As lawyers for many of Manhattan's cooperative and condominium boards, we often advise clients on issues that go far beyond proprietary leases and bylaws. Boards are frequently faced with situations ranging from fiery domestic disputes to embezzlement. Thus, we find ourselves providing legal advice on—as we call it—the "Law of the Jungle." A few memorable examples involve marital discord, criminal investigations, drugs and even firearms.
One of our condo clients received an alarming call from a newly married resident who had just found out her husband was cheating on her. She demanded that the doorman bar the "philanderer" from the building when he returned home that evening (and, presumably, thereafter). She threatened to severely injure her husband if was allowed into the residence. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the husband's parents owned the couple's apartment.
Because the wife had threatened injury, we advised our client to call the husband and warn him of the threat. We also suggested informing the wife that neither the board, nor the building's staff, could or would deny her husband access to their apartment. Until the couple resolved their marital dispute, all doormen were instructed to buzz upstairs every time the husband arrived at the building.
When several board presidents of posh Upper East Side co-ops were accused of embezzlement, we participated in the investigation. In one case, more than $1,000,000 of the co-op's money was traced to the personal projects of a president. The investigation also revealed a series of questionable "loans" in excess of $500,000 made to the corporation by its former counsel. (It is completely improper for corporate counsel to ever loan money to a co-op or condo client.) Unfortunately, since the relevant statute of limitations had expired and the central witness had "left the country," our client elected not to pursue the matter further.
We were asked to investigate a former board president's bid-rigging for major capital improvement projects in the building. Our investigation revealed that the president had not only conspired with a contractor to submit the winning bid, but this same contractor was also constructing an addition to the president's country house. Additionally, the former president had sponsored an immigration application for a principal of the contractor. Needless to say, the board immediately implemented procedures to guard against such future improprieties.
When the phone rang around 7:30 one morning, we hesitated to answer it, but eventually picked up. Later, we'd come to regret not letting the call go to voicemail. On the other end of the line was a president of a condo board, panicking because he was incarcerated downtown. The District Attorney's office alleged that while strolling through Washington Square Park, he purchased several joints of marijuana from a local drug dealer. After hearing the story, we told the president that we don't practice criminal law. He insisted that we help him quickly.
We threw on jackets and ran to the Criminal Court's holding cells. The board president, on the verge of tears, was holding onto the cell bars for dear life. We assured him that we'd handle his case and tracked down a representative from the District Attorney's office to expedite our new client's arraignment. After many pleas, a lot of schmoozing and an entire day in court, we were able to have the charges fully dismissed as long as the client wasn't arrested within one year.
Which brings us to the firearms. A certain condo board was concerned about the safety of their neighborhood after their building was vandalized several times. We were asked to research potential liability issues of providing the superintendent with a firearm. Our legal advice? Arm the building—not the super—with a security system that includes video cameras.
We live in a litigious world, and issues of obligation and liability loom large in every board/management team's consciousness. If your board or management is facing a highly-charged, highly irregular situation involving a messy domestic problem between residents, outright theft, or the possibility of serious bodily harm involving firearms, it's definitely not something you should try to navigate on your own, without input from your building's legal counsel.
In order to avoid making a bad situation worse, it's imperative to have sound, competent legal advice on your side, and to act prudently based on that advice. Flying off the handle, giving in to panic, or attempting to simply make a problem "go away" can backfire, coming back to haunt a building in unexpected ways. As lawyers, our knowledge and interpretation of the law is essential to representing our co-op and condo clients successfully. But when dealing with the "Law of the Jungle," our diplomatic and investigative skills play a crucial role in resolving disputes for our clients.
Jeffrey S. Reich, Esq. and Steven D. Sladkus, Esq. are attorneys at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP on Madison Avenue in New York City.