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Handling Harassment in Multifamily Housing When Trash Talk Turns to Transgression

Whether you live in a super-luxe Park Avenue co-op in New York City, a beachfront condo in Florida, a sprawling HOA in Nevada, or a multifamily community in the Berkshires, one thing is certain: you have neighbors. Hopefully they’re the people you grill with on a summer afternoon; the providers of a spare cup of sugar when you run out; the folks who water your plants when you leave town … some even might have attended your child’s wedding or helped you through trying times. But regardless of the size, location, or overall cohesion of your community, at some point you’re likely to have at least one neighbor who disrupts the harmony and infringes on the peaceful enjoyment of your home. 

 While most of us in multifamily housing have come to accept this inevitability as a cost of communal living, there are some situations that cross the line from minor nuisance to legitimate harassment. Knowing the difference is important—but it can be tricky to discern, and even more difficult to address. After all, ‘harassment’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but is often a subjective disputation. One person’s ‘persistence’ or style of conflict management can be another’s criminal complaint. 

Harassment: Difficult to Identify, Harder to Prove

Adding to the interpersonal complexity, the legal system deals with harassment in different ways, depending on where you reside and the type of harassment being alleged. Laws on harassment vary by state, and levels of criminality can differ within those jurisdictions. 

In New York State, for example, according to several attorneys consulted for this article, there is no civil cause of action for harassment. That means that any action taken against an accused harasser must be pursued as a criminal case. Depending on a number of factors, the harassment can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, a violation, or a felony. 

Under New York’s Human Rights Law, sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, or any type of harassing behavior that rises to the level of violence is considered criminal—and as such should be reported immediately to the police. The New York City Commission on Human Rights defines discriminatory harassment as “threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion, or violence that interferes with a person’s civil or constitutional rights and is motivated in part by that person’s actual or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or alienage or citizenship status, or other protected status.”

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