Case of the Day – Tuesday, April 2, 2019

NEIGHBORS BEHAVING BADLY

There aren’t any winners in today’s neighbor-aggravating-neighbor case, one which had its genesis in one neighbor deciding that encroaching tree branches meant he could hack the trees – which stood on his neighbor’s land – back to mere stumps.

Things fell apart from there. The neighbors alleged two more atrocities in the ensuing year, and they blamed the tree hacker, because… well, why not? The Court, I think, was all too credulous, partly because the tree-cutter was not a native English speaker and was too easily dismissed for that reason.

I suspect that because the all-too-clear video of one altercation has Craig, who portrayed himself as the victim to the court, calling Mr. Cheung things – such as “f—face” – that would have gotten Craig’s teeth relocated to his intestines in any midwestern bar. And he told Mr. Cheung that he was under arrest, a claim that I would have found amusing. But then, I have three years of law school and many more of law practice behind. Mr. Cheung is an immigrant, and may well come from a place where arbitrary arrest is the rule rather than the exception.

Old Craig did not seem terribly rattled by Mr. Cheung’s alleged threat to kill him, and as a threat – if that’s what it was – it was dishwater weak.

The wily Confederate raider (whose conduct in other quarters was abhorrent, I hasten to add) General Nathan Bedford Forest is widely credited with saying that his guiding tactical principle as “getting there firstest with the mostest.” That’s what Craig and his wife did here, it seems, got to court first with a double-barreled assault that the neophyte Hogan Cheung was helpless to fend off.

Still, had Hogan only been a faithful treeandneighborlawblog reader, he would have been well aware of the Massachusetts Rule, and only cut the offending branches to the fence line. And all of the ensuing unpleasantness could have been avoided.

Stolarczyk v. Cheung, 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2271 (Ct.App. 1st Dist., March 28, 2019). Craig and Shana Stolarczyk and their two young children live on a property that adjoins the parcel on which Hogan Cheung, his wife, two small children, and mother-in-law live in San Mateo. A fence that runs between the Stolarczyks’ backyard and Cheung’s side yard.

The Stolarczyks complained that Hogan Cheung had cut down two trees on their side of the fence a few years ago. Matters escalated from there into general ugliness. At one point, Craig and Shana said, someone dumped gasoline on their backyard, with a dribble that seemed to run from the dump location to the fence. Hogan denied having done so.

Craig’s and Shana’s landlord lived next door. Being aware of the problems, he installed a security camera on his own property that took in the Stolarczyks’ and Cheungs’ backyards. The camera recorded, among other things, a verbal altercation between Craig and Hogan over the camera installation. Craig taunted Hogan with obscenities. Hogan asked Craig to take the camera down. When Craig refused, Hogan covered the camera lens. Craig then told Hogan he was under arrest followed by the same vile epithet first used to address him. Hogan asked Craig if he was threatening him. Craig again told Hogan that he was under arrest, and Hogan responded, “That’s fine, thank you. And I will always come back for you.”

Craig asked Hogan if he ‘want[ed] to do something?” Hogan said, “I already did something.” Craig accused Hogan of pouring gasoline on his yard, to which Hogan replied, “No one put gas, you put your gas and you[‘re] blaming it on people.” Craig asked Hogan if he “want[ed] to settle it,” to which Hogan responded, “You don’t need to settle it, you’re dead.” Laughing, Craig told Hogan he was going to call the police because he was just threatened.

Hogan admitted he cut down overgrown trees planted in the Stolarczyks’ backyard in March 2016. Prior to cutting the trees, Hogan twice requested the Stolarczyks’ landlord manage the trees to no avail. According to Hogan, the trees grew fast, crossed the fence by three feet to four feet, and left limbs over his house and satellite dish. In addition, noise from the trees swaying in the wind and scraping and rubbing against the walls of his house made it difficult to sleep. Hogan stated he did not cut down the trees completely, only the portions rubbing against his house that were overgrown.

Hogan denied pouring gasoline in the Stolarczyks’ yard, and he said he placed tape over the camera lens because his wife was afraid, seeing the camera as “a really bad invasion looking into my house in the bathroom[], whatever [his wife] was doing.” He acknowledged he called the police about the camera before he taped over it and that an officer told him not to touch it. Prior to covering it, he also asked the Stolarczyks to take it down but they threatened and cursed him. Addressing the “you’re dead” statement he made to Craig, Hogan explained that Craig and his companion were cursing and provoking him, that his English was not “too good,” and he did not know what to say. He said his comment was not a threat but his way to end the conversation and signal he no longer wanted to talk. Hogan denied ever threatening to kill Craig.

