What You Need to Know About How to Sue a Neighbor for Harassment in California

Individuals may sue their neighbors for harassment in a case of violence or the threat of violence. Here’s how to sue a neighbor for harassment in California.

California law outlines what may count as harassment, and also details what actions may be taken to protect an individual from harassment. In order for a neighbor to be considered a harasser, their conduct must be something that would cause someone substantial emotional distress.

What Constitutes Harassment?

California’s Code of Civil Procedure 527.6 defines harassment as a credible (real) threat of violence and acts of unlawful violence. For such actions to be considered harassment, the violence and/or threats must seriously scare, annoy, or harass someone, and there is no valid reason for it. Unlawful violence typically refers to assault, battery, or stalking. Credible threats of violence mean intentionally saying something or acting in a way that would make a reasonable person fear for their safety or the safety of their family. This includes following or stalking someone, making harassing calls, or sending harassing messages, by phone, mail, or e-mail, over a period of time (even if it is in a short period of time).

Reasons to Sue a Neighbor for Harassment

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a tort under California law. This means one may sue their neighbor for harassment if it inflicts emotional distress onto them. The law recognizes peace of mind as a legally protected interest. If a person causes another individual mental or emotional suffering or distress by means of intentional or outrageous conduct, the alleged harasser may be liable for damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

To be able to sue a neighbor for intentional infliction of emotional distress, they must pass the required elements:

  • Extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant with the intention of causing, or a reckless disregard for the possibility of causing emotional distress,
  • The plaintiff’s suffering severe or extreme emotional distress, and
  • The plaintiff’s emotional distress is a direct causation of the defendant’s outrageous conduct.

To sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the defendant must have intended to cause emotional distress, or at least have used reckless conduct (conduct intended to inflict injury or engaged with the realization that injury will result). Malicious or evil purpose is not essential in order to sue for emotional distress.

It should be noted that California courts have set a high bar for emotional distress claims. Emotional distress must be severe. This typically has meant severe psychological or psychopathic injury. Discomfort, worry, anxiety, upset stomach, concern, and agitation as a result of a neighbor’s conduct is not sufficient enough to sue a neighbor for emotional distress.

Damages for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress have no fixed or absolute standard by which to determine a monetary value of emotional distress. The monetary value is typically determined by a jury who will evaluate the individual case. Punitive damages (money that a defendant must pay as a form of punishment) may be available against someone in this case.

One may also sue their neighbor for harassment if they commit unlawful violence against them, such as assault or battery. One may sue their neighbor for damages as a result of this. Typically, they can sue for compensatory damages (money to reimburse or pay to a plaintiff for actual loss or injury) or punitive damages (money that a defendant has to pay as a form of punishment).  With regards to compensatory damages in a lawsuit for unlawful violence, the court will usually look at the loss of time and labor suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the injury.

If someone’s neighbor is stalking them, they may sue them and receive damages (monetary compensation). This may mean general damages (non-economic injury), special damages (economic injury), or punitive damages.

Procedure to Sue a Neighbor for Unlawful Violence

Once someone has figured out who they are suing, where to file their lawsuit, and how much to sue for, they are ready to file their lawsuit. This typically requires the help of an attorney.

Here are the general steps to file a civil lawsuit in California:

Step 1. Prepare the proper court forms

The first form is the complaint. This form states how much a person was hurt or how the dispute arose, who is responsible, and how much the damages are. One must also include a cause of action in their complaint, which refers to the legal theory that is the basis of the lawsuit.

Other than a complaint form, one will need a summons, which is a form notice that informs the defendant that they are being sued and tells them the time limit for responding. Speak to an attorney about which summons form is required in your harassment case.

Thirdly, form CM-010 is required. This is a cover sheet that tells the court some basic information about the case being filed.

Step 2. File the papers in court

Filing the forms in court officially gets the case started. The plaintiff should make at least two copies of their forms and take the original documents and the copies to a court clerk in the courthouse where the plaintiff is filing the case. The court clerk will file the papers and give the plaintiff a case number. The clerk will keep the original forms and return the copies back to the plaintiff, stamped “filed.”

Step. 3. Serve the defendant

The plaintiff is required to serve the defendant copies of all the papers filed with the court. Lawsuits require that the defendant be informed of the beginning of this process. The plaintiffs themselves are not allowed to serve the documents; it must be done by someone else who is over the age of 18. The server must also fill out a Proof of Service telling the court they served the papers the right way. Afterward, the plaintiff must file the proof of service with the court.

Related: Civil Harassment Restraining Orders in California

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