When Homeowners Harass HOA Board Members
There are many perks that come with living in a homeowners association, but the downsides which are often more extreme and covered by the media more often can be potentially draining. In many of the cases covered by the media, you've heard stories about HOA board members or alternatively the Management company harassing homeowners, and while there are definite cases where board members have acted in bad faith, a much more common but less reported on issue are homeowners who harass the volunteer members of their community board. These instances can create a serious issue both legally and in terms of community harmony, so it's important to discuss why this happens and how it can be avoided.
It's safe to say that not everyone will agree on decisions regarding their homes or their neighborhoods, the media is full of examples of homeowners feeling frustrated with sign/flag regulations or what they consider overly-strict regulations regarding lawn maintenance, and often these disagreements result in litigation and frustration for all parties involved. When some owners don't get their way, voices are raised, tensions go high, disrespect, angry outbursts, and downright aggression can result which isn't healthy for any community.
As an intermediary, RealManage and other third-party management companies can often take the brunt of the frustration from homeowners, but for those self-managed associations or when owners refuse to work with the team in place it can be a problem for the board. There are definitely a few steps you can take as a board member to help mitigate the damage of harassment when other measures may have failed.
Writing a Letter to the Offender
The first thing you should do is write a letter to the offender. Inform them of how their behavior is violating the association's governing documents and affecting the board member. Be specific about their behavior and the occurrence, then describe the consequences they will face as outlined in the bylaws. Go a step further and suggest alternative means of communicating without necessarily resulting in conflict. For instance, they can write a letter of their own to the board listing all the grievances.
Most of the time, a letter is better than a vocal conversation because it allows both parties to express their concerns or issues without feeling to emotional or overwhelmed. There are also obvious legal benefits from having documented conversations with the owner to showcase how you or the other board members have taken steps to resolve the issue prior to legal proceedings. Governing documents may provide some additional instruction on handling this step but we highly recommend taking this as your initial step to ensure everyone's voice is equally heard. However, letters may fail to persuade some owners and they may not be interested in a amicable resolution in which case you may need to take additional action.
Get a Restraining Order
If the homeowner doesn't get their way, or is unresponsive to the letter requesting a resolution, the situation may worsen and in some cases can make the HOA board member harassment worse. In this case, it's a good idea to get an appropriate restraining order. While this response may seem drastic, a harassing individual may not know when the escalation of the issue has gotten out of control. In many cases a civil protective order can be issued based on verbal harassment but we recommend working with the legal representative for your community when approaching this method.
If, for instance, they use verbal attacks, they may be ordered to stay a stipulated distance away from the board member.If the harassment happens through the phone, they may be ordered not to call that board member at all. In some cases, the offender may also be barred from speaking during meetings or banned from attending the meetings altogether. A lawyer representing your community may require all communication be filtered through them which is a fairly common although not ideal solution.
Keep in mind that a restraining order should only be used in the most dire of cases, and the behavior has to represent a pattern in most instances so you would not want to use this route if the offender has not previously shown any aggressive behavior or harassed any other board members. You must also have evidence in the form of voicemail, email, messages, or recorded videos, but again we want to stress that you should be consulting legal counsel for issues that have moved to this stage.
Involve the Authorities
If, after legal involvement up to and including the civil protection order, the homeowner is still harassing the board member, it's time to go a step further and involve the authorities or local law enforcement, especially if there is a threat of physical violence. Whether the offender is making empty threats or not, the actions can result in emotional damages. It's a given that bullies exist in every community and if they violate the terms of your legal orders, it's prudent to involve the authorities for those instances.
Again as with the restraining order, your communities legal representatives may be able to file motions on your behalf or on behalf of the community association itself if the owner has made threats to other owners or other board members. Involving law enforcement is not something to be taken lightly and has ramifications that can result in additional distress to the community, but it's important for all owner, even the board members, to feel secure in their own homes.
Preventing Future Harassment
Your HOA governing documents should have bylaws defining unacceptable behavior both from homeowners and HOA board members. If not currently codified in your community, you should start by defining them and include how the meetings will be run in a calm and non-threatening manner. When revising your bylaws, state that HOA board member harassment actions and abuse will not be tolerated and describe the consequences of these actions, specifically what steps will be taken and when. Set a threshold that is acceptable to all members of your community for what is and is not acceptable when addressing sensitive matters to the board.
Consequences can range from standardized fines to sanctions and eventual legal actions like those laid out above. It's expected for homeowners to complain about the rules and regulations or the actions of the directors and officers of the homeowners association when they are dissatisfied. Owners should feel comfortable voicing their dissent or disagreement with a board decision, however, complaining and harassing are completely different and there should be definition in the community about where that line might lie for both owners and board members. The bylaws need to prohibit verbal abuse that could lead to physical abuse or property damage.
Resolving HOA Harassment
These steps are just suggestions for how to handle what can be in many cases, a serious matter that affects your entire community. Though this blog is meant to inform and provide support it is not legal advice and should not be taken as such. In many cases, communication works, but if you're dealing with a bully, you may even have to follow through with some of the more serious suggestions. If you want to know about resolving HOA problems, please check out our blog section. We have more insightful, informative, and valuable posts for you or speak to your community manager today.