You’ve heard it before: a classical pianist lives in a condo building on the Upper West Side. She plays piano during the day to keep up her skills, along with teaching piano lessons. She’s involved in a noise lawsuit with her neighbor upstairs.
But what if we told you that the pianist was the plaintiff?
Laura Leon, a classical pianist, lived at 327 Central Park West, a condominium building, where she did indeed give lessons during the day. According to her complaint, her upstairs neighbor, Wyatt Harlan, would make “disturbing noises,” including banging a gong and blasting techno music. Leon sued the board and Harlan. In response, Harlan filed her own complaints against both Leon and the board, saying that Leon’s playing was in violation of the bylaws.
Leon moved out of her apartment. Problem solved, right? Not quite. She discontinued her action against the condominium. She then tried to settle with Harlan. In fact, Leon settled with Harlan’s insurer, but Harlan’s counsel rejected the settlement, alleging that it had been reached without his knowledge. Harlan’s attorney refused to sign any documents acknowledging the settlement, and would not sign a stipulation discontinuing the action.
After moving out, Leon tried to convince the court that there was no basis for Harlan to continue the case. She asked that it be dismissed. But the court said no – not only was Harlan looking for an injunction to stop Leon from playing the piano (which, of course, was moot, since Leon had moved), Harlan had asked for “compensatory and punitive damages” for all the years that she supposedly had to listen to Leon’s piano playing. The lower court partially agreed and said that discovery was incomplete. Therefore, the judge would not dismiss Harlan’s money claims, and discovery had to be completed as far as the monetary claims were concerned.
In the meantime, though, the lower court did dismiss Harlan’s complaints against the condo. Since Leon no longer lived in the building, Harlan’s request that the board soundproof Leon’s apartment was moot. In addition, the court found that there was no factual basis for Harlan’s claims of breach of fiduciary duty by the condo, so that was dismissed as well.
Leon was unhappy with the decision and appealed. The appellate court agreed with Leon and decided that she had demonstrated that her piano lessons occurred during regular business hours, did not exceed four and a half hours at a time, and remained at a level that a sound technician showed was within acceptable boundaries. The court said that Harlan was unable to show that the level of sound that entered her apartment was unreasonable. As to Harlan’s claim that discovery was still incomplete and might produce evidence that she had been right all along, the appellate court pointed out that since Leon had sold and vacated the apartment, there was no possible discovery that could show that Leon made unreasonable amounts of noise. The appellate court reversed the lower court and dismissed Harlan’s claims against Leon. It also affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case against the condo.
The reason this case is important is not because it breaks exciting new legal ground but because it is a common complaint in vertical living: other people make noise. Aside from preposterously obvious nuisances – no, you cannot practice your tap routine at 1A.M. – most courts will tell litigants that if you’re going to live in an apartment building, you have to expect noise from other people living there. Carpets and padding should be required, but will not ensure the silence of living in a one-story house.
There is another lesson for shareholders here, though: let he who is without sin cast the first lawsuit. Despite the fact that the initial complaint was filed by Leon, Harlan’s counterclaims took over the proceedings. Be wary – sometimes, if you sue a neighbor, she may turn around and sue you right back.
Dale J. Degenshein is a partner at Armstrong Teasdale. The statements and views in her article are her own and not necessarily those of the firm.