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Judge’s actions in Forest Hill neighbour dispute debated

|Written By Yamri Taddese

In the wake of a now-infamous ruling about quarrelling Forest Hill neighbours, lawyers are debating whether the judge should have resolved the matter instead of dismissing it in a decision full of biting comments.

‘The court is no place for petty squabbles,’ says David Sterns.

Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan’s ruling dealing with wealthy residents in the “tony” Toronto neighbourhood became fodder for legal comedy after he found the parties needed “a stern kindergarten teacher” rather than a day in court.

But Toronto lawyer Lee Akazaki isn’t laughing. He says that in mocking the plaintiffs for bringing the action, the judge neglected his duty to “diffuse tension between citizens” no matter how petty their claims may be.

Morgan’s decision, which called the case “a gem of a lawsuit,” focused on poking fun at the parties and failed to even describe the kind of relief the plaintiffs were seeking, Akazaki notes.

“From the perspective of judicial duty, when I read the case I found it less than satisfactory in terms of telling me what the case was about and why it was decided in that way,” he says.

“As a member of the public, it would have been good to be told what the plaintiffs were seeking because it’s only when you have that information that you can determine whether the decision to dismiss was justified.”

The decision says the plaintiffs, John and Paris Morland-Jones, pursued a civil lawsuit after the parties exchanged lawyer letters to no avail. To Akazaki, that suggests the judge should have granted some sort of relief in the form of an injunction.

“What if you can’t get any relief here? What does that mean? Does that mean that I have to go across the street and punch somebody?” he asks.

Lots of cases involve difficult parties, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve relief, according to Akazaki, who adds he found it “disturbing” that the judge’s decision suggests the litigants face a higher standard of conduct because they’re rich and have good education.

“The entire tone of the judgment relays the message that rich and educated people are to be held to a different standard of conduct than other people, such as people from a less affluent neighbourhood, almost [going] to say that ‘I would have expected this from people living in Rexdale or Scarborough but I don’t expect it from people living in Forest Hill.’

“A lot of people might think that — and people are entitled to their opinion — but that shouldn’t be part of a judicial determination. I found that message to be disturbing. It’s actually a class-based type reasoning.”

Had the same case come out of a troubled neighbourhood where the exchange between the parties had been “coarse rather than petty,” the judge would have had to grant relief, Akazaki suggests.

For others, Morgan’s ruling was the right response to a “first-world problem.”

“The court is no place for petty squabbles,” says David Sterns, a litigator at Sotos LLP.

While Sterns is generally not a fan of judges “strutting their stuff” in their rulings through colourful comments, “sometimes they are appropriate when a judge wants to make a point and that’s what Justice Morgan was doing in this case,” he says.

“I don’t necessarily think he was out to humiliate anybody but he probably felt it was necessary to send a message that court resources are scarce, courts are for serious matters, and people coming to court are choosing to air their disputes in a public forum and occasionally they can be given a rough ride.”

In Morland-Jones v. Taerk, the Morland-Joneses accused their neighbours, Audrey and Gary Taerk, of various faults, including staring at their property.

“In what is perhaps the piece de resistance of the claim, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants — again focusing primarily on Ms. Taerk — sometimes stand in their own driveway or elsewhere on their property and look at the plaintiffs’ house,” wrote Morgan.

“One of the video exhibits shows Ms. Taerk doing just that, casting her gaze from her own property across the street and resting her eyes on the plaintiffs’ abode for a full 25 seconds. There is no denying that Ms. Taerk is guilty as charged,” Morgan wrote.

The Morland-Joneses have 11 cameras at their house, two of which aim directly at the Taerks’ home, according to the ruling.

“For their part, the defendants have not been entirely innocent,” wrote Morgan.

“They appear to have learned that the plaintiffs — and especially Ms. Morland-Jones — have certain sensitivities, and they seem to relish playing on those sensitivities. They realize, for example, that Ms. Morland-Jones does not enjoy having her house photographed, and so Ms. Taerk tends to take her cellphone out and point it at the plaintiffs’ house precisely when Ms. Morland-Jones can see her doing it.”

Judges shouldn’t have to discern “a kernel of legitimacy” in cases where, on the face of it, a claim is frivolous, says Sterns.

But to Akazaki, granting injunctive relief, such as an order that draws ground rules for the parties, may have in fact prevented the case from proceeding to trial. Oftentimes, people learn to live with interlocutory injunctions and withdraw their case, he says.

In this case, mocking the plaintiffs for bringing the case to court allowed the defendants to walk away with a sense of triumph, he adds.

“It allows the alleged bully to hold something else against the plaintiffs, and that applies even if it’s mutual bullying.”

  • Bill Henderson
    Both wives sound like they need more meaning to their lives or one or both are just nuts.

    Someone of the couples ought to have been able tohave insight and effect a resolution that would have allowed some level of peace.

    Frankly I would not want my every move the subject of videos by crazy people. On the other hand, a psychiatrist might have been able to reconcile the differences, particularly one with Dr. Taerk's pedigree.

    The judge joined the litigants in being jerks. Still babies come in al ages and wallet sizes.

    Morgan did not properly represent the Bench and should apologize to his colleagues and the bar.

