The Role of Community Associations in Owner vs. Owner Disputes
Like the Hatfields and the McCoys of yesteryear, one of life’s undeniable and consistent truths is that some people just cannot get along. This is often especially true in residential communities, where people are living in close proximity to each other and may have to interact with their neighbors on a regular basis. Too often, antagonistic actions, misunderstandings, and pent-up frustrations can lead to altercations between residents. Unfortunately, it seems like disputes are only getting more common and more serious as social media usage increases, people become more polarized over political issues, and residents spend more time at home after the pandemic. It is important for community association boards to understand the appropriate role for them to play in disputes between residents and, perhaps even more importantly, boards should know when to stay out of a dispute altogether.
When residents get into disputes, one or both will often turn to the HOA or condominium board and request that it “do something” about the other side. In many such cases, there is not going to be any formal role for the board to appropriately play unless the dispute involves the use of common areas, directly implicates a restriction found in the Declaration or a rule of the association or involves potential civil rights violations. Other disagreements, such as property line disputes or arguments over behavior that is not against any rule, cannot properly be adjudicated by the board. Where a dispute does not involve the association, it is important for board members to avoid the temptation to take sides or try to influence the outcome in his or her capacity as a representative of the association. In some situations, it may be possible for the board to play an informal role as a “peacemaker” to try to help resolve a dispute, but this should be done with care to avoid the appearance of bias, and boards should attempt to avoid involvement where legal action seems likely. If it ever appears that a dispute could turn violent, call the police immediately.
In situations where the association does have a valid interest in a dispute between owners, it is important that the board remains fair and objective throughout the process. For example, enforcement actions against an owner should only be taken if a board member or manager observes a violation of the rules firsthand or if the violation can be verified by other reliable independent means. Enforcement decisions should never be based solely on an unverified complaint from one side of a dispute. If a fine or other action is warranted, the owner must be provided with an opportunity to address the situation with the board pursuant to Ohio law before the fine can be imposed. Additionally, if a dispute between owners reveals a need to update rules or adopt new rules regarding resident behavior, the board should be careful to consider all sides and create fair and reasonable rules that do not single anyone out for harsher treatment. A rule that is seen as simply siding with one resident over another is less likely to eliminate altercations and may be more susceptible to legal challenge.
If your association is ever faced with a dispute between residents, especially where a resident is alleging discrimination or threatening legal action, contact our office at 614-228-0207 to speak to one of our attorneys about the proper role for the board.
Mr. Terman has been practicing law since 2008 with experience in many areas of law including civil litigation, creditors’ rights, landlord/tenant, and community association law. He has extensive experience in bankruptcy and collection matters and also is admitted to practice in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Mr. Terman is a graduate of the Ohio State Moritz College of Law and received his bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University. Read Brad Terman's full bio.