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Defamation of character entails public perception

A person must be held up to hatred, contempt and ridicule within the community to stand a chance in a lawsuit.

June 04, 2006|Stephen Glassman and Donie Vanitzian | Special to The Times

Question: I put up with a lot of bullying from my San Fernando Valley's condo association board. I have never been late with my monthly assessments. They are paid no later than the 15th of the month and would be delinquent on the 16th.

Yet the board president harasses me every month. He addressed a letter to me, and copied it to all the homeowners, that said, "You were asked very nicely to pay your dues no later than the 5th of the month because I was going out of town. I called you twice on the 5th and you told me to stop harassing you and hung up on me twice. You seem to take great pleasure in always being the last person to put your association check in. I do not care if you have a personal grievance with me but I do take umbrage to the fact that your actions show that you disrespect everyone in this association who play by the rules. Your attitude and your actions are childish and rude."

Can I sue him and the board for defamation?

Answer: The association's board of directors has a fiduciary duty to the titleholders and association to act in a manner not only befitting their positions as directors, but also so as not to subject the association to risk and liability.

Under the Davis-Stirling Act, "assessments become delinquent 15 days after they are due, unless the governing documents provide for a longer time." A board director cannot unilaterally change the law or the covenants, conditions and restrictions; and part of the board's duty is to implement the rules fairly toward all owners.

Defamation requires that the party who is defamed be held up to hatred, contempt and ridicule within the community. Pay close attention to how other owners within your community are now reacting toward you, and if anything has been said about the facts contained in that letter. If the board president's letter resulted in your being ostracized and ridiculed by the owners, then you may have been defamed.

Consult with an attorney who specializes in this area of law before filing suit.

In this circumstance, if a lawsuit were filed, you might consider suing the board president in his individual capacity, to prevent the association's insurance coverage from paying for his defense.

However, even if the entire board is sued, the "intentional" act you've described may result in the association's insurance company reserving its right to be reimbursed what it spends in defending either the board president or the board as a whole.

Directors cannot merely turn a blind eye as if nothing happened, or pretend they did not know of the president's actions. Other directors could take charge and rectify the situation on their own, thus likely minimizing their risk of liability.

One starting point in resolving this situation would be to ask your board of directors for a show of good faith by requesting an apology be addressed to you and distributed to all the owners. If that apology is not forthcoming or the board refuses to act, then you can continue looking into litigation.

Send questions to P.O. Box 11843, Marina del Rey, CA 90295 or e-mail noexit@mindspring .com.

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