Legal Tales from the Sunshine State Eight Stories from Florida Residential Buildings

Legal Tales from the Sunshine State

Work in any business long enough, and chances are nothing will surprise you anymore. This is especially true of co-op and condo lawyers. Along with property managers, attorneys are keepers of some of the best stories to come out of South Florida's co-ops, condos and HOA communities. They hear and see (and litigate) it all, from the crazy cat lady who has imaginary felines running around in her backyard to the suspected mobster who may—or may not?—be running a house of ill repute out of his condo apartment.

We asked three seasoned Sunshine State attorneys—Russell M. Robbins, managing partner with the law firm of Mirza, Basulto & Robbins LLP in Coral Springs; Ryan Poliakoff, senior counsel with Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., and Keith F. Backer, founder and managing partner of Backer Law Firm, both in Boca Raton—for some of their most memorable legal tales. Here are the eight best:

The Widest-Reaching Leash Law

If you’re a dog person, you—and your faithful hound—probably both enjoy it when you let your pooch run around without a leash. If you’re not, unleashed dogs might put you on guard. There's no shortage of stories about supposedly docile canines biting children or savaging other dogs. But Robbins has a leash story from a high-end association involving a dog that never did anything wrong.

“An owner in the building had been in a car accident, and an insurance adjuster came to the property to look at his car,” he recalls. “The two men were standing outside the property’s elevator along with the owner’s dog, who was very well-behaved. The man didn’t keep the dog on a leash—he just used a rope that he tied around the dog’s neck. The rope was trailing on the floor, and suddenly the elevator door closes on the end of the rope. The two men and the dog are on the outside, but the elevator starts going up, and the dog is being dragged by the rope. So they’re frantically trying to untie the knot from the dog’s neck, and the adjuster is trying to pry open the elevator doors. As the rope goes higher up, it hits the sensor, and the doors come open—and the insurance adjuster falls two stories down to the bottom of the elevator pit.”

The dog was fine, says Robbins; the adjuster broke everything on one side of his body. “The association managed to escape any kind of serious lawsuit because the elevator wasn’t at fault, and since the insurance adjuster was there in a professional capacity, rather than as a guest, it was considered a worker’s compensation injury. But because of all this, the association had to send out a letter telling everyone that dogs must be on physical leashes.”

Number Two

Sometimes a situation smells fishy…and sometimes it smells even worse. “We had an incident where we caught one condo resident's household employee on camera,” Poliakoff recalls. “When she got into the elevator one morning, this woman decided for some reason to actually pull down her pants and defecate in the elevator, on the way to her job. She couldn’t wait ‘til she got upstairs.” It wasn't clear whether the woman was ill, or disgruntled, or what—but the elevator required some major cleanup before it was useable again.

The Crazy Owner Who Wasn’t Crazy…

A woman in one condo building was behaving so erratically that Robbins was summoned to write a letter. “She was stomping on her floor and disturbing the neighbor underneath her,” he says. The situation had been ongoing, and the HOA concluded that her sanity was in question. Turns out, that was a hasty and unfair assessment.

“She lived on the top floor, and the air conditioning units on the roof were putting out more noise than permitted, and it was disturbing her,” says Robbins. “So it turned out that the association, which had thought that the woman was losing it mentally, just had to fix the A/C.” Once that was settled, peace was restored.

…and the Crazy Owner Who Was

“We had a situation where there was an owner, an elderly woman, against whom the association had gotten an arbitration order because she was feeding the squirrels,” Robbins recalls. But there was much more to it than that.

“She would drink, and do all kinds of other crazy things. She would run through the hallways naked, and she would call the police reporting a suspicious black person on the premises, when in fact the African-American man in question was the husband of the association president. She would berate the man in the parking lot like she was the owner of a plantation.” As intolerable as the situation and the resident's behavior was, however, it was not necessarily actionable. While an HOA can use the courts to get residents to abide by house rules and bylaws, it cannot stop them from being unpleasant.

“She began feeding the ducks by opening a box of cornflakes in her sixth floor unit and sprinkling it out the back patio, and feeding the fish by dumping her household debris into the waterway,” Robbins says. “So we were able to take her to court for violating the original injunction about not feeding the squirrels.” Her attorney tried to draw a distinction between squirrels and ducks, he says, but the judge ruled that the order applied to all wild animals. “Her son ended up putting her into a nursing home, which was what she needed, but we went through a lot of aggravation first.”

