Confessions of a Co-op/Condo Attorney Taking the Bill of Rights Too Far

Confessions of a Co-op/Condo Attorney

While previous columns focused on numerous outrageous situations that have faced us during our more than 25 years of collective service to our cooperative and condominium clients, one case sticks out in our minds. Incredibly, one case morphed from a simple proprietary lease default action into five federal court lawsuits and an adjudication of contempt of court. As will be seen, while courts tend to bend over backwards to accommodate pro se litigants (those who choose to represent themselves instead of retaining counsel), this pro se litigant took things way too far.

A co-op we represent had a huge problem with shareholder who purchased two non-contiguous apartments from the sponsor on the first and seventh floors of the building. Shortly after purchasing the apartments, Ms. Jones (let’s call her Ms. Jones) began to regularly rent out the apartments on a monthly, weekly and daily basis, in direct violation of the co-op’s rules. Each time a new “guest” appeared the co-op directed our firm to commence an action against Ms. Jones in landlord-tenant court for her blatant violation of her proprietary lease. Unfortunately, every time an action was commenced, the “guest” would leave and the landlord-tenant judges inevitably said there was nothing left to be done.

The co-op resolved to commence an action against Ms. Jones in New York State Supreme Court to preliminarily and permanently enjoin her from renting out her apartments (we’ll call this Action 1). However, after the case was filed, Ms. Jones removed the co-op’s suit to federal court based on her foreign citizenship—literally making a federal case out of a routine lease default action. Dealing with this case in federal court would certainly have been manageable, but what transpired next made our heads spin!

As luck would have it, Ms. Jones’ paramour was a notorious pro se litigant himself who had been barred from filing lawsuits in all 50 states. According to the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Ms. Jones’ boyfriend had filed "literally hundreds of lawsuits, motions and miscellaneous pleadings..." and persistently resorted “to legal processes without regard to the merits of the claims asserted and that he invokes those processes largely to harass persons who have unluckily crossed his path.” Based on these not-so-subtle findings, the Second Circuit entered an order barring the boyfriend from filing anything in any federal court without first obtaining the court’s permission.

Despite the court’s bar, Ms. Jones’s boyfriend assisted Ms. Jones in responding to Action 1 by promptly filing a pro se federal court complaint against the co-op’s building superintendent raising ludicrous—and unsubstantiated—claims of harassment against him (Action 2). Ms. Jones then filed another pro se federal court complaint against the co-op, its board of directors, its managing agent, our firm and several of our partners and other defendants (Action 3). In Action 3, Ms. Jones alleged, among other things, that the co-op and the others engaged in “housing discrimination” based on sex and national origin, legal malpractice, RICO violations and harassment. All told, Actions 2 and 3 named thirteen different defendants and sought well over $30 million in damages. Ms. Jones was permitted to prosecute her cases only because the court had to give her the benefit of the doubt as a pro se litigant (as opposed to strongly scrutinizing a complaint drafted by an attorney).

After arguing with Ms. Jones for over a year, she eventually settled Actions 1, 2 and 3 pursuant to a stipulation of settlement which provided that she was prohibited from having any guests stay in her apartments unless she was physically present with them. However, after all the defense lawyers finished congratulating themselves for settling the case, Ms. Jones (still pro se) moved to vacate the stipulation claiming that she was forcefully and physically coerced by counsel and the judge into signing the settlement papers. To make matters worse, Ms. Jones started renting out her apartments again in direct violation of the settlement. To address Ms. Jones’s continuing antics, the co-op directed our firm to seek to hold Ms. Jones in contempt of court for violating the settlement stipulation.

Again trying to use her pro se status to her advantage, Ms. Jones used every effort conceivable to delay the contempt application. She filed, and the court considered, her numerous frivolous motions and discovery demands to prolong the contempt application as long as possible. After obtaining all of the co-op’s evidence, Ms. Jones told the court that because she was an “international author” and was required to be out-of-town, she was simply unavailable to attend a contempt hearing. After another year of more court conferences, motions and letters to the court, the judge finally determined that additional deference to Ms. Jones as a pro se litigant had to come to a grinding halt. Despite Ms. Jones’s protests, the court scheduled a firm date to hold a contempt hearing.

As the hearing became imminent, Ms. Jones (again, with the able assistance of her boyfriend) commenced two more federal court lawsuits hoping that if she named the judge as a defendant, he would recuse himself. The next suit alleged that the judge and our firm “terrorized” Ms. Jones into executing the settlement (Action 4). The first of the new suits named our firm, individual partners and the judge himself as defendants. The second of the new suits mirrored the claims in Action 4, but added a few more, what appeared to be, randomly-selected defendants (Action 5). Apparently deciding that she failed to request enough money in Actions 1, 2 and 3, Ms. Jones’ artfully crafted complaints in Actions 4 and 5 sought approximately $160 million in damages against a total of 19 defendants. Undeterred by the complaints held against him, the judge refused to recuse himself and held a contempt hearing where he found Ms. Jones in contempt of court and awarded the co-op substantial legal fees.

Three years and countless hours later, our firm’s attorneys (who were appointed by our insurance company) succeeded in having the court bar Ms. Jones from filing any more lawsuits in the United States and dismiss Actions 4 and 5, with prejudice. Thankfully, with a court order and the departure of Ms. Jones’ significant other, we don’t expect to face any more lawsuits by her in the near future. All told, Ms. Jones’ litigation tactics cost the co-op’s insurance carrier and the insurance carriers defending the other defendants about $500,000 in legal fees.

While pro se litigants routinely appear in co-op-related matters, such cases are rarely, if ever, litigated to the extent this illegal sublet case was litigated. Nonetheless, scenarios like this fail to surprise us as New York City cooperative and condominium attorneys.

Jeffrey S. Reich, Esq. and Steven D. Sladkus, Esq. are attorneys at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP on Madison Avenue in New York City.

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