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Stinson v. Mensel

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

July 12, 2017


          Session March 21, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hickman County No. 12-CV-4872 Deanna B. Johnson, Judge

         This appeal involves a dispute between landowners over an easement on Plaintiffs' property that allows the Defendants to use the easement for ingress and egress to their homes. Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that the Defendants unlawfully bulldozed the easement, encroached onto Plaintiffs' property, and used threats and intimidation to prevent the Plaintiffs from coming on or using the non-exclusive easement. Defendants counter-sued, alleging that the Plaintiffs were actually the ones engaging in a campaign of harassment, and that the Plaintiffs were preventing the Defendants from the peace and enjoyment of the easement, which they used as their driveway. Following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that Plaintiffs were liable to Defendants for nuisance, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy. The trial court also enjoined the Plaintiffs from having any use of the easement. Plaintiffs appealed. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and partially vacate the injunction. Specifically, we affirm the judgment of the trial court with respect to the nuisance claim, reverse the judgment of the trial court with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy claims, and vacate the permanent injunction against Plaintiffs to the extent that it prohibits them from the lawful use of their property.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in part, Reversed in part, Vacated in part, and Remanded

          Edmund Covington Johnston, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellants, Charles Stinson, and Glenda Stinson.

          Allston Vander Horst, Centerville, Tennessee, for the appellees, David E. Mensel, Mary F. Mensel, Michael Sabol, and Christine Sabol.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny Armstrong, J., joined.



         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Appellants, Charles Stinson and his wife, Glenda Stinson (collectively "the Stinsons") initiated this litigation against their neighbors, Appellees, David E. Mensel and his wife Mary F. Mensel (collectively "the Mensels") and Michael Sabol and his wife, Christine Sabol (collectively "the Sabols") on October 25, 2012. The Stinsons own land in Hickman County, Tennessee and have a home on that land. The Stinsons' land is subject to an easement, which is a 50-foot non-exclusive easement for utilities and for ingress and egress to certain neighboring properties (the "Easement"). The deed attached to the Stinsons' complaint indicates that the Stinsons' property line is the center line of the Easement. The Mensels and the Sabols live on land accessed by the Easement and use a road built on the Easement as the driveway to their homes. This road/driveway within the Easement is known as Captain Spence Ridge Road. The Stinsons do not actually use Captain Spence Ridge Road as the driveway to their home. Captain Spence Ridge Road was built so that it is in the center of the Easement. The original width of Captain Spence Ridge Road was approximately eight feet wide, but it has been widened over the years. The widened road is still within the boundaries of the Easement. Many of the landowners who use the Easement are parties to a certain contract that governs their respective responsibilities regarding the maintenance and improvements to the road within the Easement (the "Driveway Maintenance Agreement"). The Stinsons and their predecessors in interest chose not to enter into the Driveway Maintenance Agreement.

         The controversy in this case appears to have begun in December 2008, when Mr. Stinson came to believe that the Sabols had stolen some of his chickens that wandered over to the Sabol property. Mrs. Sabol received a handwritten letter from Mr. Stinson in her mailbox stating the following:

Your [sic] a theft [sic]. My checken [sic] have made it over to your house. You never came and told me so you caught them and keep [sic] them now I'm pisst [sic]. Your [sic] not a good neighbor and your [sic] on my [s-t] list.

         Apparently angry over the chicken incident, the Stinsons thereafter began to harass the Sabols and the Mensels. The Stinsons' behavior that followed ranged from petty to outright dangerous. Mr. Stinson began to constantly put things in or around Captain Spence Ridge Road and otherwise within the Easement. He placed debris in the Easement on several occasions, as well as fence posts that were apparently designed to keep people from driving on the Easement. When the Mensels attempted to put survey tape on the posts to warn their houseguests of the presence of the posts, Mr. Stinson promptly removed the tape. Mr. Stinson also dug a ditch in the roadway that required drivers to drive more on the Sabols' side of the road. Then, when a flood came in May 2010, the ditch forced unusually high water and mud down the driveway, resulting in a considerable amount of erosion.

