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Civility in Community Associations | Does It Even Exist Anymore?

Civility in Community Associations: Does it Even Exist Anymore?

It seems the growing trend is that tempers  flare so much faster than in days gone by. One of the more difficult situations to deal with is when a cantankerous member of the association goes out of their way to make life miserable for their neighbors and/or their board. The situation can often get out of hand, requiring legal assistance, which then requires the entire community to bear the financial burden of the problem. In large part, the ability of an association to curtail such behavior will depend upon the type of behavior exhibited by the member, along with which remedies are provided for in the association’s governing documents, inclusive of its rules and regulations.

Most declarations have a nuisance provision similar to the following:

No noxious or offensive activities or noise shall be carried on or allowed, in or upon the common elements or in any unit, nor shall anything be done therein either willfully or negligently which may be or become an annoyance or nuisance to the other residents in the community. Such determination shall be made by the board of directors, whose decision shall be final and non-appealable.

Indeed, such a provision can be useful when it is necessary to seek an injunction to curtail the disruptive activities of the cantankerous member. When seeking to prevent “nuisance” conduct, it is important to document and gather as much evidence as possible to demonstrate that the underlying behavior has significantly impacted the peaceful enjoyment of the property by the other residents. Such documentation can include incident reports, photographs, owner complaints, security footage, etc.

It is also important for the board to work with the association’s attorney in adopting reasonable rules and regulations governing owner behavior at board meetings, membership meetings, and in general. Having such rules in place can lead to various consequences for the unruly individual, such as use right suspension and fining. But, sometimes such consequences may only amp up the situation rather than remedy it, and the association may need to file for an injunction to enforce its covenants and rules and regulations against the unruly member. If you wait until you have an unruly member to adopt rules and regulations governing conduct, then you may be “late to the dance.”

Neighbor-to-neighbor disputes can indeed be difficult because both neighbors can end up complaining to the board about the other neighbor’s behavior. Absent discrimination or harassment, the board is not necessarily obligated to play the role of referee and formally mediate disputes that are solely between neighbors. However, it should be noted that in such circumstances the owners have just as much right to enforce the provisions of the governing documents against their neighbor as does the association itself. Specifically, the community association statutes (Chapters 718, 719, and 720 F.S.) all contain language authorizing an individual resident to file legal action directly against another resident if such party believes his or her legal rights under the governing documents are being violated by the neighbor.

There is also recently adopted Florida legislation pertaining to harassment, or intimidation, based on religious or ethnic heritage. More specifically, §784.0493, Fla. Stat., provides that a person may not willfully and maliciously harass or intimidate another person based on the person’s wearing or displaying of any indicia related to any religious or ethnic heritage. Punishments range from second-degree misdemeanor through a third-degree felony if in the course of committing a violation the violator makes a credible threat to the person who is the subject of the harassment or intimidation. The law is also clear that a violation of this law is considered a “hate crime.”

Sometimes the harassing behavior does not take place in a physical setting, but rather online through social media. Such was addressed in a 2018 court case, Fox v. Hamptons at Metrowest Condo. Ass’n, Inc., Case No. 6:18-cv-1457-Orl-40GJK (M.D. Fla. Sep. 25, 2018). In this case, the owner (“Fox”) and the association had entered into a settlement agreement, and the association sought to have the terms of the settlement agreement enforced by the court. During the litigation the court not only found Fox in civil contempt but also further prohibited him from starting any new blogs, websites, or social media websites related to the association; and he was ordered to stop posting, circulating, and publishing any pictures or personal information about current or future residents, board members, management, employees, or personnel of the management company on any website, blog, or social media. It is crucial to understand that these restrictions were not part of the settlement agreement between the parties, but rather were imposed by the court on its own. Fox appealed on the basis that these broad prohibitions imposed by the trial court trampled on his First Amendment rights.

As an aside and by way of overgeneralization, in order for any of the constitutional protections to apply within a community association, there needs to be a nexus to the government. In this case, the nexus is relatively easy to discern because it was the judge, a government employee, who imposed the restriction on Fox’s speech, which then gave Fox the ability to challenge the court’s order using the First Amendment.

The appellate court confirmed that the trial court’s imposition of such permanent conditions constituted an unconditional prior restraint on free speech. The appellate court pointed out that,

…freedom of speech does not extend to obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats, and speech integral to criminal conduct.

Fox’s use of social media to air his grievances did not fall into any of the exceptions, so therefore the court’s prohibitions on Fox were found to be in violation of the First Amendment. The appellate court noted that the trial court did not err when it enforced the agreed-upon terms of the previously executed settlement agreement between Fox and the association, and therefore upheld the trial court’s contempt order in that respect. At the end of the day, this case teaches us that a court-imposed, full-blown restriction on use of social media went too far. The question remains as to whether a court can curtail a member’s right to post on social media for a lesser period of time, and in regard to specific matters rather than the outright prohibition? Additionally, at times community associations adopt reasonable rules and regulations governing what can be posted on social media as related to their association, but enforcement of such provisions can be extremely difficult.

Sadly, in today’s world it is not a matter of “if” but rather “when” an association board will have to deal with owner hostility. All the above is a good reminder that if you wait until there is a problem to review the remedies available in the governing documents for curtailing cantankerous behavior, then it is far too late. By having a strongly worded nuisance provision in the declaration, along with rules governing civility at board and membership meetings, etc., an association can get in front of these situations and have the necessary tools at hand to deal with them effectively. When is the last time you asked your association’s attorney for recommendations to amend the declaration and adopt or revise rules and regulations governing civility?

(Written by Jeffrey Rembaum (Kaye Bender Rebaum) and reprinted with permission from the February 2024 edition of the “Florida Community Association Journal“.)