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Claggett v. Wenzler

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

July 12, 2019

DONALD CLAGGETT, et al., Plaintiffs,
ANTHONY WENZLER, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiffs, Donald and Mindy Claggett, filed suit against Anthony Wenzler, the City of Moraine, Ohio, and their neighbor, Tomi Hatfield, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged constitutional violations, and requesting declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. They also assert state law claims of invasion of privacy, nuisance and conspiracy. Doc. #1. Defendant Tomi Hatfield filed Counterclaims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, declaratory judgment, invasion of privacy and trespass.

         This matter is currently before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Defendant Tomi Hatfield's Counterclaims, Doc. #30, Defendant Hatfield's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Doc. #33, and on the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Anthony Wenzler and the City of Moraine, Doc. #43. Hatfield also recently filed a Motion for Declaratory Judgment, Doc. #60.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In May of 2016, Plaintiffs, Donald and Mindy Claggett, moved into a house on Shorelands Road in Moraine, Ohio. Their back yard abuts the back yard of Defendant Tomi Hatfield, who lives on Cottage Road. Directly to the east, adjacent to both of the properties, lies a vacant strip of land (the "Adjacent Strip"), which includes the land labeled on the map below as "Lease Area" and the lighter-colored right-of-way between the "Lease Area" and the properties owned by the Claggetts and Ms. Hatfield.

         (Image Omitted)

         The Adjacent Strip is owned by the City of Moraine. Nevertheless, when Hatfield's parents bought the Cottage Road property in 1970, they believed that the Adjacent Strip belonged to them. They cut the grass, trimmed the bushes and trees, and graded the land. At one point in the 1970s, the City sent Hatfield's parents a letter instructing them to stop taking care of the Adjacent Strip because it belonged to the City. They complied with the City's demand. However, just a few months later, the City sent them another letter threatening them with fines if they did not clean up that property. Thereafter, the Hatfields continuously maintained the Adjacent Strip as if it were their own property, and placed a fire pit, picnic table and playset there. Doc. #47, PagelD##308, 341.

         In 2006, the fire department told Tomi Hatfield that she could not have a fire pit on the Adjacent Strip because that land belonged to the City. She protested, citing her family's long history of caring for that property. It was her understanding that the City then agreed to transfer ownership of the Adjacent Strip to her. Unbeknownst to her, this never happened. Doc. #47, PagelD#308. Nevertheless, the City acted as if it were her property. In 2008, when a tree on the Adjacent Strip fell over during a windstorm and damaged another neighbor's property, the City demanded that she pay the cleanup costs. Id.) Doc. #48, PagelD#411. Accordingly, when the Claggetts moved to the neighborhood in May of 2016, Hatfield was still taking care of the Adjacent Strip, believing that it now belonged to her.

         Disputes over property boundary lines began before the Claggetts ever moved in. A survey conducted in connection with the sale of the property showed that the existing fence, installed by the sellers, encroached on the Adjacent Strip on the east side of the house. The survey also showed that the south side of the Claggetts' lot extended approximately eight feet beyond the existing fence, toward Hatfield's property. Doc. #52-3, PagelD##513-23. Hatfield disagreed with this assessment. Doc. #47, PagelD#303. Shortly after the Claggetts moved in, Hatfield contacted Anthony Wenzler, the City's Building and Zoning Administrator, about the property boundary between the lots. He suggested that she have her own survey done. Doc. #52-4, PagelD##521-22.

         With respect to the Adjacent Strip, it appears that, at that point, there was still some confusion about whether it was owned by the City or by Hatfield. On May 31, 2016, Wenzler wrote to Donald Claggett that "[u]ntil I can prove otherwise, the [Adjacent Strip] belongs to . . . Tomi Hatfield." He instructed Claggett not to trespass on that property. He stated that "[i]f it is decided the city owns the lot it will ask Tomi Hatfield to remove her items[;] until then as for the past 40 years she may use the lot as she and her family has." Doc. #52-6, PagelD#526.

         On June 29, 2016, Hatfield reported to the Moraine Police Department that Donald Claggett was repeatedly trespassing on her property. She complained that Claggett had removed the "No Trespassing" signs that Wenzler suggested that she put up, and was cutting grass on her property. Doc. #52-7, PagelD##527-28. In July of 2016, the Claggetts put up a new fence to better demarcate the actual property boundaries, as shown by the survey. On the east side of the lot, they moved the fence in so that it no longer encroached on the Adjacent Strip, On the south side of the lot, they extended the fence back several feet toward Hatfield's lot. They left two feet of grass behind the south side of the fence so that they could maintain the fence. Doc. #47, PagelD#304.

