Hostile? Me? Why Should My Community Association Be Worried About Hostile Environment Harassment?

October 3rd, 2019 | Community Association Law Blog

By Mary Wynn Seiter, Esq.

You live in a pet-free condominium, where you serve on the board. Everyone on your floor is grumbling because a new owner has an emotional support animal, which the condo association board approved as a reasonable accommodation under federal law. The grousing has escalated, though – and some residents have openly confronted the new owner, claiming she has no disability at all and is just using the law to be able to have a pet in her unit. The new owner reportedly is upset, but has not communicated about it at all to the condo board. Does the board have any obligation to insert itself in this matter between residents, even if the board has not been asked? YES, it does.

“Hostile Environmental Harassment” – even the term sounds ominous, and with good reason. Most people might even think this is something that arises in only employment situations, and so they may dismiss this as not being a concern for a volunteer-board governed community association. They would be dead wrong. The federal Fair Housing Act regulations have made it clear – to the tune of significant penalties and fines – that community associations must act to ensure that harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or any other protected class within a residential community is not permitted to go on unchecked. The example above squarely falls within this definition – it involves residents going after another resident on the basis of a disability.

What role does the association have to take, exactly? That will depend on the harassment. If the harasser is an association employee, board member or agent, the association’s board must take swift steps to halt the harassment by instructing the harasser to cease, and use its enforcement powers to ensure that occurs. If the harasser is a third party, the association will need to take “reasonable steps” to alert the harassing party to the impropriety of her or his actions – such as in the example above, where the association would be well-served to send a strong letter to the harasser, advising that such comments violate federal law and cannot be tolerated within the community. In any case, once the association is aware of the harassment, the obligation to do something arises – even if the victim has not complained to the association personally.

It’s a great idea for boards to get ahead of these kinds of issues by conducting training of its employees and staff, as well as board owners. In the end, though, each situation is different, and if you have one involving harassing conduct that could be viewed as hostile environment harassment, be sure to seek counsel from your association’s attorney, or phone us at BFC. We can guide your association regarding proactive steps to take, as well as provide sound, solid, practical advice on how to deal with a given situation.