In 2016, the Stolarczyks suspected herbicide was dumped over the fence into their yard, and in July 2017, Craig was overwhelmed by the smell of gasoline in his backyard. He said he smelled gas in the soil all along the fence line and observed discolored and foul-smelling mulch. The fire department confirmed the presence of a gasoline odor and doused the area with water.

The Stolarczyks filed a petition for a civil harassment restraining order against Hogan Cheung the next month.

The trial court acknowledged Hogan’s right to reasonably trim a neighbor’s trees that cross into his property but held he was not entitled to simply cut off the foliage to a point below the fence line. The court also noted the ongoing and escalating nature of the dispute, and found Hogan Cheung to be “not the most believable witness” ever to appear in court. The court found his explanation that he did not understand what he was saying on the video to be “ludicrous” and did not see him as a victim in any way. Based on the video, the court found Hogan was self-confident and assertive when he taped over the camera, which the court said the property owner had every right to place on his property. Nothing suggested the camera was positioned to film the interior of Hogan Cheung’s home. With respect to the chemicals on their property, the court found it was “a reasonable inference to draw that someone else is responsible for that and I think that [the Stolarczyks’] concerns are legitimate that [Hogan Cheung was] responsible for that… I think without question, it has been sufficiently proven that Mr. Cheung damaged their property. He vandalized their property. There is a reasonable inference to be drawn, and it’s for that issue I am still going to issue a restraining order.”

The order required Hogan Cheung to stay five yards away from the Stolarczyks and to refrain from harassing or contacting them, or destroying their personal property. Mr. Cheung appeals.

Held: The restraining order was upheld.

Under Section 527.6 of the California Code of Civil Practice, a person who has suffered harassment… may seek a temporary restraining order and an order after hearing prohibiting harassment.” Harassment is “a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be that as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner.”

Hogan Cheung argued the court erred in granting the restraining order because the Stolarczyks failed to establish several of the required elements of Section 527.6 by clear and convincing evidence. In particular, he contends the Stolarczyks failed to prove his conduct served no legitimate purposes, caused them substantial emotional distress, or posed any risk of future harm.

The Court of Appeals rejected his argument. “We find no merit to Cheung’s broad contention that his version of what happened was ‘equally likely’ as the Stolarczyks’ and did not amount to harassment.” Hogan claimed the Stolarczyks failed to prove his acts served no legitimate purpose: he said his trimming trees encroaching on his property and covering a surveillance camera directed towards his house were lawful acts with legitimate purposes. But Hogan Cheung cut the trees below the fence line, and not just those portions extending into his property. Also, the video camera was neither located on the Cheung property “nor trained on the inner sanctum of Cheung’s house.” It hardly help Hogan’s case that he admitted that he was told by police not to touch the camera but did so anyway. “All of this evidence,” the Court said, “supports an implied finding that Cheung’s acts served no legitimate purpose.”

Hogan also claimed his conduct did not cause the Stolarczyks substantial emotional distress. In fact, the trial court rebuked Craig for behaving badly, describing his behavior in the video as “antagonistic and sarcastic and profane.” Nonetheless, the appellate court said, the petition for a restraining order was not filed solely based upon the camera incident nor was Craig the sole petitioner. Despite Craig’s laughter and potty-mouthed taunting he displayed that evening, the Court ruled, the “trial court could reasonably infer that both Craig and Shana suffered substantial emotional distress from having their trees chopped down and the debris left in their yard, and from having chemicals poured into their backyard where their small children play.”

The record likewise permitted the finding of likely future harm, supporting “the conclusion that a restraining order was necessary to prevent bad acts from continuing into the future. Cheung initially chopped down the Stolarczyks’ trees in March 2016; the Stolarczyks smelled gasoline along their fence line in July 2017; the altercation over the camera occurred in August 2017; and by the time of the hearing in September 2017, the trees had regrown to twice the height of the fence.” The dispute had not resolved itself in over a year, and the trees were growing large again. “Because we’re talking about trees that were cut in 2016, and Mr. Cheung still, it would appear, has issues with the fact that these trees are on his neighbor’s property and continue to grow and grow tall,” the Court said, the record supported a finding of threat of future harm.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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