         Confrontations between Hatfield and the Claggetts continued, They often called the police to complain about each other. Likewise, on several occasions, the neighbors called the police about the ongoing verbal confrontations. Claggett complained to Wenzler that Hatfield was leaning stuff against the back of his fence. Claggett posted "no trespassing" signs, warning her to stay two feet off of the fence. Doc. #48, PagelD#420. Hatfield and her sister, Ramona Dennison, who lives next door to the Claggetts, complained that Claggett installed video cameras that were pointed at their houses. Id. at PagelD#405. At one point, Donald Claggett filed for a temporary protection order against Hatfield and Dennison. He later dismissed the case. Doc. #47, PagelD#311-12.

         Once, when Donald Claggett was walking on the Adjacent Strip, Hatfield confronted him about being on her property. He told her to go ahead and call the police. He claimed that the police could do nothing, given that the Adjacent Strip was owned by the City. id. at PagelD#304. Because this was contrary to what Hatfield believed, she confronted Wenzler. She showed him all of the documents supporting her belief that she owned the Adjacent Strip. She alleges that the City also believed that she was the owner of that property. Wenzler promised to research the issue. Doc. #47, PagelD##336-38.

         In April of 2017, Wenzler determined that the City, in fact, still owned the Adjacent Strip. In response to Claggetts' complaints, he gave Hatfield seven days to remove her personal property from the lot. Doc. #52-8, PagelD#529. It does not appear that she complied with this order.

         On September 4, 2017, Hatfield again called the police because Donald Claggett was walking on the Adjacent Strip. When the police arrived, Hatfield told the officer that when she met with Wenzler earlier that day, he had told her that the property belonged to her; she was simply waiting on the deed. Claggett told the officer, however, that Wenzler indicated that the property belonged to him. Doc. #52-10, PagelD##532-33. That evening, Donald Claggett emailed Wenzler, complaining that Hatfield was preventing his son from walking across the Adjacent Strip. He also complained that Hatfield had not yet removed her belongings from the Adjacent Strip. Doc. #52-9, PagelD#530. It appears that Hatfield called the police again the following day. Doc. #52-10, PagelD#532.

         Donald Claggett confronted Wenzler in person and sent a follow-up email, threatening to sue. On September 6, 2017, Wenzler emailed Claggett that "the next time you come in my office you will act as an adult and not raise your voice telling me how to do my job[;] if you do that again you will be asked to leave." Wenzler told Claggett that the city was working on a resolution that would take about two weeks. Doc. #52-13, PagelD##536-37.

         Wenzler testified that the City Manager had suggested that, to resolve the dispute, the City could lease the Adjacent Strip to Hatfield, Wenzler did not share this information with the Claggetts or with Hatfield. Doc. #48, PagelD#410. He further testified that he had no input in the City's decision to lease the property to Hatfield. Id.

         On September 14, 2017, the City of Moraine agreed to lease the Adjacent Strip to Tomi Hatfield for fifteen years for ten dollars per year "in consideration for her prior efforts and expenditures associated with maintenance of said property and to ensure ongoing maintenance and care of the property." Doc. #1-2. The lease was signed by Moraine City Manager, David Hicks. According to Hicks, the lease merely reduced to writing the long-standing belief of both the City and Hatfield that she was maintaining and using the Adjacent Strip. Doc. #49, PagelD#445. The ordinance was passed in executive session, without any advance notice to the Claggetts or to the public. The Claggetts learned of the lease two days later. Doc. #52-1, PagelD#508. Although the property description attached to the lease defines the northern, southern and eastern boundaries of the Adjacent Strip, it fails to define the western boundary, the one that runs along the Claggetts' and Hatfield's property. Doc. #1-2, PagelD#27.

         Tensions between Hatfield and the Claggetts intensified after the lease was signed. Doc. #47, PagelD#340. They continued to call the police about alleged trespassing on each other's property. The police, who did not know where the property lines were, said that this was a zoning issue. Doc. #48, PagelD#413. Claggett installed an additional two-foot section of fence to block Hatfield and her sister, Ramona Dennison, from cutting across his property to each other's yards. Id. at PagelD#417; Doc. #52-1, PagelD#509.

         In September of 2017, twelve days after the lease was executed, Donald and Mindy Claggett filed suit against Tomi Hatfield and Ramona Dennison in the Municipal Court of Kettering. The Claggetts sought approximately $6000 in damages to cover the cost of surveillance cameras, the fence and attorney's fees. In a Counterclaim, Hatfield and Dennison sought a similar amount in attorney's fees and damages for harassment, Doc. #30-1.[1]

         On October 9, 2017, Wenzler tied yellow caution tape to stakes along the Claggetts' driveway to delineate the property boundary between the Claggetts' property and the Adjacent Strip. Doc. #48, PagelD#413. He explained that, because the fence was right on the property line, he gave the Claggetts an extra foot so that they could get around it. The Claggetts then had the lot surveyed again. Id.