    Yikes what if one of the party's appeals
  • Paul Taylor
    This is a prime example that judges are not respecting people.
    Respect should come even when people are not acting responsible.
    This is a valid harassment complaint and the judge should have saw this.
    Maybe this is another example of why judges should be elected!
  • Eric M. Wolfman
    I agree with Mr. Akazaki. Historically, the civil justice system was developed to keep the "King's Peace", especially amongst the Barons (i.e. “the affluent”) to avoid blood feuds and civil violence. These plaintiffs had as much right to access the courts as any other litigant. “Tak[ing] up an entire day in what is already a crowded motions court, at the taxpayer’s expense” is irrelevant. They paid the $181.00 filing fee and they had a right to have their complaint heard and decided, without the sarcasm offered up by the judge. There is no excuse to belittle the Plaintiffs who were only doing what they were supposed to do by submitting their dispute to the courts rather than resorting to a possible tragic alternative. I am sure that many hospital emergency wards were crowded, as well as doctors’ offices, mental health clinics etc., all at taxpayer’s expense. Is the judge saying that “self-help” would have been a better remedy than taking up court time?
  • Lee Akazaki
    I originally came to a conclusion similar to many of these comments, until I considered the volatile dynamic of neighbour disputes. These frequently involve unreasonable people on one side or both, and complaints which may seem trifling compared with accident victims, family breakdown or wrongful dismissal.

    Awareness of the potential for escalation of unmediated personal disputes and definition of the boundaries of legal rights are proper functions of a court of inherent jurisdiction. It is because the litigants in this case seemed unreasonable and determined, that the decision ought to have treated them in a more dignified manner. It is not hard to see what can happen when parties are discouraged from seeking resolution through lawyers and courts:

    http://listverse.com/2013/09/04/10-neighbor-disputes-that-ended-in-violence/

    http://www.problemneighbours.co.uk/personal-issues-when-disputes-get-nasty.html
  • Michael Fairney
    I think the judge here might have been a little unprofessional in mocking the litigants, but surely they deserved it. More importantly though, the case should not have gone to court, or even to the point of sending lawyer's letters. When it comes to neighbor disputes, class is irrelevant. I come across these sorts of matters in my practice all the time, and whenever I do, the first thing I say to the aggrieved parties, whether they are the complainers or the target of the complaints, is to IGNORE the problem! They are always petty matters that will go away if you just pretend that they don't exist. I always tell them that hiring me is a waste of their money and pushing the matter can easily lead to physical confrontations and police involvement. We all have to deal with things that annoy us from our neighbours; in my mind, you have to allow for a very high threshold of annoyance. Their will always be something to annoy you, and you have to learn to live with things that bother you.
  • Brian Knowler
    Mr Akazaki, if ever there was a case that begged for the litigants to be mocked, this is it. This is affluent, upper class entitlement at its best, a waste of time for the courts and the judiciary. The only winners in this case were the firms that billed who knows how many hours exchanging lawyer's letters back and forth and then appearing on the matter.

    Bravo to Justice Morgan for a common sense decision with a bit of bite to it. He saw this matter for what it really was - a first world problem where neither party deserved relief.
  • philip brent
    If the above article accurately describes the substance of the case, I do not see any cause of action. My comments are based on the assumption that the plaintiff's complaint was the actions of the defendants in staring at the plaintiff's home from a public or private vantage, no trespass or physical interaction involved. If this is an accurate analysis, then not only would I have dismissed the case, I would have assessed costs personally against the plaintiff lawyer for bringing such drivel before the courts. Obviously, the plaintiff and defendant have too much time on their hands and are far too thin skinned to function effectively in the real world and apparently they don't.
  • Jeffrey Gauze
    My only critique of this decision is that His Honour praised the Defendants' restraint in not counter-claiming (though they may have succeeded in suing for breach of privacy, after being placed under "24/7/365" video surveillance); yet he denied them any costs of the action, citing R. 57.01(1)(d) - 'the importance of the issues'. Even if the claim was without merit, just partial success of the claim for interlocutory relief would have significantly impacted the Defendants' use and enjoyment of their own "stately" and "well-manicured" property; so the issues were important... even if the events giving rise to the litigation were not.
  • Jeffrey Gauze
    Had Justice Morgan treated this claim with anything other than derision, he would have merely fed the egos of one or both of the involved couples. Would this have diffused tensions between them? If they weren't ashamed to involve their immediate neighbours in their feud, perhaps the judge was right to hold them up to more widespread public ridicule.
  • Evan Sorestad
    I don't know. I read the decision and it is pretty clear what the plaintiffs were seeking - all of which there was no remedy for in law. The defendants did not exactly escape the biting remarks of the judge either. And the only injunctive relief that perhaps should have been given is to have the cameras trained on the defendants house removed or moved, but the defendants did not ask for that. No one was completely blameless but the plaintiffs were clearly more petty and idiotic than the defendants. I think the judgment was exactly the correct response.
  • catherine macnaughto
    This case was a waste of the court's time and should have been settled by mediation or a slap up the side of a few heads. Or maybe I am just too old when I expect adults to behave like mature and reasonable adults.
  • Lee Akazaki
    Compare this case with the English Court of Appeal decision in Miller v. Jackson, in which Lord Denning MR satirized the applicants for complaining about cricket balls landing in their garden. Then read the majority judgments, which applied the law without mocking the applicants: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/1977/6.html
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