Buried in a Condominium Unit: Clutter Gone Wild

Buried in a Condominium Unit: Clutter Gone Wild

Hoarding is a topic that has hit the mainstream. A&E has a television show called, "Hoarders." TLC has a television show titled, "Hoarding: Buried Alive." The Animal Planet has a television show titled, "Confessions: Animal Hoarding." A&E describes each episode of its show as providing a "look inside the lives of two different people whose inability to part with their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of a personal crisis."

As the titles of these television shows indicate, a hoarder collects personal property - sometimes including animals - to the point where his or her home becomes uninhabitable or severely compromised in terms of sanitation and safety. Hoarders typically keep things that have minimal or no value. Hoarders are unable to throw items away. A hoarder's home may be so filled with "stuff" that the hoarder has what could be described as goat paths running through the piles of their collections. Or things may be so bad, that there aren't even goat paths. There are cases of hoarders who have filled their homes so full that they have resorted to sleeping in their cars. Hoarding goes far beyond mere clutter or untidiness.

Hoarding is considered a manifestation of a mental illness. Mental health professionals believe that hoarding is associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD). The International OCD Hoarding Center states that hoarding is a complex disorder. There is a recommendation in the Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder section of the DSM-IV at p. 671 that states, "A diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder should be considered especially when hoarding is extreme (e.g., accumulated stacks of worthless objects present a fire hazard and make it difficult for others to walk through the house)."

Hoarding is particularly problematic when a hoarder collects living animals. Animal hoarders typically inflict great suffering upon the animals in their "care." An animal hoarder often believes that he or she is rescuing the animals, but then fails to adequately care for the animals. It has become too common for the local news to report about a home being raided containing dozens of animals, living and dead, with many of the living animals in dire condition. Often the homes of animal hoarders are filled with animal urine, feces and  dead animals. In some cases, the homes are condemned and torn down due to the contamination and filth caused by the animal hoarding.

While most hoarding cases appear to involve single-family detached homes, hoarding can also occur in a residential condominium unit. The proximity of units to each other and the communal nature of a residential condominium will exacerbate the problems created when unit resident hoards. Piles of trash and debris become odiferous. The project's HVAC can spread noxious odors to nearby units. The odors can seep out under the unit's door(s) and permeate common area hallways and even outdoor areas.

Dealing with a hoarder is difficult at best. Many hoarders seem to be oblivious to the conditions of their home and will deny that there is a problem. They will deny the existence of odors created by the hoarding. Animal hoarders will even deny the existing of dead animals despite the animal corpses in their home. A condominium association faced with a hoarder will likely need to pursue a court action or enlist the assistance of a governmental agency in order to resolve the situation. An association board should not expect voluntary rational behavior from a resident who is a hoarder.

The case of 4215 Harding Road Homeowners' Association v. Harris [2011 Tenn. App. LEXIS 188 (April 15, 2011) enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law] illustrates one possible course of action to use in dealing with a hoarder. The association and its manager were able to show the effort and time that they had expended in trying to resolve a hoarding situation with a unit owner. The court noted the compassion and generosity that the association and its manger had displayed in addressing the hoarder's situation. The association and its manager had aided the resident in cleaning up her unit and restoring it to a sanitary and habitable condition. The resident's hoarding continued and the unit fell back into its state of filth. The association also documented the effect that the hoarding had on other residents in the project. The odor from the hoarder's unit was described as noxious and offensive and affected the hallway and other units which shared an air stack with this unit.

After the association and its manager tried to resolve this situation in a manner that would have allowed the unit owner to stay in her unit, the unit owner began disrupting the manager and interfering with her duties. The defendant began sitting in the lobby of the building wearing a t-shirt with the words "I will not cease and desist" written on it and stopping residents in the lobby to complain about the board's actins. Other residents complained that the defendant was harassing them and expressed concern that she was dangerous.

