Fappani v. Bratton (CA1 11/16/17)

Some observations on abuse of process.

Plaintiff built a dirt-bike track on his property for his kids. When they used the track Defendant, his neighbor, complained that they violated the county’s noise ordinance. Sheriff’s deputies cited him but Justice Court found him not guilty, whereupon he sued Defendant for abuse of process. He argued that her motives were wrong — that she acted from spite and ill-will and that she wanted to get rid of the track, which she thought hurt property values. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The Court of Appeals affirms. “[C]ontacting law enforcement to complain about a neighbor’s conduct is not use of a judicial process.” “[F]or abuse of process, a plaintiff must show that a defendant used an instrument of court process, and that did not happen here.”

But Plaintiff had a case — Ledvina (CA2 2006). Holding that making a report to law enforcement was absolutely privileged against a defamation claim, because it is “the first step in a judicial proceeding,” it went so far as to say that although defamation would not lie, abuse of process could. But that was dicta and “is not supported by any authority holding that merely reporting a crime constitutes use of a judicial process as required for an abuse of process claim.” This opinion uses instead an Iowa Supreme Court case holding that “a report to the police is not sufficient to constitute ‘legal process’ required for an abuse-of-process claim.”

The court also addresses the wrong-motive argument. Even if calling the sheriff were a use of process, to be tortious that must be done “for an ulterior purpose that was not proper in the regular conduct of the proceedings.” Plaintiff alleged that Defendant really wanted to get rid of the track. But complaining of allegedly illegal practices involving it was not improper or irregular. Quoting the Restatement, “[E]ven a pure spite motive is not sufficient where process is used only to accomplish the result for which it was created.”

(Opinion: Fappani v. Bratton)