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Laws vs. Bylaws Understanding the Similarities & Differences

Co-op and condo living is subject to lots of rules—some of which come directly from state laws, some from the building or association’s own bylaws, and some from its house rules. Every state has statutes that govern the operation of residential communities; every community also has its own set of governing documents, which are almost universally subject to those state laws—and sometimes go even further than state regulations in delineating what owners and shareholders can and can’t do on the property. 

These various laws, bylaws, and rules govern everything from pet ownership to leasing and subletting of individual units, and even to who may reside in an apartment. But can a community’s rules conflict with state statutes? And what happens if they do?

Governing Documents

“As a rule, the law wins; the bylaws lose,” says Richard Brooks, a partner with Marcus, Errico, Emmer, & Brooks, a law firm located in Braintree, Massachusetts.  “You can’t make your own rules [that] stand in opposition to state laws.  It’s like states’ laws versus federal laws; the federal statute rules. There’s a pecking order.” 

“Many condos have provisions about pets or pot smoking in your unit,” explains Brooks. “They are in the bylaws passed by the community. But you have other laws, like federal laws that say you can only smoke marijuana for medical purposes. That has to be permitted, despite the bylaw prohibition. The same concept governs emotional support animals. Federal and state laws say you must permit them, even if you have a no-pet policy.”

According to Dennis Greenstein, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw, a national law firm with offices in Boston, “The governing documents of cooperative corporations—which are their certificates of incorporation, bylaws, proprietary leases, and house rules—and condominiums—which are their declarations and bylaws, and rules and regulations—must comply with the applicable laws governing them. And unless restricted by laws or the governing documents, they can be more stringent than such laws. 

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