Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 7, 2021


Last Friday (before the final long weekend of summer), we looked at the problem with spite fences. Spite fences, we noted, are usually defined by statute. But not always.

In some places, a spite fence was defined the same way that Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography of when quipped in Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”

In today’s case, the record seemed pretty clear that what the court was dealing with was a spite fence. There was animosity, an overly tall fence, and apparently no good reason why a rational homeowner would have built it.

Yup. A spite fence. The trial court knew it when it saw it, even without a statute defining it. The judge held it to be a spite fence.

But what to do about it? The only law on Montana’s books was from back in the day when men were men and women were afflicted. No, not 1991, but 1899. And that ruling held that a landowner could pretty much do whatever the tarnation he (and they were mostly “he” back then) wanted to do. The trial court had to rule that the spite-fencer could get away with it, but urged the appeals court to rule the other way.

And rule the other way it did. With all of that clap-trap about whether the Supreme Court will eviscerate the doctrine of stare decisis in order to reverse Roe v. Wadethis case demonstrates the obverse of the stare decisis debate: sometimes, a slavish adherence to the ways things have always been done is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Imagine if the Supremes had decided that Plessy v. Ferguson‘s “separate but equal” doctrine should control the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Haugen v. Kottas, 307 Mont. 301, 37 P.3d 672 (Supreme Ct. Mont, 2001). When his parents died, Bill became sole owner of the property. In 1999, he removed the chain link fence. Don was upset over the fence’s removal, and wanted to build a replacement wall and have Bill pay for it. Bill refused, but ordered a survey. The survey found that the chain-link fence had always been on Bill’s land. The survey also determined that Bill’s flagpole and several of his lawn sprinklers were located on Don’s property. What’s fair is fair: Bill removed those.

Don was not mollified. The next summer, he dredged his pond and moved it a few feet to the east. He then built a wooden fence about 200 feet long and 7 and a half feet tall. The back side of the wooden fence faces Bill’s property and obstructs his view to the east of Upper Spring Creek.

Now it was Bill who was unhappy. He sued, asking the court to issue an injunction ordering Don to tear down that wall, alleging that it was a spite fence. The trial court agreed that Don’s monstrosity was clearly a spite fence, but concluded that there was no remedy under Montana law for a spite fence, basing its decision on a prior Montana holding in the 1899 Bordeaux v. Greene decision that a person having a legal right to property can enforce the enjoyment of it without anyone being able to question his motive. The trial judge did not much like having to reach that conclusion, and asked “the appellate court to revisit Bordeaux in light of the significant changes in property law made during the past 100 years.”

Bill appealed.

Held: Bordeaux was yesterday’s news, and was overruled. Don’s spite fence had to go.

Bill argued that this Court should overrule Bordeaux based on the many changes that have occurred in property law since 1899, citing an Idaho holding that a property owner cannot erect a structure for the sole purpose of injuring his neighbor. The Supreme Court of Montana agreed, holding that Bordeaux no longer expressed the modern approach to property rights. Under that modern approach, the Idaho Supreme Court case held in the 1973 case of Sundowner, Inc. v. King, “one may not erect a structure for the sole purpose of annoying his neighbor. Many courts hold that a spite fence which serves no useful purpose may give rise to an action for both injunctive relief and damages… No man has a legal right to make a malicious use of his property, not for any benefit or advantage to himself, but for the avowed purpose of damaging his neighbor.”

The Court agreed with the Idaho Supreme Court’s analysis in Sundowner. The Court ruled, “We hold that no property owner has the right to erect and maintain an otherwise useless structure for the sole purpose of injuring his neighbor. We further hold that such an action will give rise to an action for both injunctive relief and damages.”

Don argued that Bill chose the wrong remedy by not stating a claim for nuisance. The Court rejected that claim. “Nuisance,” the Court said, “includes all wrongs which have interfered with the rights of a citizen in the enjoyment of property… A spite fence is defined as one which is of no beneficial use or pleasure to the owner but was erected and is maintained for the purpose of annoying a neighbor… Many courts characterize a spite fence as a nuisance. Although Bill could have filed a nuisance claim, he was not required to.”

– Tom Root


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