Q&A: Dealing with an Intimidating Board President

Q We have a president in a cooperative building that has secret meetings and does everything possible to force his ideas on the membership. He is seemingly vindictive and tells owners if they don’t like it they can move. What can we do?

—Dictatorial Decisions

A "Before a shareholder hires a lawyer, in these circumstances he or she should gather the documents governing your building," according to Thomas D. Kearns, a partner with the Manhatttan law firm of Olshan Grundman Frome Rosenzweig & Wolosky LLP, who specializes in real estate maters. "But keep the following in mind: while annual shareholder meetings in co-ops or unit owner meetings in condos are required to be open to all owners, board meetings are generally not open to apartment owners under law. So the mere existence of "secret" board meetings is not necessarily unlawful. In addition, this owner may be interpreting the president's communication as "forcing his ideas" but the president may only be attempting, perhaps unartfully, to implement the decisions made by the board. After all, the building is a mini-democracy with all of the warts that accompany democracies. The apartment owner may simply be on the losing side of issues he or she cares about. Of course, the president's raising of his voice and telling an apartment owner to move out if they don't like the decisions made by the board is not a successful way to insure pleasant living conditions for all."

"On the other hand, the president may in fact be dictating decisions without true board meetings and without input from apartment owners. In my practice and experience, I have seen autocratic presidents take over buildings using threats and intimidation. The only way to fight this unlawful conduct is to methodically and carefully ask questions, follow up with others on the board and with other owners, and insist on your legal rights. Annual meetings are the perfect time to unite with other owners to raise questions and vote as a bloc to unseat the dictator. But be careful, if you lose, more pain may be in store. In most instances, it's crucial to build alliances with other board members and unit owners before action is taken to remove the president. While you don’t need a lawyer guiding you, it can be very helpful."

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