Homeowners Associations and Bullying

Bullying is a huge headline lately.  Lady Gaga is starting a foundation to fight the problem, the government's involved with www.stopbullying.gov, and there are hundreds of news articles every week on the subject.  Bullying is pervasive and infects every area of life.  As an association attorney, I see bullying every day.

Sometimes the bully is a board member, refusing to allow other board members or association members the right to speak and discuss a subject.  Other times, the bully is a homeowner who has a personal issue with another homeowner, and brings the association into that conflict. The bully can also be a homeowner who disagrees with association policy, and disrupts meetings in an attempt to assert his position.

I know a lot of people probably figure I'm a bully - after all, I'm the attorney who tells you to take down your tree house and that you have to re-paint your purple trim white.  Surprisingly, lawyers get bullied too.  We've received simple death threats, insults about our practice, professionalism, intellect, and personal grooming, and even threats of biological weapons.  A homeowner once chased one of our attorneys with a machete.  A lawyer involved with the widespread association fraud in Nevada was found severely beaten yesterday.  It is not clear whether the beating was related to his involvement in the fraud, or just his graduation from law school.

Bullying is part of my job, and I understand that.  People get angry, and I'm an easy target.  However, individual homeowners and board members should not have to live with bullying.  If you're being bullied in your association, consider taking the following steps:

1) Demand respect.  When a defendant attempted to bully me based on my gender and age, he backed down immediately when I addressed his inappropriate actions directly.

2) Disengage. A bully is looking to provoke a reaction.  Don't allow this to happen.  If your emotions take over, the bully "wins."  Stay calm, keep rational, and remember, you don't have to say a thing to this person.

3) Follow your policies.  If the bullying occurs during a meeting, look to your association's policy regarding the conduct of meetings.  The bully will likely be violating the policy, such as a civility provision.  Point out the violation and request compliance.  Embarrassment can sometimes help to tone down a bully's aggression.  You may also silence a bully by implementing and enforcing strict time limits on speech.  If you have these limits, enforce them equally with everyone.

4) Look to your management company, attorney, or other professional for assistance.  Your association manager and attorney have likely had significant experience with bullies.  They may be able to step in and remove the "personal" from "personality conflict."  This will likely be necessary if the bully is also a dominant figure on the board.  Of course, sometimes the dispute is between neighbors and is not properly addressed by the association.  In this case, consider whether you need to retain your own professional assistance, such as a neighborhood mediator, to resolve the matter.

I don't know why people feel the need to bully.  It is my goal to help my clients be harmonious and functional.  Some people just don't seem to thrive in these sorts of environments, leading to conflict, legal fees, and great war stories that begin, "Did I ever tell you about the time I was nearly shot at a board meeting?"