Earlier this month, Neal Milano, the property manager of a 47-unit condo building in Sunnyside, Queens, was arrested for allegedly and repeatedly “following, yelling obscenities at, grabbing and pulling a 43-year-old woman" who was a former resident of the condo, according to the New York Daily News.
Before his arrest, Milano was already under media scrutiny in late August for allegedly decorating his building's lobby with pictures of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, among other disturbing images. According to the New York Post, in addition to the depictions of the aforementioned dictators, “two finger-pointing Uncle Sam statues flank the door of the building at 47-55 39th Place in Sunnyside, while inside, the lobby is filled with an eccentric hodgepodge of hyper-patriotic posters supporting the NRA and President Trump, alongside one of Martin Luther King and a 9/11 mural.” The article also said that “the building's directory is littered with names of people who don't live there – including Nazis Rudolf Hess and Josef Mengele.”
Additionally, Milano is not only the property's manager, but also allegedly the head of the condo board. In the aforementioned Post article, Milano's lawyer is quoted as saying that the lobby's displays have been approved by the “board managers,” none of whom were identified. According to media reports, some of the residents claimed that Milano’s management style has kept them in fear.
Signs of Trouble
Given what has been reported so far, it is difficult to imagine how this Queens condo ended up in this situation. So what happened?
“I assume that, when people moved into this situation, they asked questions, and were told that there were no meetings, no minutes, no real board,” says Andrew P. Brucker, a partner with the law firm of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP, in Manhattan. “Yet they still bought into the building, knowing that there was dysfunction."
“When I advise people who want to buy into a condo or co-op, I try to find out how well it is operated,” Brucker continues. “In this case, there are red flags everywhere. The board president is also the property manager? Red flag. No board meetings, no minutes? Red flag.”
Brucker notes that if things are truly troubled, all it would take is for each unit owner to contribute $250 into a fund to pay a lawyer. “That would be enough to get started. But if people want to sit by and not get involved with the governance of their building, they really cannot complain when strange things happen.”
Ian J. Brandt, a partner with New York City law firm Wagner Berkow LLP, adds that the owners “should try and get on their board, start an Article 70 preceding, and kick [Milano] off. Gain control, fire the management and relegate Milano to what he is; a unit-owner in the building.”
Aside from the charges Milano is facing in the alleged harassment of a former tenant, the city’s Human Rights Commission will investigate the building about the controversial displays, according to the Daily News.
From his point of view, Brandt says there is a good argument to be made that this was an adverse action by a landlord or someone in control of housing accommodations. “With housing discrimination, you need some sort of adverse act,” he explains. “People can say nasty things; that's not a human rights violation. And that's probably what the commission will have to grapple with. Does this come down to someone just shouting [stuff]? Because that's protected to some degree. But certainly the housing discrimination statutes are specifically designed such that people can be held liable where there is adverse housing action taken in connection with discriminatory intent. This involves an area in the building that's commonly used on a regular basis by everyone -- i.e, a homeowner's association lobby.
“And this guy was using that lobby as a stage, or a pulpit, for something that people don't want to come home to,” Brandt continues. “There's a reasonable expectation that you're not going to walk into your foyer every day and be confronted with not just a guy named Hitler, but a guy who preceded over the deaths of six million Jews and 12 million civilians. Mussolini was his buddy. This isn't just history. It's making a statement that these two people were okay; that they're worthy of admiration, and that immigrants are unwelcome in this building; that immigrants do not deserve to be there. It seems clear as day. But the commission will have to frame it that way.”
Regardless of how both Milano's criminal case and human rights review play out, potential buyers may want to, as Brucker suggests, perform their due diligence when interviewing with a condo or co-op board about how the building operates -- as well as getting a good look at how the lobby is decorated.
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer at The Cooperator.