         There were also numerous altercations and screaming matches between the Stinsons and the Defendants. The police were called on several occasions. When the Mensels went to speak with Mr. Stinson about removing the fence posts, Mr. Stinson said that he had been to the courthouse and had taken steps to reduce the size of the Easement. This was not true. During the discussion, Mr. Stinson became loud, threatening and intimidating. Mr. Stinson was often described during the trial as aggressive and hostile. In 2009, Mr. Sabol was clearing weeds on Captain Spence Ridge Road when Mr. Stinson became angry and told him he could not remove the weeds. Mr. Stinson then cut brush and left the brush on Captain Spence Ridge Road. He subsequently erected a sign telling the Sabols to stay on their side of the Easement. Those passing through the Easement would routinely have to drive around the brush put in place by Mr. Stinson in order to prevent it from scraping their vehicles. Mr. Sabol frequently removed the brush, and Mr. Stinson would replace it. On one occasion, Mr. Mensel was working on the Easement when Mr. Stinson attempted to call out to him and talk to him. Mr. Mensel was wearing protective earmuffs and could not hear Mr. Stinson. Mr. Stinson apparently thought Mr. Mensel was intentionally ignoring him, so Mr. Stinson picked up a large rock and began following Mr. Mensel down the road. The situation was eventually diffused when Mr. Sabol stepped out into the road so that Mr. Stinson could note his presence. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Stinson arrived at the Sabols' home and began to verbally accost Mrs. Sabol.

         More chaos followed. Mr. Stinson continued his antics of throwing brush onto the Easement, and at one point Mrs. Stinson went so far as to throw her body in front of a bulldozer that the Mensels had hired to grade the Easement. The police were called again and again. These theatrics culminated in a lawsuit filed by the Stinsons against the Mensels and Sabols. On October 25, 2012, the Stinsons filed a complaint against the Mensels and Sabols claiming that they had caused the easement to be graded and bulldozed, encroached onto the Stinsons' property, and made verbal threats and used intimidation in order to prevent the Stinsons from coming onto or using the easement. The Mensels and Sabols filed an answer and counter-complaint on December 19, 2012. They denied making any threats or intimidating the Stinsons and alleged that the opposite was actually true.

         The case was tried before a judge sitting without a jury on August 10 and 11, 2015. On January 6, 2016, the trial court entered an extensive memorandum and order dismissing all of the Stinsons' claims against the Sabols and Mensels and holding the Stinsons liable to the Sabols and Mensels for nuisance, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court further enjoined the Stinsons from forever "using, driving on, damaging, or interfering with Captain Spence Ridge Road, or the maintenance of the same, " and from harassing the Mensels and Sabols. On February 5, 2016, the Stinsons filed a motion to alter or amend the trial court's judgment, alleging error in some of the court's factual and legal conclusions, as well as asserting that the trial court was "without authority to virtually divest the Plaintiffs from the ability to use or be upon their property that is part of the subject easement." The Mensels and Sabols also filed a post-judgment motion to clarify and amend the trial court's January 6, 2016 order, but only to generally correct a misspelling and some other inadvertent errors. On February 25, 2016, the trial court approved the corrections suggested by the Mensels and Sabols and entered an amended memorandum and order, which republished the original order with the changes incorporated. On March 6, 2016 the trial court denied the Stinsons' motion to alter or amend. The Stinsons timely appealed the trial court's judgment to this Court.

         II. Issues Presented

         The Stinsons present the following issues, as slightly reworded, for review on appeal:

1. Whether the trial court erred in finding the Stinsons liable to the Mensels and Sabols for nuisance?
2. Whether the trial court erred in finding the Stinsons committed the tort of invasion of privacy?
3. Whether the trial court erred in finding the Stinsons committed the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress?
4. Whether the trial court erred in permanently enjoining the Stinsons from coming onto, using, driving on, damaging, or interfering with Captain Spence Ridge Road for the entire 50-foot width of the Easement, or the maintenance of the same?

         III. Standard of Review

         This case was tried by the trial court without a jury. We therefore review the trial court's findings of fact de novo with a presumption of correctness unless the evidence preponderates otherwise. Tenn. R. App. 13(d); Armbrister v. Armbrister, 414 S.W.3d 685, 692 (Tenn. 2013). Also, because the trial court has the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witnesses and hear the in-court testimony, we afford considerable deference to the trial court's credibility determinations and the weight given to oral testimony. Andrews v. Andrews, 344 S.W.3d 321, 339 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010). We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Hyneman v. Hyneman, 152 S.W.3d 549, 553 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).

         IV.Discus ...

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