The unit owner's disruptive conduct and her inability to stop hoarding ultimately led to the association filing a lawsuit wherein it requested that the unit be sold at judicial sale and that it be awarded its attorney's fees. This remedy was possible because the project's master deed provided that the use, maintenance and operation of common elements "shall not be obstructed, damaged or unreasonably interfered with by a Unit Owner." The bylaws contained a provision which prevented unlawful noxious or offensive activities. Each unit owner was also required to maintain his or her unit in good condition and in good order and repair. Another bylaws provision required that unit owners keep trash, garbage and other waste in sanitary containers and dispose of the trash, garbage and other waste in a sanitary manner. An association rule required that the residents not cause or permit unreasonable disturbances to others.

The trial court found that the defendant had violated the master deed and the bylaws. The master deed allowed the judicial sale of the defendant's unit as a remedy for her violations of the master deed and bylaws. The trial court's holding was affirmed on appeal. The court noted the unit owner's continual denial that any odor existed, the association's repeated and generous efforts over more than a year to help remedy the problem, the defendant's continuing failure to remedy the situation, and the gravity of the nuisance created by the defendant and its impact on the other residents.  The court found no reason no reason to disturb the trial court's order of the judicial sale as the remedy was expressly provided in the master deed. The court stated that and under the unique circumstances of this case, a judicial sale was the only remedy that would cure the problem created by the defendant. The court also affirmed the award of $116, 037.77 in attorney's fees to the association.

In some situations an association may be able to enlist the assistance of a social worker employed by a local governmental agency or a fire marshal or code enforcement officers. A hoarding situation in a condominium unit was resolved in this manner in the case of Crosson v. County of Arlington Manager [2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98243 (E.D. Va. June 22, 2006) enhanced version, aff'd sub nom. Shipkovitz v. Hughes, 250 Fed. Appx. 542, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 24835 (4th Cir. 2007) enhanced version / unenhanced version].  After a deputy fire marshal and code enforcement officers determined that the accumulation of the personal property was a fire hazard and that the unit was uninhabitable, evacuation and fire hazard notices were posted on the unit's front door. The condominium's management company changed the locks on the condominium to ensure that no one would enter the unit until the violations were remedied and the unit was declared habitable.

It should be anticipated that other condominium associations will face this situation. This is a difficult situation as the resident who is a hoarder may appear to function as a rational person in other areas of his or her life. The hoarder, however, often denies the problem despite the blatant obviousness of the filth and debris. In this situation, the only clear solution as the Harris court indicated is to remove the resident from his or her unit through some technique such as the forced sale or the intervention of a governmental agency or officials. Due to the communal nature of life in a condominium project, a court should not hesitate to grant such a drastic remedy, particularly where the association has undertaken extreme measures to both document the nuisance caused by the hoarding and aid the unit resident in cleaning up his or her unit.

It is unclear whether hoarding can be cured. Obsessive compulsive disorders are treated with antidepressants. Compulsive hoarding is also treated with psychotherapy. An association faced with a hoarder will need to take action to address the situation. If a voluntary agreement is reached with the resident, the association may want to require quarterly or perhaps even monthly inspections of the unit with remedies detailed in the agreement should the resident return to hoarding.

The International OCD Hoarding Center is a source of information on hoarding. Its website is at www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding. The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium can be found at www.tufts.edu/vet/hoarding. With respect to animal hoarding, experts believe that the recidivism rate is close to 100%. Judges handling these cases should routinely issue orders restricting the hoarder from owning animals in the future. With respect to sentencing options in animal hoarding cases, the Humane Society of the United States has recommended that convicted animal hoarders be sentenced to mandatory psychological evaluation and treatment and that they be restricted to owning a small number of animals. The HSUS considers two animals to be a reasonable number of animals.  

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  • 11-10-2011

This article was very informative and thought provoking. Compulsive hoarding is a serious health issue but when it involves animals and escalates into animal abuse, I believe it should be prosecuted.