Nightmare on Board Street

By Randall A. Pentiuk & Brittny Harris, Esq.

It was a quiet, peaceful community, until residents of a housing cooperative insisted on keeping a pet.  Many housing coops do not allow pets in their units, and advised the members that they could not keep their dog, even though the member had a note from their doctor diagnosing the pet as a companion animal for psychological reasons.

The management company attempted to take matters into their own hands and filed an eviction against the member, which is illegal as a condo owner cannot be evicted from their own property.  The management company then showed up in court, and attempted to represent themselves as the cooperative’s legal counsel instead of working with the coop’s attorney.  When the judge realized the management company was not a lawyer, he sanctioned them $500.  The case went to trial, and the Board of the cooperative was hit with a judgment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Board of Directors subsequently hired competent legal counsel to fix the problem as their previous counsel had no expertise or experience in the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act.  The legal team came in post-judgment, at a time where the cooperative’s account was going to be garnished in order to pay the judgment.  The lawyers skillfully negotiated a 60% reduction in the judgment, and the cooperative was able to pay the balance of their judgment.

In the end, the member who brought the suit got to keep their dog.  The hard lesson the cooperative learned was that it takes experienced, legal counsel to not only solve problems, but protect the board’s interests going forward. Further, it is in the best interests of the Board of Directors and the cooperative to keep the line between management company and legal counsel clear and separate.  Competent legal counsel not only defends their clients’ interests, but also prevents and protects them through experienced legal advice and guidance.

The cooperative’s legal team ultimately drafted a comprehensive animal and companion policy, which was adopted by the cooperative, and also trained all of their managers and board members in the legal implications of pets and companion animals.  It is in the board’s best interest to establish clear lines of communication and expectations between management companies and attorneys, and avoid the hassle of expensive litigation proceedings.

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