         When Wenzler returned on October 27, 2017, to make the necessary adjustments to the caution tape, Donald Claggett secretly recorded the conversation. Doc. #52-1, PagelD#509. According to the Verified Complaint, Wenzler told Claggett that he was leaving the tape up "because I want everybody to know what the property lines [are]. Just like you have your no trespassing signs on the back of your fence. Stay two feet off the fence ... If you're going to be that damn petty, I am being that damn petty." He told Donald Claggett that he was tired of him, and instructed him not to cross over the line to cut his grass. He said "[i]f you want to cut your grass, you go through that little stupid fence you put up to block people through there and you walk your mower down your side and cut that little strip." Doc. #1, PagelD##5-6.

         Although Claggett removed the tape for a short period of time, Wenzler put it up again in December of 2017, after Claggett called the police to report an unknown prowler wandering around his front yard. Doc. #52-1, PagelD#509. The police department notified Wenzler that Claggett had complained about people walking across his yard and had threatened to shoot anyone on his property. Doc. #48, PagelD#413. Claggett maintains that the presence of the tape "has prompted embarrassing questions to my wife and me from curious neighbors and is a source of daily annoyance and humiliation to me and my family." Id.

         In January of 2018, Donald Claggett again secretly recorded a meeting with Wenzler and Moraine's Chief of Police. Wenzler said that, given that the Claggetts claimed that their security cameras had recently captured nineteen people cutting across their front yard, there must still be confusion about where the boundary lines are. Therefore, the tape would remain. Doc. #1, PagelD##8-9.

         On March 9, 2018, the Claggetts filed suit against Anthony Wenzler, the City of Moraine, and Tomi Hatfield.[2] Seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Claggetts alleged violations of several constitutional rights. In addition to monetary damages, they also seek a declaratory judgment to the effect that the City's purported lease of the Adjacent Strip to Tomi Hatfield is null and void. In addition, they seek injunctions: (1) prohibiting Defendants from barring the Claggetts from the Adjacent Strip; (2) prohibiting Defendants from amending or revising the purported lease or entering into a new lease to cure any defects; (3) prohibiting Defendants from maintaining the caution tape; and (4) prohibiting the City from using its enforcement discretion to bully and harass the Claggetts or to aid further such conduct by Ms. Hatfield.

         Hatfield filed several state law Counterclaims against the Claggetts: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (2) declaratory judgment concerning the property rights in question; (3) invasion of privacy; and (4) trespass. Doc. #15.

         In May of 2018, after this lawsuit was filed, the parties reached an agreement whereby the Claggetts would notify Hatfield when they needed to access the Adjacent Strip either to mow their grass or maintain their fence, and Hatfield would temporarily remove the caution tape to allow them to do so. Doc. #22. At his deposition, Donald Claggett indicated on a map where his fence is and why he is unable to access this narrow sliver of his property without stepping onto the Adjacent Strip. Doc. #45, PagelD##278-81. That map is attached to this Decision and Entry as Exhibit A.

         Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the Counterclaims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and trespass. Doc. #30. Defendant Hatfield then filed a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs' request for a declaratory judgment concerning the validity of the lease. Doc. #33. Defendants Wenzler and the City of Moraine have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims asserted against them. Doc. #43. Those motions are now fully briefed and ripe for decision.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment must be entered "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the record which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323; see also Boretti v. Wiscomb, 930 F.2d 1150, 1156 (6th Cir. 1991).

         "Once the moving party has met its initial burden, the nonmoving party must present evidence that creates a genuine issue of material fact making it necessary to resolve the difference at trial." Talley v. Bravo Pitino Rest., Ltd., 61 F.3d 1241, 1245 (6th Cir. 1995); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). Once the burden of production has so shifted, the party opposing summary judgment cannot rest on its pleadings or merely reassert its previous allegations. It is not sufficient to "simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rule 56 "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the [unverified] pleadings" and present some type of evidentiary material in support of its position. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "The plaintiff must present more than a scintilla of evidence in support of his position; the evidence must be such that a jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff." Michigan Prot. & Advocacy Serv., Inc. v. Babin, 18 F.3d 337, 341 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Summary judgment shall be granted "if the movant shows that 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(a). "Summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is 'genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 4-11 U, S. at 248. In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, a court must assume as true the evidence of the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Id. at 255. If the parties present conflicting evidence, a court may not decide which evidence to believe. Credibility determinations must be left to the fact-finder. 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure Civil 3d § 2726 (1998).

         In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, a court need only consider the materials cited by the parties. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). "A district court is not . . . obligated to wade through and search the entire record for some specific facts that might support the nonmoving party's claim." InterRoyal Corp. v. Sponseller,889 F.2d 108, 111 (6th Cir. 1989), cert, denied,494 U.S. 1091 (1990). If ...

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