Can You Sue a Neighbor for Mental or Verbal Harassment?

Understanding your options for dealing with neighbor harassment 

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 27, 2023

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No one ever wants to deal with neighbor disputes. We want our homes to be safe and peaceful places. But conflicts with neighbors can arise during your residence in a house or apartment. Sometimes, these conflicts involve neighbor harassment. Understanding when neighbor harassment occurs and what you can do about it is essential to address the problem effectively and restore peace. If you are dealing with neighbor harassment, the good news is that you have a range of different options at your disposal. Not all options involve taking legal action, and hopefully, your solution will not require bringing a civil lawsuit or criminal charges. However, if legal action is needed, understanding your range of options and legal rights is key to navigating neighbor harassment.

What Is Harassment?

Harassing behavior can take many forms and happen in different situations, including neighbor relations. In its most general sense, harassment is conduct or words targeted at a specific person or that person’s family members intended to cause emotional distress or fear of being harmed. Whatever form harassment takes, there are a couple of general requirements for offending behavior to be considered harassment. First, the behavior typically must be persistent or repeated, not a rare or one-time event. Second, the offending behavior must meet the reasonable person standard. This standard asks: is a victim’s distress or alarm how a reasonable person would feel in this situation? Courts use this standard to ensure that people can’t call whatever behavior they don’t like harassment. The behavior needs to pose an actual threat or menace that others recognize. What does this mean practically? Assessing reasonableness is very fact-specific. The line between being merely offensive and harassing can be small. Proving harassment depends on showing evidence that the behavior was truly threatening, alarming, or distressing. It’s important to note that the exact definition of harassment, the specific actions that can count as harassment, and the penalties for harassment all vary by state harassment laws. Depending on the facts of your case and where you live, harassment may be a civil or criminal matter. In the criminal arena, penalties can range from misdemeanors to felonies. To make the best decision on whether you should bring a civil or criminal case, it is best to consult a lawyer.

What Behaviors Could Be Harassment?

Here are some examples where your neighbor’s actions might meet the legal requirements of harassment:
  • They keep coming into your yard, up to your house, or trespassing when you have asked them not to
  • They do things to bother or target your pet(s)
  • They threaten or attempt to build or landscape over your property line
  • They keep playing loud music or have other loud events in violation of local quiet hours, especially if you have asked them to stop. If they played loud music once or infrequently, this wouldn’t count
  • They engage in stalking behavior or try to keep track of your movements from next door
  • They address you with unwanted sexual remarks or engage in other forms of sexual harassment
  • They address you with derogatory comments – for example, about your race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religion
  • They threaten you or your loved ones with physical harm or violence or try to make you move away from your home

What Can You Do?

No matter the action you end up taking, one of the most important things you can do is compile information about what your neighbor is doing. Showing that harassment is happening and stopping it requires proof. Depending on what your neighbor is doing, having videos from a security camera or phone, testimony from witnesses, notes such as a log and description of incidents, or police reports can be essential to getting a solution. Of course, you may be able to solve the problem before pursuing legal action. A first solution might be talking with the neighbor directly. But maybe you have already done this, and the neighbor keeps doing the unwanted behavior. In this case, you can take one of the following actions depending on your situation:
  • Homeowners’ Association. If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association, some forms of harassment, such as noise-related complaints, could be addressed this way.
  • Filing a noise complaint. If noise-related issues persist, you could file a noise complaint with law enforcement.
  • Injunction. Harassment related to noise issues or property use might violate local zoning laws. You could seek an injunction from a civil court, ordering your neighbor to stop their behavior.
  • Damages. In some situations, you might want money damages instead of an injunction. Depending on the amount you are seeking, you might file a petition with a small claims court.
  • Call the police. In some cases, you could call police officers to investigate. A police report can be helpful evidence if you choose to take legal action.
  • Restraining order. You may need to get a restraining order against your neighbor for some behavior, such as stalking, violence, or threats. The extent of restraining orders varies by state. Most states, including the District of Columbia, explicitly allow people to get restraining orders to protect their pets and family members.
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotion Distress. Depending on your situation, one ground for legal action against your neighbor could be the tort known as intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). To prove IIED, you need to show: (1) your neighbor acted recklessly or intentionally (2) in an outrageous or extreme way that (3) caused you severe emotional distress. Proving that behavior rises to the level of IIED can be hard, but this may be an option in some circumstances.
  • Criminal charges. In some harassment cases, you may seek criminal charges against your neighbor.

What if I’m a Renter, Not a Homeowner?

If you are a tenant who pays rent, you have a right to be free of harassing behavior, just like a homeowner. If you rent an apartment, you could experience any of the above problems, including excessive noise levels, misuse of the building and premises, derogatory comments, threats, etc. The options above apply equally to renters in defending their legal rights.

Questions for an Attorney

Many attorneys provide initial free consultations to prospective clients. These meetings are a great resource for both attorney and client because it allows the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney meets their needs. The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations:
  • What is your fee, and what options for billing do you offer?
  • What would be my best course of action and the likelihood of success given my situation and the facts?
  • What are all the legal services you offer?
  • Do you have experience in cases like mine?

Finding the Right Attorney For Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. Depending on your specific situation, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices real estate law, general litigation law, civil litigation, or landlord-tenant law.

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