Confessions of a Co-op/Condo Attorney Taking the Bill of Rights Too Far

While previous columns focused on numerous outrageous situations that have faced us during our more than 25 years of collective service to our cooperative and condominium clients, one case sticks out in our minds. Incredibly, one case morphed from a simple proprietary lease default action into five federal court lawsuits and an adjudication of contempt of court. As will be seen, while courts tend to bend over backwards to accommodate pro se litigants (those who choose to represent themselves instead of retaining counsel), this pro se litigant took things way too far.

A co-op we represent had a huge problem with shareholder who purchased two non-contiguous apartments from the sponsor on the first and seventh floors of the building. Shortly after purchasing the apartments, Ms. Jones (let’s call her Ms. Jones) began to regularly rent out the apartments on a monthly, weekly and daily basis, in direct violation of the co-op’s rules. Each time a new “guest” appeared the co-op directed our firm to commence an action against Ms. Jones in landlord-tenant court for her blatant violation of her proprietary lease. Unfortunately, every time an action was commenced, the “guest” would leave and the landlord-tenant judges inevitably said there was nothing left to be done.

The co-op resolved to commence an action against Ms. Jones in New York State Supreme Court to preliminarily and permanently enjoin her from renting out her apartments (we’ll call this Action 1). However, after the case was filed, Ms. Jones removed the co-op’s suit to federal court based on her foreign citizenship—literally making a federal case out of a routine lease default action. Dealing with this case in federal court would certainly have been manageable, but what transpired next made our heads spin!

As luck would have it, Ms. Jones’ paramour was a notorious pro se litigant himself who had been barred from filing lawsuits in all 50 states. According to the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Ms. Jones’ boyfriend had filed "literally hundreds of lawsuits, motions and miscellaneous pleadings..." and persistently resorted “to legal processes without regard to the merits of the claims asserted and that he invokes those processes largely to harass persons who have unluckily crossed his path.” Based on these not-so-subtle findings, the Second Circuit entered an order barring the boyfriend from filing anything in any federal court without first obtaining the court’s permission.

Despite the court’s bar, Ms. Jones’s boyfriend assisted Ms. Jones in responding to Action 1 by promptly filing a pro se federal court complaint against the co-op’s building superintendent raising ludicrous—and unsubstantiated—claims of harassment against him (Action 2). Ms. Jones then filed another pro se federal court complaint against the co-op, its board of directors, its managing agent, our firm and several of our partners and other defendants (Action 3). In Action 3, Ms. Jones alleged, among other things, that the co-op and the others engaged in “housing discrimination” based on sex and national origin, legal malpractice, RICO violations and harassment. All told, Actions 2 and 3 named thirteen different defendants and sought well over $30 million in damages. Ms. Jones was permitted to prosecute her cases only because the court had to give her the benefit of the doubt as a pro se litigant (as opposed to strongly scrutinizing a complaint drafted by an attorney).

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