The Real Deal New York

Tenants Learn How to “Pullmanize” a Bad Neighbor

September 01, 2003
By The Real Deal

By the standards of any co-op board in New York, David Pullman would likely have been judged a bad neighbor.

In the nine months after he moved into a co-op at 40 West 67th Street, the 41-year-old bond salesman allegedly made noise complaints against his upstairs neighbor about his TV and bookbinding operation (the 70-year-old retired college professor neighbor had neither of these), got into a physical confrontation with the retiree, launched four lawsuits against the board and tenants in his building, and wrote 15 letters in one month claiming sexual affairs andécorruption on the part of building residents, among other issues.

In the watershed legal case that followed Pullman getting voted out of his co-op, a state appeals court ruled that boards can evict tenants for objectionable conduct without first taking the matter to court. The court ruled that co-op boards are akin to boards of corporations, and can get rid of tenants as part of pursuing the “best interests” of the corporation.

So what legal developments are likely to come next, and how are boards going to “Pullmanize” (yes, it s a verb now) obnoxious and unruly residents in the future?

John T. Van Der Tuin, the lawyer who was responsible for the Pullman decision, said he expects a few boards will likely wind up being overzealous in pursuing undesirable tenants in the future.

“I think a few boards will abuse it,” he said. “They will likely be slapped down by the courts and a stasis will eventually be reached.”

Van Der Tuin was part of a panel discussion on the Pullman case held by the Council of New York Cooperatives last month. Incidentally, the same night, a law firm across town was holding a party to celebrate a different legal victory over Pullman. Pullman has long claimed he was the creator of so-called Bowie bonds, in which entertainers like the rock singer David Bowie sell bonds backed by their song royalties. The New York State Supreme Court ruled it was the Rascoff/Zysblat Organization which actually developed the product, while a company Pullman worked for was only the marketing agent for the bonds.

As far as the implications of the co-op case, one lawyer on the panel said it is likely that, during the next two or three cases, the courts will have to look at how to resolve instances when boards and ousted tenants differ over the facts of the case. Pullman didn t argue the facts that he wrote 15 letters in one month, for example, or that he filed four lawsuits against board members.

“How the court deals with factual issues is going to be the big question,” said Marc Luxemburg, president of CNYC.

Van Der Tuin had practical advice for boards on how to go about removing undesirable tenants. Language in the court decision is unclear on whether getting rid of tenants requires a shareholder vote, or a simple vote of the board.

“I think the court may have [inadvertently] fudged that one,” said Andrew Brucker, a partner at Schechter & Brucker, on the haziness of the ruling.

Brucker and Van Der Tuin both said they think a vote of the board is enough to get rid of a tenant.

But only getting a simple majority of the board, rather than a supermajority, would make it “a tough battle” in court, Van Der Tuin said. Both also said that a shareholder vote makes more sense in a smaller co-op (Pullman s building had 32 units), rather than a large building, where all the tenants might not be aware of the problem posed by a particular tenant.

Van Der Tuin said a notice to a tenant to stop objectionable behavior, called a “conduct continue after” notice, might or might not be the right step depending on the specifics of the tenant s proprietary lease in the case. It s also important to keep a careful log of objectionable behavior.

Van Der Tuin also noted that there might be differences in what is acceptable to a co-op depending on the particular community where it is located. “Guitar playing or the smell of paint might be more acceptable on the Lower East Side than the Upper East Side,” he said.

Van Der Tuin and the other lawyers emphasized throughout that a co-op board should only try to get rid of tenants in extreme circumstances where a tenant s unpleasantness makes life in a building “unbearable.”

“If the court decision ends up sanding a little off the edges, that s a good thing,” Van Der Tuin said. “It would be bad for co-ops if it was widespread. It should only be saved for the most egregious circumstances and as a last resort, not for the sort of New York jerk in your apartment building.”

Meanwhile, Pullman, despite two years of legal proceedings, is still living in the West 67th Street apartment, though it is in the process of being sold by lawyers. Van Der Tuin said a lien had to be placed on the apartment for unpaid attorney s fees. Lawyers also had to get a use of occupancy order for Pullman to pay maintenance costs.

Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of CNYC, said the case illustrates the need to be completely thorough in looking at prospective tenants. “This is a wakeup call to do a better job in the admissions process,” she said.

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