Often, when people come to me for a legal consult, the word “harassment” comes up; clients say that someone – another tenant, neighbor, landlord or coworker – is “harassing” them, and can’t they “sue for harassment?” Unfortunately, usually the answer is “no.”
A lot of annoying behavior does not rise to the level required to make out a legal claim for what might be called, in generic terms, harassment. There are specific legal claims that a wrongdoer’s acts may fall under, e.g. sexual harassment, civil assault or battery, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. A boss who shouts and screams at you, a neighbor who pounds on the wall every time you play music, or a landlord who tries to evict you for being one day late in rent, is not going to be liable for any form of harassment. Essentially, it is legal to be annoying.
On top of the legality of being annoying, some actions that are commonly described as “harassment” are protected as “free speech” and/or the “right to petition.” For example, suppose a landlord tries to evict a tenant based on a bogus reason. “That’s just plain harassment!” But the fact is, a landlord’s filing of a civil lawsuit for eviction is protected free speech/right to petition that the tenant must defend against – claiming it is “harassment” is not a legitimate defense and will fall on the deaf ears of justice. Possible additional recourse may be available to a tenant in this situation, such as a claim for ‘abuse of process’ or ‘wrongful eviction,’ but each of these claims are difficult to establish and must rely on facts other than the mere filing of a lawsuit or service of a notice to evict, both of which are protected as free speech/right to petition. Likewise, your annoying neighbor’s calls to the police every time you play your saxophone (“That’s just plain harassment!”) are protected as free speech.
However, there is a civil violation on the books called “harassment.” California Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6 defines harassment as: “unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress.” (This is civil harassment, not a criminal charge.)
With this definition in mind, you can see that the behavior of your annoying neighbor, etc. must rise to a very high level of annoyance to meet the standard of civil harassment. However, if it does, you can obtain a Restraining Order against that person. More information about Restraining Orders can be found at: http://www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/divisions/civil/harassment
In sum, you can’t always resort to the courts when you have a dispute. An attorney can help you determine if you have a legal case or grounds to get a restraining order. Also, remember to not overreact when someone is annoying you, or YOU may cross the line into harassment or assault! Look for ways to peaceably resolve your conflict.
[Note: if you want protection from someone you are dating (or used to date), married to (or were married to); or closely related to (like a parent, child, brother or sister, grandparent, or grandchild), then this falls into the category of Domestic Violence, and must seek a Restraining Order in the court’s Family Law department.]