“I’m driving to your office and I am going to kill you.”
That was the call which confronted one strata manager. It came from an owner of a lot in a complex which he managed.
Understandably, the manager was distressed and did not know what to do.
In the event, he was forced to act like a mediator and uncover what was going on. As things turned out, the strata scheme had raised a huge special levy. The owner was unable to deal with this new burden.
Confronted with the situation, the strata manager had to engage with the strata committee to see whether the owner could be alleviated of part of all of the onus associated with the new levy.
The above case, related to Sourceable by Michael Pobi, strata lawyer and principal of Sydney based strata law firm Pobi Lawyers, underscores challenges which strata managers can encounter with unacceptable conduct by one or more residents within strata arrangements.
At times, when you have tens or hundreds of unrelated people living in the one complex, there will be problematic behaviour from one or more of them. This could be directed either toward one or more other residents or toward the strata manager themselves. The conduct could include being unduly disruptive (such as by playing persistent loud music), conducting illegal activities (such as using or selling illicit drugs), bullying, physical or verbal abuse, or threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour.
In one recent case in Brisbane, a strata manager secured a stop bullying order against the chairman of a body corporate executive committee in the Fair Work Commission. This included that he cease emailing her out of hours and cease making derogatory and insulting comments about her.
The manager in question alleges she was sent up to seven emails per day querying where she was, what had been done and threatening to either reduce her company’s remuneration for strata services or terminate the contract. (In fairness, it should be noted that the Commission did acknowledge serious issues with how the strata manager was discharging her duties.)
This raises questions about situations which strata managers can be faced with and how they can respond.
According to Pobi, strata managers can face situations ranging from noise disputes, pet disputes, alleged breaches of bylaws (such as parking of vehicles on common property in front of garages, blocking other residents and blocking common property driveways) and behaviour such as swearing and bullying on common property. Those involved can be single residents or groups of residents.
“Usually there is one resident in a strata building who gains the support of another group of residents to cause trouble in the building,” Pobi said.
“Strata managers often experience abusive and harassing emails from a minority of residents in the building along with harassing telephone calls.”
Erik Adriaanse, former chief executive officer of Strata Community Association, said unsatisfactory behaviour could take many forms. At the extreme end, you could have one or more residents playing persistent loud music without regard for those in neighbouring units or using their premises for illegal activities. On the other hand, people can become annoyed at relatively insignificant matters and can become frustrated with the strata manager when their complaints to the body corporate executive committee are ignored.
As mentioned above, parties involved can include two or more individual residents or groups of residents or one or more residents against the strata manger. Adriaanse says the latter often arises when residents feel the strata manager is not adequately discharging his or her duties. Finally, there can be dysfunction within the executive committee itself.
In many cases, Adriaanse says frustration with strata mangers reflects a misconception that he or she is responsible for resolving disputes. This, he says, is wrong. Whilst strata managers can provide advice, responsibility for dispute resolution rests with the strata executive committee.
In addition, people can misunderstand what strata managers can do about repairs and maintenance on common property. Whilst strata managers can generally pay bills up to a certain amount, works generally need to be cleared by the executive committee. Strata managers cannot simply fix a tap because a singular resident complains.
Finally, Adriaanse says, strata managers are not lawyers nor accountants. Occasionally, residents will quote sections of legislation and be surprised when the strata manager cannot match them for legal knowledge. Strata managers, he says, are not lawyers and are not engaged to provide expert legal opinion. Rather, each strata plan should have a strata lawyer to advise them on legal matters.
Similarly, whilst strata managers prepare financial statements in conjunction with qualified accountants, they are not themselves accountants.
“They can advise – they can act in an advisory capacity to assist the executive committee to do what they need to do,” Adriaanse said, asked about what strata managers can do to resolve disputes.
“People forget that. They point to the strata manager and say why aren’t they doing something – they’ve done nothing.
“The strata manager can’t do anything without the authority of the executive committee.”
What can strata managers do?
According to Pobi, the rights and responsibilities of a strata manager are governed by their strata management agency agreement with the owners corporation and NSW legislation (in NSW). In New South Wales, relevant laws include (but are not limited to) the Strata Schemes Management Act 2015, the Property, Stock and Business Agents Act 2002 and the regulations which correspond to that Act.
Those regulations, he explains, contain general and specific rules of conduct applying to strata and community title managers – things such as honesty, fairness and professionalism, confidentiality and acting in the best interests of the owners corporation.
Applying this to a bullying situation, Pobi says strata managers must extend courtesy to all owners irrespective of the conduct of that owner. Thus there is little they can actually do directly about abusive behaviour other than to seek assistance from the strata committee and possibly a strata lawyer. Alternatively, where they do have legitimate concerns about their safety, they can contact the police and apply for an apprehended violence order.
At a broader level, Pobi says strata managers should listen to all sides and act as a neutral player when disputes between residents arise. They should also encourage strata committees to be proactive and to communicate expectations regarding resident behaviour.
On the latter point, he says this could encompass creating customised by-laws which regulate and deal with resident behaviour within a particular strata scheme.
Adriaanse offers a different perspective.
Where one or more residents bullying another/others, he says this should be directed back to the executive committee. The executive committee, Adriaanse reiterates, is responsible for resolving disputes. This is not the strata manager’s job.
Where strata managers themselves are subject to abuse, Adriaanse says this should be directed back to the executive committee. Where the committee either does nothing or sides with the resident, strata managers should seek their own legal advice and have their lawyers write to the problem resident.
Where there are issues between the strata manager and the executive committee, Adriaanse says they can be difficult for the strata manager to resolve through legal means unless they are prepared to lose the appointment. He advises managers first to engage in open dialogue with the committee. Often, this can reveal the causes of underlying grievances, such as poor communication from the manager themselves.
Speaking of his own experience, meanwhile, Adriaanse says he would speak to the new committee about the need to work together and to establish a clear direction upon commencing any new appointment for a new scheme.
He says issues within strata arrangements are not uncommon.
“Quite often, strata arrangements are not happy places. With people sharing common areas, it is often difficult to keep everybody happy about what sort of plants should be there or the lawns being mowed,” he said.
“Living in strata is quite often not cut out to be what they think it is. Where you sell your home and go into a unit – all of the sudden, you are sharing stuff with many people. That leads to frustration and anger.
“That’s when bullying can occur.”