Co-ops Weigh Who's Nasty or Nice
Co-ops Weigh Who's Nasty or Nice
New York Times
June 12, 2003
By MOTOKO RICH
FOR most New Yorkers, the now notorious case of David Pullman, a cantankerous co-op tenant whose neighbors voted
to throw him out of an Upper West Side building, sounds like just another case of outlandish, only-in-New York behavior.
But for others, the tortuous four-year story of litigation, emotional laundry-room meetings and bitter accusations
among neighbors brings shivers of recognition. Some may fantasize about finally being able to take action against
the obnoxious man upstairs with the loud parties or the couple with the out-of-control barking dog.
Adam Leitman Bailey, a lawyer representing Mr. Pullman on some outstanding lawsuits and the sale of his West 67th Street apartment, said other co-op boards have asked him about moving against residents accused of, for example, subletting apartments without permission or running a bed-and-breakfast out of an apartment and advertising it on the Internet. One co-op wants to evict a resident who, among other things, harassed her neighbors, added a kitchen and a bathroom without permission and held parties at which
guests had sex on the roof.
Last month, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that a co-op had the right to force Mr. Pullman, a 41-year-old bond salesman, to sell his shares in the building and move out. Legal experts said the decision expanded the powers of
co-ops, which are owned by shareholders and governed by resident boards, because it allows them to determine that a tenant's behavior is objectionable without having to prove the case in court.
"If co-ops are supposed to be small communities of democracy," said Andrea Roschelle, a co-op lawyer in New York, "it makes a lot more sense to do a lot more
self-governing and appeal to the courts less."
Co-op board members across the city broadly welcomed the decision. David Grayson, the president of the co-op board
at 1125 Park Avenue, a 72-unit luxury building, said, "Co-op boards should be able to dictate, in extreme circumstances, who can and cannot live within the
About a million New Yorkers live in co-ops, where maintenance costs and voting strength are distributed according to a formula. Shareholders elect boards empowered to reject applications from buyers, to manage building finances and to make decisions about anything from what color to paint the lobby to the legality of certain-size pets.
Virtually every building in New York has had, at one time or another, problems with neighbors complaining about one
another's noise, kitchen smells, aggressive pets and any number of other issues that arise with communal living.
Most co-op residents are happy to bend your ear with tales of the man in 2C who decorated the lobby with his castoff
furniture or the couple in 12B who "discuss" their differences near an open window. In most cases, though,
boards won't evict someone for irritating behavior.
"I think co-op boards would only exercise that judgment in the most egregious cases," said Joel S. Hirschtritt,
president of the co-op board at 1185 Park Avenue, a 176-unit building on the Upper East Side.
Paul R. Gottsegen, director of the Halstead Management Company, a unit of Terra Holdings, which manages more than 140 buildings around the city, said it is rare for a board even to consider evicting a tenant.
But some co-op boards are wondering if their right to reject prospective tenants shouldn't extend to people who have already moved in.
Co-ops are the only place "where you can choose who your neighbors are going to be and not have to give a reason for
rejecting them," said Phyllis Stinson, a co-op board member at 65 Nassau Street, a 28-unit building in downtown Manhattan. "If you're going to give someone that much power when a resident is coming into the building, it seems natural that you should be able to evict someone."
Before the Pullman case, boards wanting to get rid of a tenant typically took their cases to housing court. Judges often resolved such disputes by ordering the tenant to change his ways. Co-op boards often came away frustrated by the bureaucracy and by tenants who reverted to the behavior that first landed them in court.
The Pullman ruling said that a co-op itself may determine whether a tenant's behavior merits eviction. Most buildings
have governing leases that permit expulsion either by a vote of the board or by all the shareholders - which is
what happened in the Pullman case.
Wendy Gold, the newly elected president of an Upper East Side co-op, said she was relieved to hear that co-op boards
were now more empowered to govern themselves. The recent ruling, she said, allows co-ops "to act in-house."
Still, the Pullman precedent is unlikely to unleash a wave of evictions across the city. For starters, the competing
accusations were unusual. Mr. Pullman was described as having circulated leaflets suggesting that a neighbor had
the makings of a "psychopath," and he filed numerous lawsuits against the board.
But the case has clearly provoked discussion. Robert Braverman, one of the lawyers who represented the co-op
board in the Pullman case, said a number of other co-ops have asked if the decision might apply to their
A family in an Upper West Side building wanted to know if the board in its building could take action against a neighbor who regularly banged on its wall. In another case, a board wanted to know if it could get rid of a tenant who had installed an air-conditioner without board permission,
sued the board after being ordered to remove it and then rejected a settlement.
"I've been advising them to think long and hard about what went into the Pullman case - how emotional it was for
everybody, how unique the objectionable behavior was, and the expense," which Mr. Braverman said went "well into the
Bruce Cholst, another real estate lawyer in New York, said he got calls from four co-op board presidents this week
asking him if the Pullman precedent could apply to their disputes. "People are asking, `Can we do it too?' " he said.
In one case, Mr. Cholst said, a co-op board asked him if a tenant who had filed a number of nuisance lawsuits that
drained the building's reserves could finally be cut loose. In another, he said, a tenant had vandalized the building.
Other lawyers say that pending cases now will move more smoothly.
Before the Pullman ruling, co-op boards would have to prove to the court that certain behavior had actually taken place
and that it was in fact objectionable. Now, said Mr. Bailey, one of Mr. Pullman's lawyers, boards have to prove only that they "are evicting in good faith and in the best interests of the shareholders, which is so much easier."
The image of easy evictions has spooked some in the real estate community. "The more I thought about it, the more it
became very scary," said Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier, a Manhattan real estate firm, and a
resident in a Park Avenue building. "You could get somebody on the board who just takes a dislike to somebody in the
building and can really influence other people who don't even know this person. There could be a witch hunt."
Tenants can still take their cases to court if they feel they have been treated unfairly. Courts will step in when
tenants can prove the board has acted in bad faith or out of self-interest. If "the board did it to get your apartment for the board president," said Richard Siegler, a
real estate lawyer in Manhattan, "that would be illegal."
Nor does the Pullman case represent a rubber stamp for co-op boards that pass arbitrary rules. In another case
this year, a co-op board was so eager to prevent one tenant from standing for board election that it amended the
building's bylaws to require that candidates have a bachelor's degree and that residents who had sued the board
could not run. The board tried to invoke a lower court's ruling on the Pullman case, but the court rejected the board's claim.
The case may still have a deterrent effect on some troublesome tenants. "It will make shareholders more
cautious about their behavior because they will realize that they can in fact be evicted," Daniela Kunen, a broker
at Douglas Elliman's Upper East Side office predicted. She said she had already spoken to a resident in a Park Avenue building who said a neighbor's children had stopped playing basketball in the living room since news media coverage of the Pullman case.
Most co-op boards will continue to wrangle over day-to-day disputes without getting close to eviction. At Ms. Stinson's downtown building, for example, one tenant recently complained about paint colors in the hallways and lobby. After a lot of back and forth by e-mail, Ms. Stinson said, the board reminded the tenant that "you voted for us
to make these kinds of decisions."
And what are the prospects for Mr. Pullman? He says he has almost signed a deal to sell his two-bedroom on 67th Street for close to $1 million. "I'm deciding right now whether to buy or rent," he said. If he buys, though, it won't be in a co-op. Co-ops, he said, are "like high school."
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