Watch Your Mouth Defamation, Harassment, and the Right Side of the Law

 In the course of human events, it's almost inevitable that somewhere, at some  point, tempers will flare and someone will say something awful about someone  else. It can happen after the PTA meeting, in the gym, at the office...even in  one's own co-op or condo building. Heated exchanges and personal vendettas are  unpleasant and can make for an acrimonious building environment, which is bad  enough—but what happens when the words do more than just sting or insult? What happens  when it's more than just an offhandedly rude remark, or when it's ongoing?  

 Allowed...Or Illegal?

 The good news for boards and owners in co-ops and condos is that most of what is  said and printed regarding life within the community—even when heated and contentious, and even if not entirely true—is broadly protected by law.  

 When it comes to board members and building residents, “They are a ‘qualified group,’” explains attorney Jim Samson, a partner in the law firm of Samson Fink & Dubow, LLP, in Manhattan. As such, they are protected by the so-called common  interest privilege, which was contrived, Samson says, “to encourage open and free and frank discussion among members of a restricted  group, like a group of shareholders or board members. Communication among them  for the purpose of furthering the corporate business has a defense against  libel and slander, even if it turns out to be untrue—as long as you’re not being malicious about it.”  

 It is maliciousness, when it becomes defamation, that is the stuff of which  lawsuits are made. And sometimes the line between the open discourse protected  by law and actionable defamation is thin. To stay on the right side of that  line—i.e., out of court—it behooves board members to study the basics of the laws regarding defamation.  

 According to the pros, defamation occurs when you publicly malign someone’s character by accusing him or her of doing something that is reprehensible or  criminal, and thereby damage their reputation. Written defamation is called  libel, and defamation that is spoken is called slander. If they can  substantiated in court, damages that result from such statements can result in  heavy penalties.  

 The Absolute Defense

 Boards and shareholders are protected in many respects from defamation. First  and foremost, truth is an absolute defense against charges of defamation. If  you can prove without a doubt that the person you accuse of having done  something awful actually did it, they cannot then accuse you of defaming them.  

 “I can write in an article that John Doe is a thief,” says attorney Mark Hankin of Hankin & Mazel, PLLC in Manhattan, “and if I looked it up and found out that he was in fact convicted of robbery, it’s absolutely true and I have the right to say it.”  

 On the other hand, Hankin adds, “If I did not know that for a fact and I accused him of a crime without having  any background,” there might be a case for libel, depending on who saw the accusation. “It doesn’t become defamation until a third party other than the person you are libeling  sees it.”  

 In another example, says Hankin, “If all I did was send a letter to Ms. Smith saying I think the mayor of the city  of New York City is a thief, the mayor has very little in damages against me,  because the only one who ever saw it was Ms. Smith. On the other hand, he adds,  “If I say in The Cooperatorthat the mayor is a thief, I have published it to however many people they have  in their subscription circulation. That's a major lawsuit if what I said was  untrue.”  

 It should be noted that harassment—unwanted communication involving threatening behavior—is a category of offense separate from defamation, that can sometimes veer into  the criminal. A harassment suit often results in a restraining order against  the harasser. Where it gets sticky for a co-op or condo building is when a  resident is awarded a restraining order against someone and their building's  doorman and staff are then expected to prevent that person's access. The  solution for that is simple: if the “guest” shows up, instruct building staff members to call the police and let them  decide how to handle him or her.  

 What Happens in the Co-op,

 Stays in the Co-op

 Legally, board members have a wide berth regarding what is said and published  within their community. “What the courts have said,” explains Hankin, “is that board members are like quasi-public officials and when they make  statements about members, there is a quasi-public privilege because they are  only making them in the context of their position as board members.”  

 The board is allowed to make pretty much any statement relevant to the operation  of the co-op, says Hankin. “If I say Mrs. Murphy is a psychopath because she yells and screams in her  apartment after 11 o’clock at night, which is in violation of the rules and regulations, I’m making that statement as a board member of the cooperative looking to enforce  my rules. I have a privilege to make that statement and it cannot be muted when  it comes to the co-op.”  

 How much information a board chooses to publish about individual residents in  the minutes of their meetings, which is a public document, is mostly left to  their discretion. Should they choose to publish the names of shareholders who  are in arrears, for example, as fiduciaries they are within their rights to do  so, says Manhattan attorney Helene W. Hartig.  

 “The community has the right to know what’s affecting the value of their investment,” Hartig explains. “If their neighbor is a deadbeat, they have the right to know that.” But, she adds, if they go on to say, “‘and by the way, they have stiffed every guy in town' without conducting an  investigation as to whether that’s true—that crosses the line.”  

 The limited privilege extends to most of the business of the co-op. Hankin  recalls a case of a co-op in Queens where the president of the board sued the  co-op after he lost his presidency, claiming that the board—which he had been a part of—didn’t maintain the premises adequately, and which he said resulted in the loss of  value of his units. He owned 10.  

 “One of the causes of action of his complaint was that the board said things  about him to other board members and shareholders that were defamatory,” recalls Hankin. “They said that he had hired a managing agent without the board’s approval, which was improper as a board member.”  

 The judge held that there is a limited privilege in any such statements, says  Hankin. Namely, “That the shareholders and board members have to be able to say what they think  or feel about other members of the board, so that shareholders know who is  representing them. They have to be protected.”  

 “In my opinion,” Hankin adds, “he should have been sanctioned. But they don’t want to go that far.” The judge dismissed the claim.  

 Ulterior Motives

 Charges of defamation are often brought against boards to discredit their  decisions. Hartig recalls the case of a would-be buyer who was rejected by a board, which declined to provide her with  a reason for the rejection—well within their right according to the bylaws of the co-op. (In fact, as it  turned out she was rejected for problematic finances.)  

 The purchaser, says Hartig, “knew that the managing agent had sat in on the interview and assumed that one of  the people in the interview had badmouthed her.” The rejected purchaser sued the managing agent personally and the building for  defamation, she recalls, “hoping this would cow the board into changing their minds. In fact, it only  strengthened the board’s resolve not to sell to her. Insurance handled the case and in the end it was  dropped.” The buyer’s deposit was returned, but no damages were awarded.  

 Some buildings are sued a lot, particularly very large ones that people perceive  to have deep pockets. According to Hartig, some people figure that “boards don’t like bad publicity. So, for example, a would-be buyer who was rejected might  say, ‘Maybe I’ll hit the jackpot if I sue for discrimination [a distant cousin of defamation]  and they’ll wind up just paying to shut me up.’ You see all sorts of crazy lawsuits, especially in this recession.”  

 Within the community in general, says attorney Dennis H. Greenstein, a partner  in the Manhattan law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, “The typical stuff is where people send out nasty emails, or they make a  statement in the middle the shareholders meeting on the order of ‘You sir, are a thief and a liar.'” But such outbursts are seldom considered defamation. “There’s a certain slack the courts give to allowing things to be said that reasonable,  fair and ethical people would view as completely outrageous and a violation of  law.”  

 When particularly egregious accusations are tossed at board members by  shareholders, legally defamatory or not, Greenstein recommends handing them  over to the building’s attorney for immediate action. “We’ve had people who have accused the treasurer of stealing money, or someone on  the board getting kickbacks from contractors. If [an accusation] arises out of  a person's being on the board, I feel it is appropriate to have the attorney  for the building respond to it.”  

 When a board member is continually harassed or threatened, or for that matter if  a resident aims particularly outrageous or threatening statements at another  resident, the board might be able to find that shareholder in default of their  lease under the stipulations in the proprietary lease. “It could be a basis for having that person's lease terminated,” explains Greenstein.  

 Newsletters and Websites

 Most statements disseminated to residents of a building, whether by mass emails,  in newsletters or on websites, even when not true, fall within the qualified  privilege protection and are not actionable, again, unless they show malice.  

 According to attorney David L. Berkey of the law firm of Gallet Dreyer Berkey in  Manhattan, “If the material is false and is designed to injure the board member in  connection with his business or his activities for the co-op or the condo, then  you getting outside the common interest privilege. In at least some instances  courts will enjoin the person from sending out those kind of letters.”  

 Berkey recalls a case he brought last year to stop a woman who had been  reprimanded by the board for violating many of the co-op’s rules from circulating materials which intended to injure the board  president's professional reputation. The disgruntled resident issued the  materials not only among residents, but to the board president’s prospective employers.  

 “It happens,” says Berkey. “The person decided to engage in retribution, accusing the board president of all  kinds of improprieties, most of them absolutely untrue, just designed to  slander him in the eyes of the community and to prevent him from getting any  work. The judge read three or four pieces of material that were circulated, and  he said, ‘That’s enough. Stop.’” The court issued a preliminary injunction stopping the woman from disseminating  any more materials.  

 For the most part, adds Berkey, “Even when we get called to stop egregious cases like that one, the boards will  suck it up and say, ‘This too will pass,’ ” even when the board is on the right side of the law—and they usually are. “They don’t respond, and most of the situations will just dissipate over time.”  

 Petitioning

 Another means by which shareholders might express a grievance with their board  is by circulating a petition. The rules guiding how petitions are to be handled  are usually spelled out in the building's bylaws, which stipulate how many  signatures are necessary to compel the board to hold a special meeting or vote  to address a particular issue. It’s usually 25 percent of the outstanding shares in the co-op.  

 While shareholders or association members can force the board to call a special  meeting to hear their grievances or opinions about a policy, they do not get to  vote on the action the board should take. According to Berkey, the cooperative  or condominium board is entrusted with the business of the corporation, and as  such, “The board cannot be forced to take certain actions because the shareholders file  a petition.”  

