Dealing with Difficult People

By Debra J. Oppenheimer

How do we as humans deal with people who yell and scream at us or refuse to be rational? You know the type, adversarial, manipulative, inflexible, unreasonable, and irrational. For most people, the answer is “We don’t”. If given the choice, most of us choose not to work with people like this. We don’t socialize with them, we avoid them at work if possible, and we make our own lives easier by simply ignoring them whenever we can.

difficult pplBut what happens when you do not have a choice? In homeowner associations, we often find there is at least one person who refuses to listen to anything the board has to say. Unfortunately, because associations are also businesses, it is often not possible to simply ignore the person. So how do associations handle these types of situations? How should they handle them? The same way you would at work when you have no choice. You remain professional and you follow the rules.

First, try to empathize with the “opposition”. In other words,try to understand (not agree) with the difficult person’s position. Understanding the basis for their position may lead to a quicker resolution. See the below example:

Situation One
You are working on picking a landscape bi d. You believe 123 Landscapers would do an excellent job, but one homeowner is screaming at the board for the choice. Take a break in the meeting and talk with the owner and see if you can get his reason for being upset. It could be as simple as having incorrect information about the bid. Another possibility is he is confusing the current company for another company that did poor work for the community in the past. If you can get the opposer to calm down and provide his reasoning, it may be something that can assist or be easily addressed by the board.

Some people believe the only way to be heard or listened to is to yell and scream. While it is difficult to deal with, a little time and effort can assist you to work with these types of homeowners. But what about those people whose demands are just irrational? These are the homeowners whose complaints persist long after a decision was reached or the complaints pertain to issues the association has no authority to address or has already addressed. See the below examples:

Situation Two
A homeowner calls the manager to complain about noise.  When asked for specifics, the homeowner advises he can hear water running in the unit above him when the owner takes a bath and he wants it to stop. There is no appropriate response to this request that will satisfy the complainer. Taking a bath is not a creation of unreasonable noise and prodding such a response will not suffice.  In this type of situation, your fallback position must be to explain that you only have authority to enforce the restrictions and requirements set forth in the covenants and the noise of running bathwater is not a violation of the covenants. Therefore, you cannot assist the complainer.

Situation Three
Homeowner does not believe the association should approve a requested addition in his neighbor’s property.  The design review committee looks at the governing documents and approves the application.  Again, the first step is to communicate with the complainer and advise of the decision and the reasons for the decision. You may even wish to obtain a legal opinion indicating it was appropriate. When the complainer shows up for each meeting thereafter for months and attempts to argue the point again and again, remain calm and follow the rules.  Your conduct of meeting policy should state that homeowners may comment on issues prior to a board vote. Once they have commented on an issue, they do not get to do so again. Do not let them run meetings by going over issues not on the agenda or already decided.  Call on the next person to speak or move to the next item on the agenda.

What do you do about the person who screams, yells, and attacks when he is asked to comply with the covenants?  No matter what the violation is, when the covenant violation notice is mailed out, it is sure to be returned with pages of complaints, or excuses, or both along with attacks against everyone, including the manager and board of directors.

Regardless of what the violation is, if the owner supplies addresses of properties also in violation of the covenants, the board addresses these as complaints. Each violation must be reviewed and if the complaint is verified, then a violation letter should be sent out to each verified violator.

The excuses should be reviewed as evidence in any hearing scheduled on a complaint. The attacks should be reviewed and, if verified, addressed. If untrue, they should be ignored. No matter how long the list is, the board needs to investigate the allegations.  Additionally, the investigation needs to remain separate from the enforcement of the covenant violation of the homeowner. The board must follow the association’s covenant enforcement policy and move forward with the covenant violation just like any other violation. No matter how hateful the letter, the issues still must be reviewed. If associations follow their policies on covenant enforcement, then they will have investigated the complaints and taken action on those matters that could be verified thus, ending those attacks.

The urge to ignore people who attack or to try to turn the other cheek will not help associations. While it is difficult, it is the job of the board of directors working with community managers to investigate complaints and to enforce covenants. Associations and their representatives need to follow their own policies each time an issue arises. Difficult people live within our communities and the only way to address the situations that they cause is to remain professional and follow the rules.

Debra J. Oppenheimer is a partner at HindmanSanchez. With over 20 years of legal and business experience, Debra is a seasoned litigator. She is always prepared for whatever is thrown at her even in the courtroom. As a prior Deputy District Attorney, she learned the value of “listening” to people in order to get them to do what your client wants – a skill she uses daily in covenant enforcement.

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