Can I Sue My Neighbor for Harassment?
Neighbor harassment is a very real thing. Too often, we are told to "just deal with it," or that bad neighbors are a part of life. However, if you have neighbor disputes with the people who live next door, you do have options to get a resolution.
Listen to your gut feelings if you think you are being watched or someone keeps making a "mistake." Small things like continually walking on your property or knocking on your windows to "just say hello" are not legal or appropriate.
The urge to be a kind neighbor does not extend to any situation where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
You may need to:
- Get a restraining order if your neighbor is threatening you or acting dangerously
- File a police report (the police may not take action but it will at least be on record)
- File a noise complaint with your landlord or the police
- Start the process of suing your neighbor for harassment (read on for more information)
What Qualifies as Neighbor Harassment?
Harassment must be a repeated and intentional act. This means a neighbor accidentally backing into your trash cans or having one loud party may not qualify. But if they start making threatening comments toward you or repeating the bad behavior, it can quickly become a harassment case.
Neighbor harassment can take many forms, including:
- Derogatory or offensive comments about sexual orientation, your nation of origin, or other discriminatory factors
- Calling law enforcement on you repeatedly or for small things
- Repeatedly playing loud music during city "quiet hours" or after you have asked them to stop
- Coming onto your yard or bothering your pet after you asked them (or their kids) to stay away
- Disorderly conduct on shared property or your property
- Claiming they have freedom of speech to say abusive things to you
- Any intentional acts to make you move away
- Stalking, watching you, or invading your legal rights to privacy
- Building or landscaping over the property line (or threats to do so)
Bad smells are a grey area for harassment cases. Unfortunately, this can happen from property issues like unattended trash or refusing to fix sewage problems. It can also be a result of mental health issues like hoarding or not disposing of dead animals. But, it can be an intentional act to make you move away in some circumstances. Keep in mind you will not have a case for things like a neighbor cooking food you do not like.
The Line Between Civil Cases and Criminal Harassment
Any harassing behavior over any period of time should be taken seriously. Things can (and usually do) escalate quickly.
Say you notice a neighbor throwing items at your dog because they don't like it barking. You might ask them to stop and both of you start arguing. Then things quickly get worse and they threaten you or your pet. This would likely be a civil case.
Now let's say the same neighbor throws something else at your dog a week later, causing or threatening harm. Since more than one instance has occurred, it will likely qualify as harassment.
While you may need more evidence to win the case, all it takes is one bad incident for you to be able to press charges. An attorney can help you understand what type of case it is since the lines between civil lawsuits and criminal charges can be very thin.
How to Sue for Neighbor Harassment
One of the most effective ways to get a resolution is to take your issue to small claims court. People can represent themselves in small claims court, but this takes time and strong evidence. If you do not have the time or knowledge to work through the court process, then a qualified attorney can handle your case.
The type of attorney you need may depend on the specifics of the issue. You may need:
- A real estate attorney (property lines disputes)
- A criminal law attorney (stalking or threats - see below)
- A general civil claims attorney (small disputes)
- A landlord-tenant law attorney (issues with renters or your landlord)
Don't Engage but Document Everything
As hard as it is, try not to engage with your neighbor's bad behavior. Keeping confrontations polite or simply walking away will work in your favor. You do not want a record of yelling back at them or harassing them back.
Instead, try to take videos or photos of what they do. Write down the day and time and what they said or did. File a police report (even though the police may not investigate every complaint), so you have a strong record of the situation.
Do not be offended if police, attorneys, or judges ask you personal questions about your age, sexual orientation, job, or other things that might feel discriminatory. These might be an essential part of the case to help prove there was harassment.
What to Expect in a Harassment Lawsuit
Generally, you can expect to:
- Gather evidence
- Review the evidence with the police, your attorney, and possibly the judge
- Speak in court or privately with a judge
- Settle the case for money or another resolution that (hopefully) makes your neighbor stop
- Possibly receive a restraining order against your neighbor (they won't be forced to move away, but they must stay away from you and off your property)
Once your case is resolved, you will want to be ready to re-document new actions or call the police if your neighbor breaks a restraining order. If your neighbor repeats any behavior, they may be arrested, fined, or go to jail.
It might feel tempting to move away just to escape this neighbor. That is a valid option, but it can be expensive and time-consuming. Do not let a bad neighbor make you leave a home and neighborhood you like. Pursue the case with an attorney and fight for one of these outcomes:
- A restraining order that makes your neighbor stop immediately
- Fines or settlements (this money can be useful if you do decide to move to a new home)
- Your neighbor goes to jail, and they stop the behavior, or you have time to move away
It is unfortunate but essential to point out that a neighbor may be even more out of control after facing an arrest or jail time. You should know the expiration dates of the restraining order, when they may get out of jail, and other facts so you can feel prepared. It is not common for things to spiral out of control in these harassment cases, but you should know that it can happen. Your safety is the top priority.
In most cases, it is common for the dispute to be settled in civil court, and both people keep a polite distance from the other for the rest of their time as neighbors.
Harassing Neighbors Can Become Dangerous
This is no longer a civil case if you are being threatened or stalked. By law, you have the right to safety in your home. These are criminal charges, and you need a criminal attorney to press charges and get an order for protection. You can also choose to sue for emotional suffering or physical injuries.
You should involve the police right away and find a criminal law attorney to stop the harasser long-term. Taking legal action can help stop them (sometimes called "cease and desist" orders) from escalating their actions and keep you and your family safe.
Do not "take matters into your own hands" when you are facing criminal harassment. The harassment charges can become a felony if:
- They have any prior misdemeanor (less serious crimes) on their record
- They are threatening you with violence
Suing them may just be one part of the case if criminal activity is involved.
You Have Rights in Your Own Home
Never forget that you have rights. Just because a neighbor "was there first" or they claim things were "always done this way" does not mean they can harass you. Figuring out if the situation is harassment or not can be tricky.
It is a smart move to do a free consultation with an attorney to understand what kind of case you are looking at. They can help outline the process, tell you what to document, or direct you to a criminal law attorney if things are dangerous.