My co-op board is accusing me of hoarding, and I worry they’re trying to build a case to kick me out. What should I do?
You may be on the road to what’s called a Pullman case, named for a landmark court decision that gives co-op boards the right to bring housing court proceedings against a resident for what the board deems objectionable conduct.
“Typically, housing court judges will look to see whether the conduct is affecting other people in the building,” says Steven Wagner, a partner at the law firm Wagner Berkow, with decades of experience representing co-op and condo boards. “Hoarding often impacts neighbors, bringing in roaches, rodents, bedbugs, etc., so it’s common for Pullman cases to be brought over that.”
Typically, proprietary leases in co-op buildings include a provision that says if conduct violates a house rule and continues for 30 days after a notice—usually given by letter—it is deemed to be objectionable and can be grounds for eviction.
“It sounds like the letter you received is what’s called a Pullman letter,” Wagner says. “If the conduct continues after those 30 days, typically the board will make the call to terminate the resident’s lease, or, on rare occasions, shareholders will vote on it.”
Judges won’t second-guess such decisions so long as the building’s rules have been followed and the targeted resident has been given an opportunity to respond. As far as what’s good enough in terms of steps taken to remediate the apartment’s condition and stop the objectionable conduct, that’s up to the board to decide.
“The board acts as judge and jury in the decision-making process,” Wagner says. “The courts will defer to the decision of the board under the Pullman case if proper procedures are followed. For example, the board must follow the bylaws when giving notice of the meeting. They should give the tenant-shareholder notice of the purpose of the meeting and an opportunity to defend against the charges. Also the board must be neither discriminating or violating the law, nor acting on a grudge or for some malicious purpose.”
You must be afforded “due process” rights, which means that you have notice and an opportunity to defend yourself. Often a building’s board will give the subject of such a proceeding a miniature trial in the board room, with witnesses, exhibits, and even a stenographer.
“Not being given notice or a chance to be heard is a defense,” Wagner says. “And even if it’s just that you and your lawyer were told to ‘shut up’ during the hearing, the argument has been successfully made that this would be a denial of your right to be heard and to defend yourself.”
If you are in fact hoarding, it may seem normal to you. Hoarding disorder is recognized as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and many who suffer from it do not recognize that they have a problem. If you suspect that you are hoarding and would like help, it’s probably a good idea to seek the help of a mental health professional or a social services agency that can help in the evaluation of your apartment and the clean-up, if necessary.
Somewhat separate from that consideration, if you are looking to keep your place in the short term, “A lawyer may be able to challenge the Pullman case on procedural grounds, if you have not been given the proper opportunity to be heard,” Wagner says.
Also, if you believe that the motivation for the case is discrimination against you on the basis of some legally protected status, that could also be raised in court, he adds.
New York City real estate attorney Steven Wagner is a founding partner of Wagner, Berkow, & Brandt, with more than 30 years of experience representing co-ops, condos, as well as individual owners and shareholders. To submit a question for this column, click here. To arrange a free 15-minute telephone consultation, send Steve an email or call 646-780-7272.