There is an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors.” However, it is not unheard of that what starts out as a dispute between neighbors over borders of property can end up in litigation. This is illustrated by an unreported opinion this week from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Erwin Burtnick v. Paul Weinblatt.
The appellate opinion indicates that this lawsuit had “grown out of a seemingly innocuous dispute between two neighbors over a hedge.” The facts were that in 1990, Burtnick planted a hedge along his rear property line. In 2015, his neighbor Weinblatt approached Burtnick to point out that the hedge was so overgrown that it invaded the sidewalk and supposedly blocked the line of site for drivers. Burtnick took no action in response to Weinblatt’s repeated communications, so Weinblatt complained to the local homeowner’s association and eventually the county became involved.
After extensive communication, John Armacost, who was a crew chief for the county Public Works Department got involved, and ended up telling Burtnick to trim his hedge because it was blocking the sidewalk.
After complaints by Burtnick and more communication, ultimately the county had a contractor trim the hedge. The next day, Armacost, not knowing that trim work had been done, decided to resolve the situation by having his crew cut back the hedge substantially. The police were called, and Burtnick and Weinblatt got into a discussion at the scene. Burtnick later sued, among others, the HOA, Weinblatt and Armacost, with the trial judge ultimately granting judgment for all defendants and Burnick appealed.
The appellate Court agreed that Burtnick’s efforts to turn this matter into constitutional violations was unavailing. It found that the public works department through Armacost had the power to maintain the public right of way, and Weinblatt was not a public official or state actor who could be sued for violation of constitutional rights.
However, the appellate Court found that there was enough evidence that Armacost had cut the hedge beyond the property line so that the suit could at least go forward on the claim that he (but not Weinblatt) had trespassed on Burtnick’s property.
The Court of Special Appeals also held that Burtnick’s suit for defamation against Weinblatt should not have been dismissed. It noted that there was evidence that Weinblatt made such statements as that Burtnick was unstable and had guns, that someone needed to speak to Burtnick before he hurt someone, which could be found to be false and defamatory, so that this dispute also could go to trial.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.