The Illinois 4th District recently bounced two homeowners’ lawsuit against their next-door neighbors for installing a basketball court on the neighbors’ property. Fed up with the neighbor kids’ incessant basketball playing, the plaintiffs in Bedows v. Hoffman, 2016 IL App (4th) 160146-U sued for injunctive relief and damages.
The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged the basketball court violated written restrictive covenants that governed all homes in the neighborhood and that the defendants’ all-day (and much of the night) use of the court created a common law nuisance.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims and the plaintiffs appealed.
Affirming dismissal, the appeals court examines the key interpretative rules for residential restrictive covenants and the applicable standard of pleadings and proof for a nuisance claim.
In Illinois, restrictive covenants are construed and enforced according to their plain and unambiguous language;
The court’s goal in construing a restrictive covenant is to honor the parties’ intent at the time the covenant was made;
Covenants affecting real property are strictly construed so they don’t extend beyond their express language: all doubts as to whether a restriction applies is decided in favor of a landowner’s free use of property without restrictions
The court was tasked with deciding if a basketball court was a “building” – the property covenants barred any building (other than a single-family residence) within 10 feet of a property line.
Finding that the defendants’ basketball court was not a “building,” the Court looked to both Black’s and Webster’s dictionaries for guidance. Each dictionary stated that walls, roof and an enclosed space were essential building components. And since the basketball court had none of these elements, it didn’t meet the restrictions’ “building” definition.
A nuisance is a “substantial invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of his or her land.” The invasion must be substantial (either intentional or negligent) and objectively (not subjectively) unreasonable. To be actionable, the claimed nuisance must be physically offensive to the senses. But “hypersensitive” individuals are not protected by nuisance law.
In addition, when a claim involves an activity deemed an accepted part of everyday life in a given community, it is especially hard to make out a nuisance case unless the plaintiff pleads unique facts that show how the challenged activity goes above and beyond what is commonplace.
Excessive noise can serve as the basis for a nuisance claim but it must be on the order of several dogs barking at all hours of the night. A neighbor’s subjective annoyance at noise emanating from adjoining property isn’t extreme enough to merit nuisance relief under the law. (¶¶ 84-87)
In dismissing the plaintiffs’ nuisance claim, the Court first found that playing basketball didn’t qualify as “noxious or offensive” conduct under the covenants. (The covenants outlawed noxious or offensive resident conduct.) The Court also held that the plaintiffs failed to allege how the defendants’ use of the basketball court was any different from basketball playing by other neighborhood kids as the plaintiffs could document only a single instance of the defendants’ playing basketball after 10 p.m.
The Court noted that the plaintiffs failed to allege how the defendants’ use of the basketball court was any different from other kids’ court use as plaintiffs documented only a single instance where defendants’ played basketball after 10 p.m.
The Court then rejected the plaintiffs’ other covenant-based claim based on the “Allowable Structure” covenant that allowed property owners to erect single-family dwellings only on their lots. Since a basketball court didn’t fit the dictionary definition of a structure (“a construction, production or piece of work”, i.e.), the Allowable Structure stricture didn’t apply.
This case illustrates how courts generally don’t like to meddle in private landowner disputes. While the court does give some clues as to what is actionable nuisance under the law, the challenged conduct must go beyond everyday activity like playing basketball in a residential subdivision.