In Gold Coast condo war, judge orders resident who sued board to pay $100,000
Chicago Tribune
Steve Schmadeke  Contact Reporter
05 August 2017

A retired public relations executive who sued his Gold Coast condominium board over a $1,000 fine for alleged obnoxious behavior has been hit with an even stiffer penalty—nearly $100,000—by the judge handling the case.

Cook County judge presiding over the case ordered him and his attorney to cover the condo board's $111,000 legal tab

In recent days, the Cook County judge presiding over the case ultimately decided that Brian Connolly's lawsuit was "meritless" and "frivolous" and only meant to "harass" and ordered him and his attorney to cover the condo board's $111,000 legal tab.

The whopping judgment, which Connolly's attorney said sets a "dangerous precedent," came days after the Tribune chronicled the dysfunction that has plagued the building association's board in recent years. Things seemingly spiraled starting in 2011, when a former board president allegedly assaulted a former board member during a meeting at the high-rise in the 100 block of East Chestnut Street. Authorities were called and charges were filed, only for prosecutors to drop the misdemeanor case.

Connolly's grounds for suit

Connolly, who has twice been kicked off the condo association board, sued in 2013 after he was fined $1,000 for "creating an uncomfortable and hostile environment" over what he thought were violations of building rules, including confronting a boy walking his bike through the lobby, a woman walking her dog through the lobby and people using glass containers by the pool, according to a violation letter from the association's board.

He sought punitive damages against the board members personally and asked that the board be ordered to hire a pool attendant and to open the building to an inspection of all construction done in the last decade. Connolly paid the $1,000 fine after his lawsuit was filed; he explained that he didn't want to incur an added penalty by the board if he didn't pay, he said. He now faces a penalty 100 times greater.

Brian Connolly, who has been in disputes with his condo board, says he loves living in the Gold Coast building, with its prime location and views, and that he isn’t going anywhere. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Cook County Judge Kathleen Pantle, who tossed the lawsuit earlier this year, wrote in a 10-page opinion awarding attorney's fees to the association's legal counsel that Connolly's claims were "meritless" and his lawsuit "should never have been brought in the first instance."

filed frivolous pleadings to harass (the) defendants

"Connolly did not come to the courthouse to achieve a peaceful resolution for the disputes he had with the Association but instead filed frivolous pleadings to harass (the) defendants," Pantle wrote. She ordered Connolly and his attorney Norman Lerum to pay a total of $111,000, with the bulk of the fees to be paid by Connolly.

Connolly and Lerum say they will appeal the ruling

Connolly and Lerum say they will appeal the ruling. Lerum, who has practiced law for nearly 40 years, said he has never been sanctioned before and said Pantle's decision sets a "dangerous precedent" for those asserting their free speech rights.

"In all due respect to the court, Judge Pantle's ruling is incorrect as a matter of law," he said in an email. "As a matter of public policy, the courts are to be open and receptive to First Amendment issues, and not punish those who raise them. This ruling is contrary to existing law and sets a dangerous precedent."

Anthony Milazzo, president of the condo association at 111 E. Chestnut St. in Chicago and owner of a condo there, also has a home in St. Charles. He expects to have his first child this summer and plans to step down from the association when his term ends next spring. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

To Connolly, the fines were an attempt by the board to exact revenge for his public criticism of their decisions, and the judge's ruling only enhances the chilling effect on his free speech rights. He writes a blog that has detailed some of the strife in the building.

The board previously settled a defamation lawsuit Connolly brought over a letter written by the board president

The board previously settled a defamation lawsuit Connolly brought over a letter written by the board president, signed by three board members and sent to residents that called Connolly "unfit to serve on our board."

"This case is about fundamental First Amendment rights and due process," said Connolly, a retired PR executive. "The courts should be open and protective of claims and arguments. Instead, Judge Pantle is closing the courthouse door and punishing condominium unit owners who dare disagree with bully boards that work to suppress contrary opinion."

He previously told the Tribune that he feared he would lose his one-bedroom condo if the judge agreed to sanction him.

But board president Tony Milazzo, who has frequently sparred with Connolly, cheered the judge's decision.

"It vindicates our position that those who initiate frivolous and malicious litigation against others with the intent of harassing them or extracting unjustified settlement money should be held accountable," he said in an email.

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