can help deescalate a mental health problem before it melts into crisis. Similarly, outreach to adult protective services or the local mental health authority can help if the person seems to be a danger to themselves.
- Cease and Desist Letter. If informal efforts fail, dispatch a demand letter to the resident memorializing the bad acts (in detail), along with a demand that the resident cease such behavior going forward. It is usually best to have the letter first come from the board or management, thus saving “legal letterhead” for a subsequent letter as a sign of heightened urgency. Either way, the letter should explain the consequences of failing to desist. Such letters are essential if litigation ensues.
- Adopt anti-harassment policy. Such a policy can expressly prohibit behavior that will not be tolerated, especially harassment of employees or volunteers, or misbehavior at association meetings. Most documents allow this kind of rulemaking, so an owner who violates the anti-harassment rule can be treated like a violator, allowing imposition of fines, suspension of privileges or other remedies. Another option to consider, particularly as to harassers, is to suspend the owner’s personal access to staff, relegating the owner to conduct association business in writing only.
- Seek a court order. If all else fails, and a resident simply will not stand down from harassing the board, management or their neighbors, a civil injunction can be sought, where a judge issues an order prohibiting such actions. An injunction can have real teeth, as it can be enforced through contempt-of-court remedies and/or assistance from law enforcement. Litigation – if allowed by the documents — should be seen as a “last resort” after all other remedies have been tried. This approach may be taken in conjunction with efforts by affected persons to seek restraining orders (which must be sought from the criminal court by the harassed individual).
- Email Harassment. Some residents may choose not to confront the board or staff in the light of day but prefer to send incendiary and/or inappropriate emails. Remember, an association is generally not obligated to respond to emails that are uncivil, aggressive and unprofessional. If a resident is sending such emails, issue a warning that such emails will be ignored – and if the resident continues, block the account. Remember that email is a privilege – but make sure to provide an alternate form of communication so the owner can do necessary business with the association.
- Criminal Activity. One fact to remember is that community associations are not law enforcement. Associations are private entities carrying out contractual mandates to manage, maintain and operate their communities. If a resident has crossed over from being a nuisance or a jerk into committing criminal activity, this is usually beyond the association’s purview. Accordingly, we suggest:
- Call Police. Associations should advise affected owners to contact law enforcement in real time. Too often, residents being harassed by neighbors first call their association. The better approach is to call the authorities.
- Meet With Community Police. If an owner has a pattern of behaving in a harassing manner, it can be useful to meet with community liaisons in the police department, as well as local authorities who deal with mental health problems among citizens. Both police and social service agencies can benefit from a direct connection with residents affected by harassers.
- Evidence. Prosecutors need evidence. Cameras that record bad behavior are key to collecting evidence and can be worth the investment. Remind owners that they also may collect video or audio evidence.
- Bring Police or Sheriff to Meetings. If there is a likelihood of disruption or threats at a meeting, it can be effective to invite one’s local community police officer to give a local crime report or provide tips on community safety. The mere presence of a uniform can be just the right incentive for an otherwise unruly resident to behave during a meeting.
Final Thoughts. About four years ago, in recognition of a seeming dearth of civil behavior within the association world, the Community Associations Institute (“CAI”) adopted a Community Association Civility Pledge. The Pledge is set up as a resolution that an association can adopt to promote civility and neighborly behavior, particularly when disputes occur. Check it out HERE and consider it for your association. Perhaps, if we all get ahead of this, associations can help re-direct our industry towards safer, more civil ground.