39-Year-Old Man with Alleged PTSD Seeks Court Order Against Harassment by 86-Year-Old Woman Neighbor, but Asks that He Not Have to Appear in Court

That’s the scenario in a 6-1 decision of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (which comes out in plaintiff’s favor, on the question of whether his case can proceed) in Blackhouse v. Doe (decided last Thursday), which deals with two legal issues: (1) When may a complaint be dismissed at the outset on the grounds that it appears “bizarre, vexatious and frivolous”? (For more details on the circumstances of the complaint, see the dissent, which certainly doesn’t rely just on the ages of the plaintiff and the defendant.) (2) May a defendant be entitled to an accommodation of his alleged disability — here, post-tramautic stress disorder — when the accommodation he seeks is to have the case decided without his having to even appear in court? The opinions are hard to summarize, but here are some excerpts from the majority, followed by some excerpts from the dissent:

[UPDATE: Commenter Hans Bader notes that plaintiff was represented on appeal by a University of Maine School of Law legal aid clinic, but the defendant did not file a brief on appeal, likely because she didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and couldn’t find one who would take the case for free. My guess, incidentally, is that if a state supreme court wanted to appoint a lawyer to brief and argue this sort of case pro bono (see, e.g., this example from New Jersey) — especially when the case is on an interesting issue and has a relatively compact record — it should have no difficulty finding someone willing to take on such a task, given that a state supreme court argument is usually seen as interesting and prestigious. And such an appointment would likely help the court and not just the otherwise-unrepresented party.]

Blackhouse and Jane Doe are both residents of an apartment building in Gardiner. On May 6, 2010, Blackhouse filed a complaint for protection from abuse against Doe, alleging that he is a victim of Doe’s stalking, and describing her “stalking-like behaviors,” inter alia, as “repeated appearances on property she has no right to occupy,” “directly [harassing him] on a number of occasions,” “repeatedly assailing him with abusive dialog, including language and taunts acknowledging that she actively participates in [his] confinement,” “blocking the entrance of the front doorway so that he cannot exit the building without confronting her,” “intimidating him,” and threatening to send someone to “enact an undisclosed form of retaliation against [him].” Blackhouse also asserted that Doe’s actions have contributed to the deterioration of his health.

In terms of relief, Blackhouse sought an order prohibiting Doe from having any contact with him or “any minor children in [his] charge,” and from repeatedly, and without reasonable cause, being at or in the vicinity of his residence, school, business, or place of employment. He also asked for relief that is not available in this type of action. [Footnote: For example, Blackhouse requested that he be granted “the right to initiate eviction proceedings” against occupants of the apartment building.]

With his complaint, Blackhouse submitted a request for reasonable accommodation, stating that he was disabled and unable to be physically present in court. In his request, Blackhouse recited that he suffers from “an advanced form of combat-level post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’) specific to having survived an abduction and medical torture.” He also described a condition involving “an easily-triggered startle response,” and requested “absolutely no contact whatsoever with uniformed police officers.” Blackhouse asked the court to accommodate his condition by allowing him to proceed on his complaint without having to enter the physical premises of the court.

After review of Blackhouse’s complaint, the court (Mullen, J.) denied his request for an ex parte temporary order of protection from abuse. It is not clear from the record whether the court was aware of Blackhouse’s request for reasonable accommodation at the time of that review.

A final hearing on Blackhouse’s complaint for protection from abuse was scheduled for May 24, 2010. The clerk’s office mailed notice of the final hearing to Blackhouse. Blackhouse failed to appear for the hearing, and the court ( Soucy, J.) dismissed his complaint. There is no indication that Blackhouse’s request for reasonable accommodation was called to the court’s attention or that the court otherwise reviewed it before dismissing the complaint.

Blackhouse subsequently brought this appeal, arguing that the court should have considered his request for reasonable accommodation, and that, by failing to do so, the court violated article I, section 6–A of the Maine Constitution; the Maine Human Rights Act, 5 M.R.S. §§ 4551–4634 (2010); and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 12101–12213 (LexisNexis 2009)….

In this case, the record contains no indication that any judicial officer even considered Blackhouse’s request for accommodation. Despite this gap in the appropriate process, the dissent suggests that we should nonetheless affirm the dismissal of Blackhouse’s complaint because it is not plausible on its face, as his allegations against Doe are bizarre, vexatious, and frivolous.

