Sex Offenders in Condominiums
Does a condominium association have a duty to warn unit owners of a resident with a dangerous past? Judge Gregg J. Pasquale of the Massachusetts Superior Courts just last week issued a decision that certainly hinted at such a duty. The court case is between the estate of a unit owner that was killed in 2012 by a Level 3 sex offender, the condominium association, and the attacker’s brother, the unit owner.
Judge Pasquale did not issue a full decision on such a controversial Summary Judgment Motion, however, counsel for the Plaintiff, the estate of the murdered unit owner, stated to the press that the Plaintiff was heartened that the Judge implicitly endorsed the imposition of a duty on the condominium to warn unit owners of someone with a dangerous past in their midst. The condominium association moved for Summary Judgment and the estate of the murdered unit owner opposed. By the Judge denying the condominium’s Motion for Summary Judgment and allowing the case to proceed to Trial, there is an implicit suggestion that condominium associations may have had some duty to warn.
According to the lawsuit, in 2012 John Dacey Looney, a tenant in the Cape Code condominium assaulted Richard Steele and a female companion with a baseball bat, killing Steele. Looney was a registered Level 3 Sex Offender. He was convicted in 1992 for an attempted rape, in which he stabbed the victim in the arm, and was also on probation for another attempted rape in the mid-1980’s at the time of the early 90’s incident. Looney, who is alleged to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, moved into the condominium unit owned by his brother in 2005.
It is alleged that the condominium association distributed letters to all the residents in December 2005 and January 2006, advising of Looney’s arrival and of his sex offender status. The crux of the lawsuit from the estate of the deceased victim is that not only did the condominium association discontinue the notifications, but it actively sought to quiet the matter to protect real estate values. Allegedly, the Yarmouth Police Department’s requests to post community notices were refused by the association. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, when the representative from the association was asked what harm would have come from continuing to alert the community to Looney’s status, the individual cited the negative impact on real estate values. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which a Board would not openly cooperate with the local authorities, however, it is unknown if the association discussed this with counsel.
While the lawsuit is far from over, this is an issue that every condominium association in Massachusetts and Rhode Island needs to think about. The issue is more complex than simply banning sex offenders from the building or being careful and always notifying residents of registered sex offenders and those with violent pasts. An association runs a risk of discriminating against an individual with a mental illness and violated both state and federal law. Being a registered sex offender is a not a protected class in terms of discrimination laws, however having a diagnosed mental illness is. In this case Looney was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Furthermore, it was not long ago when a South Carolina man was awarded $890,000 in damages when his condominium association started posting signs and fliers implying that he was a registered sex offender. The problem was that the fliers were of a different, although similar looking individual with the same name. The resident was humiliated, and alleged in the defamation lawsuit that the acts of the association were done maliciously.
In dealing with such a complicated issue, any hard line approach by a Board that ignores the complicated factors that are unique to a specific community could result in an enormous exposure to liability. Make the right call to a GSL attorney before your association becomes the subject of the next breaking development in the law.Read More