How Defamation Laws Impact Condo/HOA Management
Members of Condominium, HOA and Cooperative Boards, as well as Property Managers often find themselves the subjects of verbal and written attacks from unit owners.
Understandably upset, they frequently seek legal advice on whether they can sue unit owners for slander or libel, types of defamation. A recent Appellate Court decision is illustrative of two important lessons for Boards and Property Managers:
- Be careful what you say; and
- Most speech by unit owners, no matter how inflammatory is not likely to give rise to a case of defamation.
In North Shore Towers Apts. Inc. v. Kozminsky (2d Dep’t 2023), the Plaintiffs were the general manager and superintendent of a residential Cooperative. The Defendant made posts on a social networking website that included excerpts from a previous lawsuit and urged residents to vote for board members that would remove the Plaintiffs from their management positions.
In evaluating whether the posts were defamatory, the Court analyzed Section 74 of the Civil Rights Law which states “a civil action cannot be maintained against a person, firm or corporation, for the publication of a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding, legislative proceeding, or other official proceeding.”
The posts by Defendant of excerpts of statements made by the Plaintiffs in the previous lawsuit were held to be protected under Civil Rights Law Section 74 and thus, not defamatory. The lesson here is, Boards and Property Managers must be precise in their language. What they say in meetings, even if quoted out of context, can be used by unit owners and will not likely be actionable.
The Court also evaluated other statements made by unit owners. The Court explained that comments, such as rhetorical hyperbole, words that do not have a precise meaning and where words are not capable of being proven true or false are such that a reasonable reader would conclude that they are opinions, rather than facts about the Plaintiffs. Here, the lesson is that to be considered defamatory, a unit owner’s statement about the Board or Property Manager must be capable of being proven true or false.