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Wood v. Neuman

August 27, 2009


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-5906-02) (Hon. Neal Kravitz, Trial Judge) (Hon. Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Motions Judge). (Hon. Jennifer M. Anderson, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, Associate Judge

Argued March 3, 2009

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and KRAMER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

This appeal is the continuation of an at-times acrimonious dispute between neighbors -- appellant/cross-appellee Anne Wood, the owner of a unit in the Duddington Manor Condominium ("the Duddington"), and appellees/cross-appellants R. Michael and M. Delia Neuman, owners of a townhouse next door to the condominium building. The dispute arose from their inconsistent views about use of the narrow strip of land that separates their properties, and it escalated into conduct that led to criminal charges and a variety of civil claims and counterclaims. In this appeal, Wood and the Neumans challenge several rulings by the Superior Court in the civil litigation. We affirm the judgments of the Superior Court.

I. Background

The Neumans have only about 8.4 inches of yard space between the western wall of their townhouse, which is located at 121 E St., S.E., and their westerly property line. Immediately on the other side of that property line is the lot occupied by the Duddington, whose address is 115-117 E St., S.E. Wood owns condominium unit 102 on the ground floor of the Duddington. As unit owner, Wood has use of an outdoor area -- referred to in the record as her "garden" or "patio" -- just outside her unit. Wood's garden/patio is about four-and-a-half feet wide and abuts the Neuman's westerly property line. Thus, a plot of land roughly five feet wide separates the parties' dwellings.

In 1999, the Neumans sought to waterproof the westerly wall of their townhouse. To accomplish the work as planned, the Neumans' contractor sought more work space than the 8.4 inches of space in the Neumans' own yard. The Neumans claimed to have an easement for maintenance and repairs that permitted them access to Wood's garden/patio, a claim that Wood disputed. Eventually the Neumans reached an agreement with the Duddington Condominium Board that allowed them access to Wood's garden/patio to perform both the waterproofing work and a drainage project benefitting the Duddington. Wood objected to the resultant damage to her garden and to the Neumans' insistence on maintaining a gateway opening into her garden area. The Neumans complained about Wood's plantings encroaching onto their land. Et cetera.

There followed a number ofverbal and physical confrontations between the neighbors. Wood posted signs in her windows disparaging the Neumans. Mr. Neuman dug up Wood's plants. Perching over a fence that had been built between the two lots, Delia Neuman took photos of Wood as Wood dug up paving stones that the Neumans had caused to be laid in her garden area. In response, Wood sprayed Delia Neuman with water from a garden hose. The Neumans called the police and had Wood arrested for assault.

Finally, the Neumans filed a civil suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for assault and battery, breach of privacy, stalking and harassment, vandalism and trespass, libel, and nuisance. Wood counterclaimed, alleging trespass, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contractual relations. Wood also sought a declaratory judgment that the Neumans had no easement with respect to Wood's garden/patio.

After a bench trial on Wood's counterclaim for a declaratory judgment, the Honorable Neal Kravitz ruled that the the Neumans "have no easement for access upon or across the limited common element assigned to Unit 102 of the Duddington Manor Condominium [i.e., the area of Wood's garden/patio] for the purpose of performing repairs or maintenance to their property." The Honorable Jennifer Anderson presided over a jury trial of the parties' other claims. As to some of the parties' claims, Judge Anderson ruled that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law and withheld the claims from the jury. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the Neumans on their assault and battery, trespass and nuisance claims, but awarded no damages. The jury found in favor of Wood on her trespass and abuse of process claims and awarded compensatory damages totaling $5,000.

II. The Issues on Appeal

We address the parties' claims of error in turn.

A. The Declaratory Judgment

We turn first to the Neumans' argument that Wood lacked standing to seek a declaratory judgment. The Neumans do not appear to challenge Judge Kravitz's finding that Wood alleged a sufficient injury-in-fact from the Neumans' claimed right of entry into her garden/patio to afford her standing. Instead, their argument is that under District law and the Duddington Condominium instruments, the Duddington Board had authority to grant the Neumans ...

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