JUDGE JUDY HAS HER LIMITS, YOU KNOW
Ah, Cleveland! Renowned for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, world leader in the manufacture of duct tape, home to some really good beer and some really bad teams. It would be impolitic to mention the Browns, not right now when Cleveland’s own Cavaliers are poised to… well, perhaps to disappoint once again.
Add to that impressive string of achievements one more jewel: Cleveland gave the United States its first small claims court in 1913. The People’s Court was not far behind.
Small claims courts exist in every state of the country, informal courts of very limited jurisdiction (awards of a few hundreds or few thousands of dollars), places where lawyers and formality are rare indeed. It was to just such a place that Mr. Iny dragged Mr. Collom. It seems the roots of Mr. Collom’s tree were breaking up the walls of his neighbor’s garage. Now, any fan of the Massachusetts Rule would have told the neighbor to get out there with a shovel and ax, and cut the offending roots at the property line. Self-help is, after all, as American as … well, as the Massachusetts Rule.
Of course, self-help doesn’t mean you can go onto your neighbor’s property, and it seems the homes and garages in this Long Island town were packed together like sardines. Mr. Iny couldn’t dig up the attacking roots without going onto Mr. Collom’s place, and we’re suspecting from the decision that these two guys were not the best of friends. So Mr. Iny took him to court.
The small claims court awarded him $2,100 for damages. Being of limited jurisdiction, the court couldn’t order Mr. Collom to cut down the tree or dig up the roots, so money was all that was available. Mr. Collom appealed (something you never see happening on TV).
The Supreme Court (which in New York State is not the state’s high court, but rather in this case just a court of appeals) reversed. The remedy here, the court said, shouldn’t have been money. It should have been to cut down the tree. But the small claims court lacked jurisdiction to do that. The Supreme Court itself didn’t have such constraints, so it reversed the money damages and instead ordered Mr. Collom to get rid of the tree.
The most interesting part of the decision is the lengthy and well-written dissent arguing that Mr. Iny’s tree claim was in fact a nuisance claim, and that money damages should have been awarded as well. The dissenting judge argued that New York has adopted its own tree encroachment rule, a hybrid of the Massachusetts Rule and Virginia Rule (which itself has since this case been abandoned by Virginia). In New York, the judge concluded, a complainant has to resort to self-help first. If that fails, the courts will intervene if the tree can be shown to be a nuisance — that is, if the tree “is causing substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s land, that defendant’s conduct is intentional or negligent.”
Of course, the discussion is found in a dissent to a fairly low-level, unreported decision, but it’s a thoughtful analysis of the encroachment rule in a state where precedent on the subject is sparse. Good reading on cold winter night … unless, of course, another episode of Judge Judy is on.
Iny v. Collom, 827 N.Y.S.2d 416, 13 Misc.3d 75 (Sup.Ct. N.Y., 2006). The roots of a tree situated on defendant’s property damaged the wall of a garage on plaintiff’s property. Plaintiff lacked the room to cut the roots out himself without trespassing on his neighbor’s land. He sought to get his neighbor to remove the objectionable tree, which he felt would have been the best way to fix the problem, but the defendant refused. Plaintiff sued in small claims to recover $2,100. The trial court awarded him this sum. Defendant appealed.
Held: The decision was reversed. The Supreme Court noted that a New York small claims court is a court of limited jurisdiction and lacks the authority to grant any equitable remedy, such as directing the removal of a tree. Under the circumstances presented, the Court ruled, “substantial justice would have been most completely rendered had the court awarded judgment in favor of defendant dismissing the action on condition that he remove the subject tree within a specified period of time”. But the trial court couldn’t do that. The Supreme Court could, however, and ordered the case dismissed, conditioned on defendant removing the tree within 60 days.
One justice dissented. He believed that the trial court’s judgment awarding plaintiff $2,100 in damages was based on a nuisance claim, and should have been affirmed. The dissent said the issue faced in the case was whether under New York law, a property owner whose property is being encroached upon and damaged by the roots of a neighboring property owner’s tree may successfully assert a cause of action sounding in private nuisance if the property owner’s resort to self-help is unworkable, and the property owner’s attempts at obtaining assistance from the neighboring property owner to abate the roots’ encroachment have been unsuccessful.
The dissent argued that to establish a cause of action for private nuisance, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct causes substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s land and that defendant’s conduct is (1) intentional and unreasonable, (2) negligent or reckless, or (3) actionable under the laws governing liability for abnormally dangerous conditions or activities. The interference can be caused by an individual’s actions or failure to act. Where a defendant has been put on notice that his activity is interfering with plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of his land and defendant fails to remedy the situation, the defendant ought to be found to have acted intentionally and unreasonably.
Furthermore, the dissent argued, “[u]nder New York law, a party is liable for failing to abate a nuisance [under a theory of negligence] upon learning of it and having a reasonable opportunity to abate it.” The question of whether there has been a substantial interference with plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of his/her property is one to be resolved by the trier of fact and involves a review of the totality of the circumstances based upon a balancing of the rights of the defendant to use his or her property against the rights of the plaintiff to enjoy his or her property. The balancing amounts to a risk-utility analysis weighing the social value of the conduct involved against the harm to private interests.
The dissent admitted that while the elements of a nuisance action appear straightforward, in New York there is a paucity of case law addressing nuisances arising from trees or other plant life. Nevertheless, the justice argued, there is substantial case law from jurisdictions outside New York, and he describes in detail the Massachusetts Rule, the Virginia Rule and the Hawaii Rule. The dissent concludes New York has “in large measure, adopted a hybrid approach somewhere between the Hawaii and Virginia Rules in determining the issue of nuisance liability. To sustain a cause of action for nuisance, a plaintiff must resort to self-help in the first instance, which does not appear to be a prerequisite under the Hawaii Rule. Once a plaintiff establishes that self-help failed or self-help was impracticable, he or she must (1) show sensible damage (this kind of “sensible” has nothing to do with common sense, but rather is an injury that can be perceived by the senses), (2) that defendant’s conduct is causing substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s land, (3) that defendant’s conduct is intentional or negligent, and (4) that the continued interference with the use and enjoyment of plaintiff’s property is unreasonable.
Where a defendant has been notified that a tree was causing damage to plaintiff’s property and refuses to assist plaintiff in taking measures designed to abate the nuisance, the defendant should be found to have acted intentionally or negligently with regard to the nuisance. The unreasonableness of the interference will depend upon an overall balancing of the equities: the injuries to plaintiff and to defendant, the character of the neighborhood, the ongoing nature of the injury, and the nature of defendant’s actions.
Remember, the foregoing – while it may be eminently “sensible” in the meaning of the term – was the opinion of a lone judge, one who was outvoted. It makes for thoughtful reading. But don’t mistake it for the law.