Request for Consultation
Or Do Some Of Us Just Know Too Much?

by Beth A. Grimm, Esp.

Some of us just know too much to risk living in a condominium or townhouse development.  We know of all the "bad things" that can happen.  We become maniacs over the most seemingly innocuous, everyday things. This little story, which is true, is a good illustration of why neighbors, or homeowners and board members, or even board members cannot agree on where to strike the balance.  If Jack and Jill, two people who love each other can't agree, how can others who don't have any common bond agree?

Here is the scenario:

Jack and Jill live in a small condominium on the bottom floor (two-story building).  There is a walkway leading up to their front door from the parking lot.  A light has been flickering over the walkway for days.  Jack and Jill have had trouble sleeping at night because the light is right outside their bedroom window.

  One day the light stops flickering.  Jill mentions it to Jack and Jack says:
" I unscrewed the light bulb.  It's better now, isn't?
Jill answered: "Oh my GOD!  You didn't really do that, did you?
Jack: "Yes, I did.
Jill:  "Do you have any idea what might happen now?"  

Jill proceeded to berate Jack telling him all of the horrors that can happen because of his act of  unscrewing the light bulb.  She talked about all the single women who live in the complex who may be put in danger by virtue of the fact that no light is worse than flickering light.  She said that if anyone knew he was responsible for unscrewing the light, and there was a lawsuit, they could be sued and held responsible.  She said that Jack could have fallen down or been electrocuted.  She said that changing the light bulb was the responsibility of the management company and the association, not them, or any other individual.  She said that owners taking actions into their own hands could lead to chaos in an association.

She made Jack feel so bad that he offered to go back outside and remove his finger prints from the light bulb and surrounding area.  He was not really willing to screw it back in (he was enjoying his sleep).  Jill told him: "NO, if anyone sees you do that, and they did not see you unscrew the light bulb, then we certainly can be tied to the situation."

Jack was baffled.  He thought he had solved the problem of them not being able to sleep at night.  Jill as adamant that a better solution would have been to tack a blanket up over the window and let the association take care of the flickering light bulb.   Can this marriage be saved?  

The problem is Jill works for a law firm that does condominium law.  She has seen the horror stories about security issues, crimes, and rape, stemming from lack of sufficient lighting.  She has read the stories about handy men performing services for the association that require licensed contractors, and board members unscrewing light bulbs who have fallen off ladders and been electrocuted.  She has heard about the large damage awards that stagger the individual owners of the property.  All of these things are going through her head when, on the other hand, Jack's head is empty.  In his eyes, it was a problem and he resolved it very simply.  In her eyes, he opened up the door to much bigger problems by unscrewing the light bulb.

The truth is, once this story was all down on paper, Jill felt a little sheepish for "over thinking" the situation (as women tend to be accused to do) and put it back in perspective.  She called the management company (anonymously, by the way), and told them about the flickering light bulb that now seemed to have burnt out.  It was fixed the next day, and they both could rest again.  Since Jack has considerable respect for his wife and the fact that she had knowledge expanding far beyond his own about the multitude of problems that revolve around changing a light bulb in a homeowners association, he promised in the future not to usurp the responsibilities of the association.  

The next day, the upstairs neighbors moved a piano into their unit and began to play.  The piano was very "loud". Jill talked with the upstairs neighbor about the situation.  She found that the upstairs neighbor had recently quit her job, was going back to school, and intended to study music and give piano lessons.  The upstairs neighbor said she wanted to "make friends" and "have sing-a-longs" so they could play their piano. Jill was studying for the bar exam and was home 9-9, and very tense. Jack stayed out of it. Besides being unable to study with piano noise, Jill was concerned about the future - would they be able to sell their unit in the summer without having to disclose a nuisance?

The bottom line is people in homeowner associations all have their own perspective on things, and most neighbors generally want to be neighborly - to a certain degree.  However, if being neighborly infringes on their ability to do exactly what they want, the fur may fly.  The person who usually wins is either: á The person who has the most knowledge about the law and the practical problems in common interest developments and makes the best arguments;  or the person who is "right" under the governing documents of the association. If neither party is clearly right, the person who usually wins is: the person who is willing to spend the most money for an attorney and court proceeding; or the person who can shout the loudest and be the most obnoxious, and scare their neighbor into submission.   What is the moral of the story? Everyone doesn't think alike. Everyone isn't motivated by selfishness. Everyone isn't reasonable. Everyone isn't unreasonable. Everyone's level of knowledge and understanding isn't the same. Perhaps Men really are from Mars and Women really are from Venus!

If you are the manager and get a telephone call to change a light bulb that is flickering or out, it is best to take some action fairly quickly, before the association is exposed to all kinds of disastrous results by virtue of a volunteer taking matters into their own hands. If you are an association manager or a board member who receives the call about a disturbance from a neighboring unit, assess the matter from a perspective as to whether the activity in question is actually a violation of some clause of the governing documents or the rules.  If it is, or arguably is, then choose the course of action of enforcement that is in your polices (hopefully that means notice, and an opportunity to cure - before the beheading takes place) or consult a knowledgeable legal representative who has dealt with similar disputes.

copyright 2001, Beth A Grimm, all rights reserved... any attempt to improperly use or republish these materials and/or this article without the author's permission is subject to legal action. If you would like printed copies provided through the mail from Ms. Grimm, click on the order form attached. There is a charge of $20 for each article for this service.


By Beth A. Grimm, Attorney. A "service oriented" attorney and member of ECHO and CAI and various other industry organizations in California and nationally, host of the website www.californiacondoguru.com; two Blogs: California Condominium & HOA Law Blog, and Condolawguru.com Blog, and author of many helpful community association publications which can be found in the webstore on her site.