By Beth Mulcahy, Esq.
Unfortunately, this is a question that is frequently presented to our law firm. Usually, the story goes something like this… Disgruntled owner is unhappy about something in the association such as a violation letter received, a planned capital improvement project, a special assessment or an increase in assessment rate. The disgruntled owner becomes abusive to the board or the manager (harassing phone calls or messages, showing up at board member’s home unannounced, bad behavior at a board meeting). Here’s what board members need to know about the best way to handle this situation.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines harassment as “words, gestures or actions which tend to annoy, alarm or abuse another person.” To annoy, Black’s suggests, is “to disturb, irritate” or “cause discomfort”, while abuse consists of “insulting, hurtful or offensive wrongs or acts.” Whether the incidents are isolated or repetitive, the bottom line will always be whether the targeted individual felt intimidated or threatened, not whether the angry individual intended his/her actions as abusive or intimidating.
In Arizona, A.R.S. Section 12- 1809 defines “harassment” as a series of acts over any period of time that is directed at a specific person and that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed and the conduct in fact seriously alarms, annoys or harasses the person and serves no legitimate purpose.
Our firm suggests the following steps when dealing with a harassing owner:
The First Step: 1) Tell the individual verbally or in writing to stop; 2) keep a journal entry of the date, time and verbiage of calls or encounters; 3) note your verbal or written response; 4) keep all harassing emails, letters and/or phone messages.
The Second Step: If the harassment does not stop have the board or management company write the offending individual a non-threatening letter, or have the association’s attorney write a letter describing the behavior, and stating that the individual will be subject to legal action if the behavior does not stop.
The Third Step: When a letter is not enough, the next step is to seek an injunction prohibiting harassment (pursuant to A.R.S. Section 12- 1809) from your local justice court. A board member who is on the receiving end of endless, abusive telephone calls or who is regularly assaulted verbally (or physically) in public by an angry or disgruntled owner may seek an order prohibiting the “bully” from sending him e-mails and/or ordering him to remain a specified distance away. Courts do not issue injunctions lightly. In most cases, the harassing actions must be part of a pattern rather than isolated incidents and the targeted individual(s) must feel threatened by the actions.
Please remember that if you are dealing with actual physical threats – if, an owner raises a fist, pulls a gun or threatens bodily harm, call the police immediately. Even if you do not think the threats are real, having the police respond is a reasonable precaution.