Blackhouse filed a complaint for protection from abuse in accordance with 19–A M.R.S. § 4005(1) (2010), alleging a course of conduct by Doe that, if proved, could allow a court to grant Blackhouse a protection from abuse order. Although, as the dissent notes, Doe is eighty-six years old, neither her age nor Blackhouse’s disability allows us to prejudge the veracity of Blackhouse’s allegations…..

In this case, Blackhouse’s request that he be permitted to litigate his complaint in a way that would accommodate his claimed disabilities was never considered by the court. Therefore, we vacate the dismissal of his complaint. Whether Blackhouse is entitled to a protection from abuse order against Doe is an issue that should be decided only after a judge has considered Blackhouse’s request for reasonable accommodation, the court has notified Blackhouse and Doe of its decision on Blackhouse’s request, and both parties have been notified of the date of the hearing on Blackhouse’s complaint….

ALEXANDER, J., dissenting.

I respectfully dissent. In his protection from abuse filing, Eli Blackhouse makes bizarre, vexatious, and facially incredible claims against many individuals in his community. A particular focus of his allegations is a vulnerable and likely destitute eighty-six-year-old woman against whom Blackhouse seeks to invoke our judicial processes to evict her from her home and seize some or all of her money. As a reasonable accommodation for his unsupported claim of a disability, Blackhouse asks that the Court deprive the targets of his allegations of due process of law by accrediting his claims, vacating the trial court’s dismissal of his complaint, and ordering that the action proceed without his being present to be confronted by those against whom he seeks relief.

This Court holds that Blackhouse’s request for reasonable accommodation of his alleged disability requires that we accept as true all allegations, no matter how bizarre, and gives a plaintiff license to maintain a bizarre, vexatious, or incredible claim that a trial court would — as it did here — dismiss were it not brought by one claiming a disability. I do not agree that our laws providing protections for individuals with disabilities go so far as to require courts to accredit claims brought by persons claiming a disability, when those same claims would be dismissed, and perhaps sanctions imposed, if asserted by an individual not claiming a disability. That is not equal treatment; it is preferential treatment. And such preferential treatment poses significant risk that, in the name of reasonable accommodation, court processes may be abused to the detriment of vulnerable individuals who are the targets of bizarre, vexatious, or incredible claims that a court accredits and allows to proceed.

The dilemma presented by this Court’s holding is well illustrated by the facts of this appeal. The District Court, perhaps with knowledge of Blackhouse’s history, saw this complaint for what it is — a frivolous, vexatious, and implausible action by a thirty-nine-year-old man seeking to exclude an eighty-six-year-old woman from her home and force her to pay him money. To support his efforts, Blackhouse asserted many bizarre allegations against his neighbor, his landlord, other tenants, and people in the community. With no documentation except for his own words, he then claimed a disability and demanded, as an accommodation, that he be permitted to avoid being confronted in court by the targets of his accusations. The District Court, seeing the bizarre and incredible allegations in Blackhouse’s complaint at the temporary order stage, could have properly dismissed it without reaching Blackhouse’s request for accommodation.

Let us take a closer look at the facts and history behind this case. Blackhouse is a resident of a twelve-unit apartment building in Gardiner. The defendant, Jane Doe, is a resident of another apartment in the same building. Blackhouse’s pleadings indicate that he has grievances against many individuals arising from his residence at that apartment building.

In a previous action, Blackhouse had filed a protection from harassment claim, see 5 M.R.S. §§ 4651–4660–A (2010), against the landlord of that building, see Blackhouse v. Connelly, Mem–10–102 (Aug. 12, 2010). In that action, Blackhouse asserted:

Plaintiff Eli Blackhouse is a housing fraud victim who can neither remain safely within nor relocate outside of the premises of 235 Water Street — where he currently dwells — because Ms. Connelly and her property management company, d/b/a “TLC Properties,” require him to pay an amount of rent that is illegal according to Federal Law. Fully disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder requiring careful management in most public settings, Mr. Blackhouse is presently imperiled by: a) conditions created by the extortion of excessive rent, which violate the apartment’s warranty of habitability (14 MRSA § 6021); and, b) his inability to relocate outside of the thrall of Ms. Connelly, who acquired the building from a previous owner after said owner had extorted over $8000 from his monthly SSDI disbursement check (in a manner both identical to and enabling the continuation of the extortion that would—subsequent to the illegal sale—then go on to be conducted by the Defendant).

