Co-op and condo boards are made up of resident volunteers who want to serve their building communities and have a hand in its governance. While some board members actually make their living as attorneys and have a working knowledge of the law and understand the long-term legal implications of board decisions, most are not legal professionals. Board members who are not legal pros may let their administrative ambitions overreach their understanding; or they may withdraw and take a hands-off approach to decision making on building matters.
In smaller, more tightly-knit buildings, there may be the sense that a more informal approach to administration, or just leaving well enough alone when it comes to rule making and enforcement is the more neighborly way to operate. According to the legal professionals, this approach is tempting, but it can be harmful to the building in both the short and long term. Decisions made by a board can be difficult—and sometimes impossible—to undo, and such decisions can affect a building’s operation for years to come. That’s why savvy board members tread cautiously when making decisions that might have lasting legal implications, and why it's vital to have competent legal counsel whenever there is the shadow of a doubt.
According to attorney Mindy H. Stern of the law offices of Schoeman Updike & Kaufman LLP in Manhattan, the first step for a board considering any important decision is to understand their building's own governing documents. “It’s crucial for boards to understand the organizational documents of the co-op or condo, because they provide the first blueprint,” she says.
Those documents are critical for boards to understand because they delineate the obligations of the parties involved. And board members, whether they realize it or not, have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the building.
According to Al Pennisi, an attorney with the law firm of Pennisi Daniels & Norelli LLP in Queens, all members of a co-op or condo board should have read their building’s organizational documents—including its bylaws—and should consult those guidelines and their attorney before rendering a decision on any policy or change of rules and regulations.