Photo: Neil Brooks with dog Sam (photo supplied and used with permission)
By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
I recently heard from a former association-governed community homeowner in Colorado, Neil Brooks. Unfortunately, Neil was recently diagnosed with an incurable type of heart failure, as well as an untreatable form of pulmonary hypertension. “There are no (proven safe and effective) treatments for either the kind of heart failure or the kind of PH I’m diagnosed with,” says Neil.
Some of my readers might recall a previous article I wrote about Neil’s ordeal with his HOA. This seems like a good time to provide an update to that previous post.
Neil’s HOA conflict all started when he ran into difficulty getting his next door neighbor to control his two dogs that, according to documented reports made by Neil, barked incessantly while his neighbors were away from home.
To make a long story short, neither his HOA nor Animal Control would address the problem. The dispute ended up in civil court, with Neil suing his neighbors for causing a nuisance and his HOA for failing to enforce restrictions against nuisances caused by household pets.
The lawsuit with his former neighbors settled out of court. But the lawsuit with the HOA ended badly for Neil and his wife. After extensive legal discovery, a judge dismissed his case and ordered Neil to pay the HOAs legal costs and attorney fees.
I covered the details of that legal dispute here:
Now the follow-up.
During discovery for the dismissed lawsuit, Neil and his wife learned that several HOA board members were rallying with his neighbors, behind their backs, to make life difficult for Neil, in hopes that he would voluntarily move out of the neighborhood.
Essentially, Neil was marginalized and judged to be the “bad guy” by neighbors who knew nothing about him, and, indeed, many of them never even talked to Neil directly.
Unfortunately, what happened after that lawsuit was even worse.
According to Neil, “After Judge Kaup threw out my case, the neighbors began to terrorize me. I filed several police reports.”
Neil says some of his neighbors began to watch and criticize his every move. They engaged in name calling and verbal abuse, to the point that Neil avoided going outside his own home. In one police report, Neil complained that an adversarial neighbor frightened him by deliberately following and tailgating his vehicle.
Still reeling from the dismissal of his lawsuit, Neil desperately wanted to share his side of the HOA story, posting it on his website, as well as several social media outlets. That prompted a few of Neil’s neighbors to deny Neil’s claims as untrue. They, too, filed police reports against Neil, alleging harassment.
None of these police reports filed by Neil or his neighbors resulted criminal charges. The local police considered them civil disputes between neighbors.
Neil says his neighbors basically shunned him, and, he concludes:
There were only two possibilities here:
1) They (the neighbors, the HOA, the Police, Animal Control, and everybody else) believed I am disabled, in pain, with a primary immune dysfunction … and … did nothing, or
2) They didn’t believe I’m disabled, and tore my life apart based on that presumption
Which of these possibilities is okay ?
This has been a seven-year medical nightmare, and it’s far from over. I’m in pretty big trouble, medically, and with no way forward. I moved into that house strong, fit, healthy, and medically stable.
… and then they went “Lord of the Flies” on me. Literally.
Neil’s reference to the literary work of William Golding reflects the social reality of his HOA (and many others, for that matter): conflicts tend to spiral out of control, and a few neighbors often seek to gain power and control over others. In many cases, one or more HOA bullies emerge and prey upon residents they dislike, particularly vulnerable residents with limited capability to defend their rights.
The abusive environment is enabled when bystanders remain silent, often as a matter of their own self-preservation.
At one point, Neil feared for his personal safety, so he purchased a pistol for self defense. However, when a neighbor saw Neil outside in his yard with the firearm, several of his neighborhood adversaries alerted Fort Collins Police Department that they feared Neil was a threat to himself and others. That resulted in a SWAT team surrounding Neil’s home to arrest him on charges that were later dropped.
As explained on Neil’s website:
Fort Collins Police and SWAT team arrested me.
There were probably 20 law enforcement officers, in full riot gear, all pointing guns at me. There was an armored SWAT vehicle in the street, two doors down, and a sniper pointing a rifle at me from across the street.
This is the image that haunts my dreams, awakening me nearly every single night.
They jailed me and charged me with Felony Menacing.
I was given a “Deferred Prosecution” that required – among other things – an evaluation by a forensic psychologist. The psychologist concluded that I …
“responded appropriately to the emotional stress and turmoil created by the ongoing dispute by seeking out mental health counseling and his process of problem resolution was progressive and appropriate to the circumstances. There was no indication that Mr. Brooks responded impulsively or irrationally during the dispute and, while frustrated by the circumstances and outcome of his case, he never verbalized retaliatory or vengeful thoughts against the opposing parties.”
The Court also imposed a Gag Order on me, preventing me from speaking publicly about the case. That Gag Order finally expired, and was dismissed, in September 2014.
So, what else has happened after that traumatic experience?
Neil and his wife were forced to move from their home, which they sold soon thereafter.
The couple now resides in another community. Neil has spent the past few years in declining health, with various health care professionals trying to diagnose and treat his medical condition.
He and his wife, Diana, now own a lovable yellow Labrador Retriever named Sam, a loyal companion that has provided therapeutic benefit and unconditional love for Neil.
Neil enjoys walking with Sam several times per week, although his walks have become shorter in recent months, given the progression of his illness.
In his own words, Neil Brooks reflects on his past experience living in a 50-home HOA in Fort Collins, Colorado:
While I can’t say for sure that the people of [my former HOA neighborhood and the local police department] killed me, they definitely robbed me of the last good years of my life.
Asked what he hopes to gain from sharing his story with others, Neil replies,
The same thing I always hoped for: that raising the profile of my story might help somebody … somewhere … to not have it be their story.
There were a lot of points in my story — as you know — where a different decision could have been made, creating a totally different kind of outcome.
People… need to realize that their ‘seemingly innocuous’ actions can often have devastating consequences.
I truly think that notion gets lost in the fog of ‘maintaining property values’ or the pathological need to control.
How might Neil’s HOA story have led to a happier ending?
Well, for one thing, at least one homeowner could have spoken up in defense of Neil.
At the very least, his next door neighbor and his HOA board members could have agreed to meet and discuss nuisance issues face to face.
HOA board members might have tried to be fair, to have some understanding and compassion.
Neighbors might not have jumped to conclusions about Neil’s health, his disability, his mental state, and his motives.
Mediation scheduled between Neil and his neighbors by City of Fort Collins Neighborhood Services Department might not have been canceled without notice to Neil. At least it might have been rescheduled.
Neil’s attorney might have advised against suing the HOA for not enforcing their restrictions, thereby keeping the dispute strictly between neighbors, and ultimately saving Neil tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
After months of legal discovery, the Judge might have given Neil his day in court, allowing a jury of his peers to decide the HOA case on its merits.
None of those things happened.
But by sharing his experience, Neil hopes that other owners and residents of association-governed, common interest communities can learn from it.
Perhaps others can avoid bitter HOA conflict, and lengthy and expensive legal battles.
Maybe disputes can be nipped in the bud with better communication or early intervention through good-faith mediation.
And hopefully, bystanders will choose to speak up and stand up to an HOA bully.