 Sometimes, in their zeal to get their voice heard on an issue, a resident will  print up flyers and stick them under apartment doors, or knock on doors to  lobby for someone running for the board. The protocol for this sort of  expression is not in the bylaws but are controlled by the house rules created  and enforced by the board.  

 There are cases where people have carried signs of protest in front of their  co-op or condo building, and the courts have allowed it under their  constitutional right of association and assembly. (Though the jury is still out  on torches and pitchforks.) But a diligent board and managing agent can keep  passions from boiling over and grievances from turning into lawsuits.  

 Samson implores boards to “Give residents a safety valve to vent. When you tell them you're going to raise  their maintenance 35 percent, you have to stand there and take the heat. You’ve got to trust that your neighbors—the shareholders—are responsible enough and smart enough that they will understand.”  

 To stay on the right side of the law, Hartig says, “My advice to boards is to be very careful not to put their own personal agendas  or feelings above that of the apartment corporation—to act professionally, as a fiduciary, and to be careful what they say and how  they say it.” And that includes emails, which are discoverable in court.  

 Be careful not to veer into fiery rhetoric, she adds, because “one man’s fiery rhetoric is another man’s defamation.”    

 Steven Cutler is a freelance writer, reporter, and author living in New York  City and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.  

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8 Comments

  • I have a situation in my co-op that is similar but different. I need a personal injury lawyer who deals with co-ops. Do you have a list of lawyers you recommend?
  • I need a lawyer someone who lives in the coop has been harassing me.
  • My coop is not protecting my rights to peace and quiet enjoyment and is allowing the upstairs neighbor to harass me with noise. My complaints go on to deaf ears and I have been made ill with multiple stress related illnesses. These neighbors do whatever they want and create noise disturbances for me. I recently wrote a letter to board, no answer, I wrote to the upper manager who never answers my calls and I was told by the secy that my letter was in with legal. Now I believe they will try to evict me using the lies collected by the managers and possible defamation of me. Need help as will most probably be unjustly thrown out.
  • Dear "anonymous (with the upstairs neighbors harrassing you)". Please, stay calm in this situation, you DO have options. Calmly get your other neighbors on your side - especially if they are shareholders and/or have lived there a long time. You may want to talk to some city employees, city agency help, get some legal help, etc. If you would like to talk to me, please, let me know.
  • What about when a managing agent writes a letter about an occupant of a co-op that the person in question contends contains libel?
  • I have a homeowner who has written lies about me and passed them along for others to read. Also this homeowner has appeared in front of my door taking pictures several time, and I don’t know why....she only does it when I am not at home, my “door ring” captures her. Can I sue her for harassment and defamation? I am the President of the board.
  • The super in my co-op has been spreading malicious lies about me. He is upset because I complained to the property manager. The super sets up dates for plumbing issue to be taken care of and he doesn't show up. I have missed work several times due to this issue. More recently an account was opened on a site stating that I have been arrested twice. I have no criminal records or liens not even a parking violation. He has turned other owners against me. I had a teenager call me a disgusting nasty lady when I was doing laundry. Today I was on my way to a meeting in the city and a man a friend of someone who lives in the building started shouting after me disgusting nasty woman. I don’t know what he’s saying about me but it is malicious. My apartment is meticulous. I renovated my apartment everything is new. Help!! What can I do? Thank you for any advice you can provide.
  • Joseph S Desrosiers on Thursday, July 18, 2019 10:07 AM
    Your co-op board should act immediately. The super is a worker that works for the co-op and you are paying this man's salary. The only thing besides doing their daily duty in a coop any super is to respect all shareholders in the building and knowing them not get involved in politicking or else you should be out of a job. There are boundaries. Also in a co-op, many board members are not fully educated to understand what is going with other people's investment and I am dealing with such myself, some get too involved some don't get involved. I would rather a board that look in the situation to make sure the staff respects all shareholders paying the bills. Don't leave the issue to building management, it will fall on deaf ears. The co-op staff should be held accountable for their work and courtesy like our bosses expect of us all who work. There is no kingdom for supers in a place of employment. We made an investment not in the super but in the corporation. We expect respect from the staff. The super is not the owner. Every co-op in NYC should get this clear: the co-op board can always hire another super. Stop making things difficult for the investor. How many co-op buildings look at what their super does everyday and make them accountable to their responsibility of what to do daily? It is all about what type of people a board has on it.There must be a rotation of members of the board; otherwise the co-op is doomed to failure after failure. It becomes the same old thing with no vision...the co-op board remains aloof in their vision for the future and old board members sometimes refuse to change their old pattern because they have no standard. For many board members, the co-op monthly board meeting has become a ritual for their salvation with no comprehension.