Hoarders & Roaches

The behavioral disorder known as compulsive hoarding has gotten a great amount of attention in the last couple of years; there are several shows on cable TV about it. But the while the recent media attention on hoarders may have raised awareness of the condition, it hasn't made the affliction any less common.

“The problem of hoarders comes up all the time,” says Poliakoff. “I had a situation in a condominium building where a unit was infested with roaches. And whatever the cause of it was at the time, the roaches had infested the walls and begun to spread to neighboring units—and then it becomes a much more significant issue. I’ve seen buildings with flea problems in the hallways. I’ve heard of buildings with bed bug issues. These problems start with bad conditions inside one unit and then they can, unfortunately, spread.” That’s what the TV hoarder shows don’t show you.

Water Dance

“There was a lady who lived in a building on the ocean,” recalls Backer, “and the association complained about her from time to time because she would do bizarre things. One night she tied balloons on her arms and went nude onto the back patio and down to the beach, into the ocean with just the balloons on her arms. And there weren’t any rules that prohibited it, but they thought it was very odd. And they had also seen her stealing some of the artwork out of the building’s lobby.”

But the situation came to a head when her bizarre behavior impacted the rest of the building—in a very real, very wet way. “One night the maintenance man was walking down the hallway, and noticed that there was water seeping out from her door,” Backer says. “He banged on the door, and she didn’t answer, so he got the pass key, and opened the door, and water just flooded out. She had about six inches on water in her apartment, and she was in there, frolicking naked, dancing through the water on the floor. Apparently, she had set a broom on fire and made the sprinklers go off.”

Erratic behavior like this can make for good copy, but it's definitely no laughing matter. This particular woman suffered from mental illness, and also had a long history of drug abuse. Fortunately, her estranged husband intervened to get her the care she needed.

“Associations are ill-equipped to deal with these things,” says Backer. “They’re not hospitals. Condominium laws are really not designed to provide the right for an association to take actions against people when they’re behaving this way, and the courts…well, a judge can’t order someone to be sane.”

The Credible Threat

If mental illness can lead to water-damaged floors, it can also lead to violence. “We’ve had to go and get a restraining order against a particular individual because his actions were tantamount to threatening the president of the association,” Robbins remembers. “He had a habit of drinking, and then leaving voicemail messages at night, and we ended up with over four hours of voicemail messages that were just crazy—like claiming that he saw the man’s wife and child walking outside, and was contemplating swerving his truck to hit them.”

This sort of thing does not play well in the courts—especially when the voice messages are basically recorded threats. “The judge ended up entering a full restraining order against him, saying that if he did anything other than park his car in his spot and walk directly to his unit, he would be in contempt of court. He was not to attend any board meetings or correspond with the board, or talk to the management company, or anything along those lines,” Robbins says. “The recordings were just vile and vulgar and offensive, and when the judge heard one of them played in the courtroom—that was enough for him.”

Graft Not… Want Not

While it is relatively rare for board members to brazenly—and illegally—profit from their positions, it still happens from time to time. “We had a situation where the president of an association went to the property manager and reportedly solicited her to take a kickback from a vendor who would also provide the president with a kickback,” recalls Poliakoff. “Basically, he went to the property manager and said, the next time we have a certain type of work that needs to be done in this building, this is the guy who I want you to hire. He’s going to give you X dollars, he’s going to give me Y dollars, and we’re going to make a lot of money off of this.” In this particular case, the property manager proved above reproach, and reported the shady dealings to the rest of the board. The president wound up resigning—without any kickback money.

Oh, and if you find out that someone is running an escort service in your condo, the most efficient way to put the kibosh on the illicit business is to hire a security guard to ID everyone who enters and leaves the building and write the driver’s license number in a log book. Within a week, the brothel will shut down—johns are a bit reluctant to give out their personal information.

Attorneys and management companies, needless to say, have certainly seen it all. They can handle the routine day-to-day matters, and even the stuff worth writing home about.    

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator.