United States District Court, N.D. New York
MARK HOGAN, individually and as guardian and on behalf of his minor children, J.H. and I.H.; ELIZABETH M. HOGAN, individually and as guardian and on behalf of her minor children, J.H. and I.H.; and DENNIS B. OKUDINANI, as guardian and on behalf of D.O., Plaintiffs,
COUNTY OF LEWIS, NEW YORK; DAVID VANDEWATER; FRANK ROSE; RUSSELL FALTER; KATHY WILSON; LEANNE MOSER, in her individual and official capacity as District Attorney of the County of Lewis; CALEB PETZOLDT, in his individual and official capacity as Assistant Lewis County District Attorney; SERGEANT RYAN LEHMAN, in his individual and official capacity; DEPUTY BRETT CRONEISER; and JOHN and JANE DOES, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER
LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.
Plaintiffs Mark Hogan ("Mr. Hogan") and Susan Hogan ("Mrs. Hogan") (together, the "Hogans" or "Plaintiffs") commenced this action arising out of an ongoing property dispute and ensuing hostility between Plaintiffs and their neighbors on Hiawatha Lake in Lewis County, New York. See generally Dkt. Nos. 1 ("Complaint"); 4 ("Amended Complaint"); 87 ("Supplemental Complaint"). Presently before the Court are four Motions for summary judgment brought by Defendants Lewis County, Brett Croneiser ("Croneiser"), Ryan Lehman ("Lehman"), Leanne Moser ("Moser"), and Caleb Petzoldt ("Petzoldt") (together, the "Lewis County Defendants"); David Vandewater ("Vandewater"); Russell Falter ("Falter"); Kathy Wilson ("Wilson"); and Frank Rose ("Rose") (collectively, "Defendants"). Dkt. Nos. 171 ("Vandewater Motion); 174 ("Falter and Wilson Motion"); 176 ("Lewis County Motion"); 177 ("Rose Motion"). For the reasons that follow, the Lewis County Motion is granted in full, and the remaining Motions are granted in part and denied in part.
A. Procedural History
Plaintiffs filed their original Complaint on July 1, 2011. Compl. After Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint, the Lewis County Defendants and Falter and Wilson each moved for summary judgment. Am. Compl.; Dkt. Nos. 39; 43. Plaintiffs then filed a Supplemental Complaint, which is the operative pleading in this action. Supp. Compl. The Lewis County Defendants and Falter and Wilson informed the Court that they did not intend to supplement their Motions in response to the alterations made in Plaintiffs' Supplemental Complaint. Dkt. Nos. 99; 103.
On March 8, 2013, the Court issued a Memorandum-Decision and Order granting in part and denying in part the Motions for summary judgment. Dkt. No. 125 ("March Order"). Plaintiffs filed two Motions for reconsideration of the March Order, which the Court granted in part and denied in part. Dkt. Nos. 126; 131; 151. The parties then engaged in discovery, and a second round of Motions for summary judgment ensued.
B. Factual Background
Given the lengthy litigation history, the Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the background of this case and recites only those facts necessary to resolve the pending Motions.
1. Plaintiffs' Neighbors
Plaintiffs and Defendants Vandewater, Rose, Falter, and Wilson all own property around Hiawatha Lake. Dkt. Nos. 171 ("Vandewater Statement of Material Facts") ¶¶ 1, 3; 188 ("Plaintiffs' Response Statement of Material Facts - Vandewater") ¶¶ 1, 3. Beginning in or about 2006, hostility developed between Plaintiffs and their neighbors resulting in several state law actions, in addition to the present case. Vandewater SMF ¶¶ 5-6; Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶¶ 5-6.
In one of the state court actions, Plaintiffs' non-party neighbors (the "Wests") brought suit against the Hogans to determine whether the Wests had acquired title to certain of the Hogans' property by adverse possession. See Vandewater SMF ¶¶ 6-7; Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶¶ 6-7; see also West v. Hogan, 930 N.Y.S.2d 708 (App. Div. 2011). Vandewater was joined as a third party in the West action, and the parties stipulated to a right of way (the "easement") to enable the Hogans to access certain lots that they owned. See Vandewater SMF ¶¶ 6-7; Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶¶ 6-7. However, the parties vehemently disagree over the precise location of the easement - specifically, whether the easement directly abuts, crosses over, or is set apart from Rose's property line. Vandewater SMF ¶ 8; Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶ 8.
The dispute over the location of the easement is only one element of the overall conflict between the Hogans and their neighbors. Vandewater asserts that he and Mr. Hogan "have had several verbal and one physical alteration since 2006." Vandewater SMF ¶ 10. Plaintiffs respond that "Vandewater has verbally harassed and screamed at [them] repeatedly." Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶ 10.
In one instance, Plaintiffs allege that Vandewater "lurched a 2000 lb Kubota tractor at [their] son and [their] son's friend." Pls.' Resp. SMF - Vandewater ¶ 10. Plaintiffs assert that Vandewater physically attacked Mr. Hogan during this same incident. Id . ¶ 10. Rose was present in the utility vehicle along with Vandewater during this incident; however, Rose contends that he was merely a passive passenger. See Dkt. No. 177-1 ("Rose Statement of Material Facts") ¶¶ 72-77. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, assert that Rose "encouraged" Vandewater in his effort to harass and terrify minor Plaintiffs D.O. and J.H. Dkt. No. 199 ("Plaintiffs' Response Statement of Material Facts - Rose") ¶¶ 72-77.
With respect to Falter and Wilson, they contend that they "have never defaced destroyed or vandalized [P]laintiffs' property." Dkt. No. 174-1 ("Falter and Wilson Statement of Material Facts") ¶ 6. However, Plaintiffs assert that Falter and Wilson "constructed and aided in the construction of barriers for the sole purpose of preventing Plaintiffs from accessing their property." Dkt. No. 192 ("Plaintiffs' Response Statement of Material Facts - Falter and Wilson") ¶ 6. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Falter and Wilson, at Rose's request, on two occasions placed a steel cable between trees across Plaintiffs' easement to prevent them from being able to access their property. FW SMF ¶¶ 6-7; Pls.' Resp. SMF - FW ¶¶ 6-7.
Rose does not deny erecting the steel cables, but asserts that the cables and a "no trespassing" sign were placed to protect his property from trespassers. See Rose SMF ¶¶ 52-55. Rose also placed two sawhorses across the entrance to his "driveway"; Plaintiffs assert that the sawhorses were placed not across Rose's driveway, but to interfere with Plaintiffs' easement. See id. ¶¶ 56, 70; see also Pls.' Resp. SMF - Rose ¶¶ 56, 70. Rose later discovered that Mr. Hogan had taken Rose's saw horses and steel cables; Rose filed a complaint with the Lewis County Sheriff's Department and provided them with photographs from his security cameras corroborating the alleged larceny. Id . ¶ 59.
Plaintiffs further allege that Falter and Wilson have verbally harassed, screamed at, and directed vulgar language at the Hogans while on their property. Id . Plaintiffs also claim that Falter and Wilson blocked Plaintiffs' right of way with their pick up trucks on a number of occasions between 2007 and 2010, FW SMF ¶ 10; Pls.' Resp. SMF - FW ¶10, and that Falter and Wilson swerved at the Hogans' vehicle "to intimidate and harass the Plaintiffs, " id. ¶ 10. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that Falter and Wilson directed racial epithets at Plaintiff D.O. while visiting the Hogans' property. Id . ¶ 11; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 107 (noting that D.O. is African-American).
2. The Lewis County Defendants
The Hogans have filed numerous complaints against their neighbors with the Lewis County Sheriff's Department, including on August 29, 2008, April 9, 2009, and April 26, 2010. Dkt. Nos. 176-27 ("Lewis County Statement of Material Facts) ¶¶ 1, 3, 6; 204 ("Plaintiffs' Response Statement of Material Facts - Lewis County") ¶¶ 1, 3, 6. The Sheriff's Department responded to all of Mr. Hogan's complaints. See Lewis Cnty. SMF ¶¶ 1, 3, 6; Pls.' SMF Resp - Lewis Cnty. ¶¶ 1, 3, 6.
Lehman and Croneiser were only involved with the April 26, 2010, complaint, which involved one of the steel cable incidents described supra. See Lewis Cnty. SMF ¶ 7. Mr. Hogan admitted that he took the steel cable, but asserted that he did so to preserve it because he did not know to whom it belonged. Pls.' SMF Resp - Lewis Cnty. ¶¶ 8-10. Lehman and Croneiser informed Mr. Hogan that he needed to return the cable or face arrest; Mr. Hogan complied and was not charged criminally at that time. Id . ¶¶ 10-11. However, Mr. Hogan was arrested on May 29, 2010, for petit larceny after removing the cable and sawhorse blocking his claimed right of way two weeks prior. Id . ¶¶ 12, 43; Pls.' SMF Resp - Lewis Cnty. ¶ 12.
Plaintiffs later filed another trespassing complaint with the Sheriff's department against the Wests on July 5, 2010. Pls.' SMF Resp - Lewis Cnty. ¶ 12. Croneiser met with Mr. Hogan and filed an incident report. Id . ¶¶ 13-14. Plaintiffs assert that the Wests were not charged, however, because Moser informed Croneiser not to charge them. Id . ¶ 14.
Plaintiffs generally allege a broad campaign by the Lewis County Defendants to drive Plaintiffs out of Hiawatha Lake by processing criminal complaints against the Hogans but refusing to pursue the Hogans' complaints against their neighbors. See, e.g., Pls.' SMF Resp - Lewis Cnty. ¶ 20 (asserting that Assistant District Attorney Petzoldt informed Plaintiffs, "We don't want you in Lewis County."); id. ¶ 24 (claiming that Croneiser was informed by Petzoldt that it was "open season" on the Hogans); id. ¶ 36 (alleging that "Lehman suggested that [P]laintiff[s] should just sell everything and find some place to go").
III. LEGAL STANDARD
Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instructs a court to grant summary judgment if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). Although "[f]actual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary" will not preclude summary judgment, "summary judgment will not lie if... the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Taggart v. Time, Inc., 924 F.2d 43, 46 (2d Cir. 1991).
The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party claims will demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate "the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id . This requires the nonmoving party to do "more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Mere conclusory allegations, speculation, or conjecture will not avail a party opposing summary judgment. Kulak v. City of New York, 88 F.3d 63, 71 (2d Cir. 1996).
At the same time, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Grp. of Am., Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998). A court's duty in reviewing a motion for summary judgment is "carefully limited" to finding genuine disputes of fact, "not to deciding them." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994). "The role of the court is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but rather to perform the threshold inquiry of whether there is the need for a trial.'" Feder v. Target Stores, No. 11-CV-3675, 2014; WL 1651955, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 24, 2014) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50.
In their respective Motions, Defendants move for summary judgment on all remaining claims. Vandewater and Rose move for summary judgment on the following claims: (1) interference with easement; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) private nuisance; (4) negligence and gross negligence; (5) racial discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, and 1985, and New York Civil Rights Law §40-c; and (5) loss of consortium. See generally Vandewater Mot.; Rose Mot. Falter and Wilson seek summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claims of: (1) private nuisance; (2) racial discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1982, and New York Civil Rights Law §40-c; and (3) loss of consortium. See generally FW Mot. The Lewis County Defendants move for summary judgment on all remaining claims against them, which include: (1) conspiracy to deprive Plaintiffs of their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to § 1983; (2) abuse of process pursuant to § 1983; and (3) common law abuse of process pursuant to New York law. See generally Lewis Cnty. Mot.
A. Plaintiffs' Neighbors
1. Interference With Easement
"In the case of an affirmative easement, the owner of the dominant tenement - the easement holder - acquires or is granted a right to use another person's land in a particular, though limited, way." Sutera v. Go Jokir, Inc., 86 F.3d 298, 302 (2d Cir. 1996). "Although no affirmative duty is imposed on the servient owner, there is a passive duty that it not interfere with the dominant owner's exercise of its easement rights." Id . (citation omitted).
Vandewater argues that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiffs' interference with easement claim against him because Plaintiffs have no property right over the land at issue. Dkt. No. 171-2 ("Vandewater Memorandum") at 2-3. Specifically, Vandewater argues that the West trial and subsequent stipulation establish that the designated right of way is not adjacent to the Rose property line; thus, even if Vandewater were blocking Plaintiffs from accessing that land, he cannot be liable since Plaintiffs have no interest in the land. Id. at 3. Plaintiffs respond that Vandewater is incorrect; the stipulation and evidence from the West trial firmly establish that the easement Plaintiffs were granted extends from the border of Rose's property line at a width of twelve feet into Vandewater's property. Dkt. No. 186 ("Response to Vandewater") at 2. Plaintiffs assert that this evidence refutes Vandewater's assertion that there is a "set back" from Rose's property line. Id. at 2. Furthermore, Plaintiffs argue that Vandewater has not offered a survey, expert affidavit, or any other proof to establish that the easement does not border or cross his property. Id. at 3.
The parties do not appear to dispute the element of interference. Thus, the issue before the Court is whether that interference occurred on land in which Plaintiffs held a property right. The Court has carefully reviewed the stipulation and testimony from the West trial and finds that Vandewater has failed to establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the location of the easement, and thus whether he interfered with Plaintiffs' easement.
The Order and Judgment issued following the West trial indicates that the parties stipulated to a right of away "along the back lot lines of Lots 19-23, at a width of 12 feet from those back lot lines. " Dkt. No. 189-2 at 5-6. Although Vandewater appears to argue that the stipulation is unambiguous in his favor, the Court interprets "along the back lot lines" and "from those back lot lines" to indicate that the easement begins precisely at the edge of the property lines - including Rose's back property line - and extends at a width of twelve feet therefrom. Moreover, during the West trial, Vandewater testified as to the location of the easement by drawing "a red line going along the back property lines. " Dkt. No. 181-10 at 125. Furthermore, Vandewater's deposition corroborates that the easement begins at the edge of Rose's property line. See Dkt. No. 189-4 at 73 ("Q: This right of way has been defined? A: Yes, the back lot of Mr. Rose's line and through my lot at 12 feet in width."). Vandewater has failed to offer any other evidence affirmatively establishing that the easement does not begin to run from Rose's property line. Therefore, Vandewater is not entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' interference with easement claim.
As an initial matter, the Court notes that Rose attempts to categorically dismiss all propertyrelated, state law claims against him based on the fact that the claimed right of way does not exist in the location Plaintiffs have alleged. See Dkt. No. 177-2 ("Rose Memorandum") at 3-9. However, this argument must be rejected because, as stated supra, there exists a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the exact location of the easement at issue. Thus, the Court will determine whether Rose is entitled to summary judgment on each claim individually.
In the March Order, the Court granted Falter and Wilson summary judgment on Plaintiffs' interference with easement claim because the Court, and Plaintiffs, were "unable to identify any New York State cause of action for damages against a third party for interference with easement that might be applicable to the facts of this case." Mar. Order at 30-31 (noting that the easement at issue exists only between Vandewater and the Hogans). Rose argues that the law of the case doctrine dictates the same outcome with respect to Plaintiffs' interference with easement claim against him. Rose Mem. at 11-13. Specifically, Rose asserts, as with the claim against Falter and Wilson, Rose is also a third party being sued for damages. Id . Plaintiffs attempt to distinguish Rose from Falter and Wilson on the grounds that Rose has a "property interest" in the easement because he may be using part of the right of way to enter his property. Dkt. No. 198 ("Response to Rose") at 5-7.
