In Stinson v. Mensel, No. M2016-00624-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 12, 2017), a neighborly dispute about chickens turned into a suit and counter-suit for nuisance, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and injunctive relief.
Plaintiffs owned land on which several neighbors had an easement for access to their properties. Defendants, two couples who used the easement to get to their homes, alleged that they had never met plaintiffs until the facts surrounding this case began. In 2008, plaintiff husband “came to believe that [one of defendant couples] had stolen some of his chickens that wandered over” to defendants’ property. Plaintiffs left a note in defendants’ mailbox accusing them of stealing the chickens, and plaintiffs subsequently began harassing defendants. Plaintiffs would put brush and fence posts on the easement, blocking passage on the easement. Plaintiffs dug a ditch on the easement which subsequently caused excessive erosion. Plaintiffs screamed at defendants, followed one defendant with a rock, erected a sign telling one couple to stay off plaintiffs’ side of the easement, and prevented defendants from performing maintenance on the easement. Ultimately, plaintiffs filed this suit, claiming that defendants “had caused the easement to be graded and bulldozed, encroached onto [plaintiffs’] property, and made verbal threats and used intimidation” against plaintiffs.
Defendants filed a counter-complaint, and the trial court ultimately dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims and found that plaintiffs were liable to defendants for nuisance, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Further, the trial court “enjoined [plaintiffs] from forever using, driving on, damaging, or interfering with [the easement], or the maintenance of the same.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the nuisance finding, but reversed on the invasion of privacy and emotional distress claims, and it modified the injunction against plaintiffs.
As to nuisance, the Court noted that “[a] nuisance has been defined as anything which annoys or disturbs the free use of one’s property, or which renders its ordinary use or physical occupation uncomfortable.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). The Court listed the various ways plaintiffs had engaged in “offensive behavior,” and held that “this conduct rises to the level of a nuisance.” Thus, the trial court’s ruling against plaintiffs on the nuisance claim was affirmed.
Regarding invasion of privacy, the Court quoted extensively from the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that “[t]he defendant is subject to liability under the rule stated in this section only when he has intruded into a private place, or has otherwise invaded a private seclusion that the plaintiff has thrown about his person or affairs.” In this case, the Court reasoned:
The activity described by the trial court cannot be deemed to be the basis for a claim of invasion of privacy. An essential element of an invasion of privacy claim is that the offender must have intruded upon the solitude or seclusion of another. [Defendants] cannot have reasonably expected solitude or seclusion on the land encompassing the Easement that they shared with [plaintiffs] and others, nor could they expect solitude or seclusion with respect to a neighbor leaving a note, as offensive as it may have been to them, in their mailbox. Even with respect to the incidents where [defendant] allegedly screamed and used profanity on the [defendants’] property, the testimony in the record does not indicate that the [defendants] had secluded themselves in a private place, as contemplated by the Restatement.
Because this element was not satisfied, the finding that plaintiffs committed invasion of privacy was overturned.
The Court next analyzed the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. To succeed on this claim, “a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was either intentional or reckless, was so outrageous that it is not tolerated by a civilized society, and caused a serious mental injury to plaintiff.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). While the Court of Appeals did not express an opinion as to whether the first two elements had been met, it found that the judgment must be overturned because the third element had not been proven. The Court found that defendants did not present proof of any serious emotional injury, and that “[t]here was very little consideration given to any actual mental injury in this case by either the parties or the trial court.” The Court noted that “only a handful of questions during the two day trial of this matter related to the mental impact that this ordeal has had on the [defendants],” and that the testimony that was presented “amounted to [defendants’] general fear of engaging with [plaintiffs] and the precautions they have taken to ensure that they are not left alone with them.” The Court held that this was not enough to support an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim and overturned the judgment against plaintiffs.
Finally, the Court modified the injunction. “Portions of the [trial court’s injunction] essentially divest [plaintiffs] of any use or interest in their property that is subject to the Easement, prohibiting even lawful activity there.” The Court found that this was improper and overturned the injunction to the extent it prohibited plaintiffs “from accessing property they own.”
This case was likely difficult to try, with even the Court of Appeals noting that plaintiff husband was “often described during the trial as aggressive and hostile.” It reminds us, though, that you must always keep the elements of your claim in mind as you present proof at trial. Here, the defendants/counter-plaintiffs failed to present adequate proof for certain elements, resulting in judgment on two claims being overturned.