By Sarah Trefethen
It’s just a regular Wednesday morning, but Steven Sladkus’ phone is ringing even more than usual.
“I’m always busy, but I think it’s the phase of the moon or something,” he said. “All of the crazies are coming out of the woodwork.”
Sladkus, a partner in the law firm of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, works with a team that serves as legal counsel to co-op and condominium boards across the city.
Whenever one of the all-volunteer boards is faced with problem that could lead to legal action — be it a new building delivered with a leaking roof, or neighbors who just can’t get along — Sladkus gets a call.
Condos are essentially private homes stacked one on top of the other, Sladkus points out, and that kind of proximity of personal property — and personal lives — is fertile ground for conflict.
“With noise complaints, it’s sometimes hard-of-hearing elderly people who play their TVs too loudly, which is a touchy subject,” he said. “And I have people who love to not put adequate carpeting in the apartment and trounce around in high heels and annoy their neighbors.”
Then there’s the building grappling with the problem of residents who engage in “extraordinarily loud sex.”
“I personally have not heard it, but I’m very inclined to go check it out next time there’s a problem,” Sladkus said.
Behavior in common areas can also lead to litigation. Streakers — people who disrobe before running through their buildings — sometimes end up in court, Sladkus said. And he described one downtown condo board currently considering action against a resident who has taken to walking the halls of his building — sword strapped to his back — banging on his neighbors’ doors with a hammer.
This lawyer has a lot of stories.
“As my wife says, I’m so much fun at cocktail parties,” he said.
There are, of course, less quirky cases, including a large number of construction-defect lawsuits in the aftermath of the construction boom.
Sladkus is the attorney for the residents of One Grand Army Plaza, who for years have been fighting the building’s developers to address what they claim was shoddy construction. According to Sladkus, at least on engineer has determined the entire roof needs to be replaced.
“I’ve got one guy in the penthouse who’s on the verge of tears every time we talk to him,” the attorney said.
Sladkus lives on the Upper East Side with Stephanie, his wife of nearly 14 years, and their two school-aged daughters. He works out daily at a gym, and is an avid tennis player and trap shooter.
His father is a respected divorce attorney, but the younger Sladkus initially wanted to study medicine, he said, and took all the pre-med classes at Brandeis University before discovering that he faints at the sight of blood.
He studied Law at Brooklyn Law School and went on to earn a Masters of Law degree in taxation from New York University. He started out working in his father’s firm on matrimonial cases, and then moved on to general litigation.
His first taste of the co-op and condo world was a discrimination suit filed by a co-op superintendent who claimed he had been fired unfairly. “I was very intrigued” by the worlds of building governance, he said, and the insights they offered into the workings of New York life.
Sladkus encourages his clients to try to resolve their buildings’ troubles outside the courtroom if they can, saving on time and expense. But sometimes, nicely talking things through just doesn’t work.
In one legal battle currently playing itself in court, Sladkus is representing the board of 80 John Street, where a Rusian woman who neighbors say has been illegially renting out her apartment like a hotel, countersued both the board and Sladkus, claiming that the charges were the result of an anti-Russian bias on the part of the building’s majority Polish staff.
Sladkus called the exchange of lawsuits “insane.”
“While I litigate by trade, litigation should be everyone’s last resort,” he said.