Plaintiffs' attempt to distinguish Rose from Falter and Wilson based on Rose's alleged "property interest" must fail because it is undisputed that Rose is not a party to the grant of the easement from Vandewater to the Hogans. See Green v. Mann, 655 N.Y.S.2d 627, 629 (App. Div. 1997) (noting that only "[t]he servient tenement is prohibited from unreasonably interfering with the rights of the plaintiffs to use the easement") (listing cases) (emphasis added). Even if Rose had a property interest in the right of way - of which Plaintiffs have provided no proof - Plaintiffs have nonetheless provided no authority that someone other than the servient estate holder may be liable for damages in an interference with easement cause of action. Indeed, the lone case Plaintiff cites for third-party liability concerning an easement is irrelevant because it only involved claims for negligence and loss of consortium; it did not concern an interference with easement claim. See Resp. Rose at 5 (citing Sutera, 86 F.3d at 300). Accordingly, Rose is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' interference with easement claim against him.
2. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
In order to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") in New York, a plaintiff must show: "(1) extreme and outrageous conduct; (2) intent to cause, or reckless disregard of a substantial probability of causing, severe emotional distress; (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the injury; and (4) severe emotional distress." Stuto v. Fleishman, 164 F.3d 820, 827 (2d Cir. 1999). The standard for stating a valid claim is "rigorous, and difficult to satisfy" because the conduct must be "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." Howell v. N.Y. Post Co., 81 N.Y.2d 115, 122 (N.Y. 1993) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Further, IIED is a "highly disfavored claim under New York law." Williams v. City of Mount Vernon, 428 F.Supp.2d 146, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Seltzer v. Bayer, 709 N.Y.S.2d 21, 23 (App. Div. 2000) ("This threshold of outrageousness is so difficult to reach that, of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims considered by the Court of Appeals, every one has failed because the alleged conduct was not sufficiently outrageous." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).
Nevertheless, "[c]ourts have held that continuous and coercive harassment can establish an IIED cause of action." Neufeld v. Neufeld, 910 F.Supp. 977, 984 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (citing Alexander v. Unification Church of Am., 634 F.2d 673, 678-79 (2d Cir. 1980) (filing of harassing lawsuits, constant surveillance, patrolling of plaintiffs' homes); Green v. Fischbein Olivieri Rozenholc & Badillo, 507 N.Y.S.2d 148 (App. Div. 1986) (baseless eviction proceedings against plaintiff-tenant by landlord, disruption in services, deterioration of living conditions, interference with mail, verbal abuse of plaintiff and his guests); but see Gay v. Carlson, 60 F.3d 83, 89 (2d Cir. 1995) (finding that the plaintiff had not established an IIED claim where "[a]ll that plaintiff alleges that any of the defendants has done is lodge official complaints about plaintiff's conduct or discuss the basis of those complaints with others").
Vandewater argues that he is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' IIED claim because: (1) the incidents alleged do not rise to the level of being so "severe and outrageous" to constitute an IIED claim; and (2) Plaintiffs have failed to provide any medical evidence demonstrating that any Plaintiff suffered emotional distress. Vandewater Mem. at 4-7. Plaintiffs respond by: (1) refuting Vandewater's characterization of the relevant incidents, arguing that they were sufficiently extreme and outrageous; and (2) asserting that Plaintiffs sought and received medical treatment for severe emotional distress. Resp. Vandewater at 10-13.
The Court addresses Vandewater's latter argument first. Recent case law has established that, under New York law, a plaintiff must provide medical evidence of severe emotional distress to prevail on an IIED claim. See Allam v. Meyers, 906 F.Supp.2d 274, 282 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) ("As Meyers correctly argues, governing New York law requires plaintiffs to present medical evidence of severe emotional distress' to substantiate their IIED claims.") (listing cases); see also Samtani v. Cherukuri, No. 11-CV-02159, 2015 WL 64671, at *16 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2015) ("The Court finds that - given the balance of appellate division case law in support of a medical evidence requirement, the relatively unpersuasive rationale underlying ...