In documents filed in support of his prior request for an order of protection from harassment, Blackhouse had contended that he was the victim of a widespread criminal conspiracy that included, among others, the Augusta Housing Authority, who had caused his relocation from Augusta to Gardiner, and the Maine Medical Center in Portland. Blackhouse also asserted that he was a witness for the “FBI” investigating various criminal conspiracies within the State.

The District Court ( Westcott, J.) dismissed Blackhouse’s prior action, and, on appeal, we affirmed the dismissal. Blackhouse, Mem–10–102.

On May 6, 2010, the Augusta District Court received from Blackhouse an envelope marked “Urgent/Confidential” containing his protection from abuse complaint against Doe that initiated this action. The complaint indicated that Doe was a resident of a different unit in the same building. It also asserted that Doe “is likely tied in to the racketeering/abetment activity being conducted by” a Gardiner police officer and another individual whose name was indicated….

Regarding Doe, the attached document indicated that she was among a group of other individuals whom the landlord illegally permitted to inhabit the other eleven units in the apartment building. Blackhouse also asserted that Doe had “repeatedly” assailed him with abusive dialogue, that she “loiters in common areas” that he could not avoid without confronting her, and that these actions had occurred during a period of his “indoor confinement” which he attributed, not to Doe, but to an “illegal requirement” that he pay rent to his landlord.

Blackhouse further asserted that Doe appears in common areas of the apartment building, such as the laundry area, which, he contended, should not be occupied by any other tenants in the building. He also objected to her being near the entranceway to the building, which he found offensive. Blackhouse complained of some statements that he asserts Doe made to him, including, for example, “Don’t you run up those stairs,” and asserted that she has at times snickered at him because of some of his actions, such as his closing the fire door on an upper floor of the building.

For relief, Blackhouse asked that Doe be prevented from contacting him and “any minor children in my charge,” that she be excluded from his residence, and that she be excluded from being, repeatedly and without reasonable cause, at or in the vicinity of his home, school, business, or place of employment. He also asked that he be given possession of, and that Doe be ordered to leave immediately, the entire twelve-unit apartment building.

Blackhouse further requested that he be given possession of “any money being delivered to [the landlord] as alleged ‘rent’ given the building’s illegal financing via SSDI extortion.” He also requested that Doe be ordered to pay him support, damages, and attorney fees, and that he be given “the right to initiate eviction proceedings against occupants of [the apartment building].” He also suggested that the owner of the building should not be attempting to sell the building during the pendency of the litigation and requested that he be exempted from paying rent….

Upon review of the merits of Blackhouse’s complaint, the court (Mullen, J.) denied the request for a temporary order, correctly concluding that “the allegations in the sworn complaint are insufficient to support a finding that the plaintiff and/or minor child(ren) is/are in immediate and present danger of abuse from the defendant.” Because the court acted based on its proper finding that the totality of the facts as alleged were insufficient to support granting an ex parte temporary order of protection, the court would have had no need to review Blackhouse’s request for reasonable accommodation. However, it must be noted that in accordance with the accommodation that Blackhouse had requested, the court acted on his pleadings without requiring that he be present at the courthouse. Thus, although the court may not have reviewed his request for accommodation, Blackhouse received the accommodation he requested at the temporary order stage. The court scheduled the matter for a final hearing on the complaint for protection from abuse on May 24, 2010….

A person’s right to quiet enjoyment of her residence is a fundamental right to which Doe was entitled, absent some strong proof of impropriety relating to her actions regarding the residence. Further, in any action to exclude Doe from her residence, and in any protection from abuse action, Doe had a right to confront and counter the evidence against her, as we recently held in Jusseaume v. Ducatt, 2011 ME 43, ¶¶ 11–15, 15 A.3d 714, 717–18.

Considering the allegations in this case, the court could not have, and should not have, granted Blackhouse’s request to exclude his elderly neighbor from her residence without first hearing from Doe and affording her far more process than Blackhouse wanted the court to give her by considering his request for relief without his needing to be present.

Before consideration of what accommodation, if any, to allow Blackhouse for his alleged disability, the court had a responsibility to evaluate the merits of his protection from abuse claim. There is no right to maintain, and force a named defendant to defend, an incredible, frivolous, or bizarre claim. A person claiming a disability has no greater right than any other person to circumvent the court’s essential gatekeeping function on these issues.

Addressing a court’s gatekeeping function, the United States Supreme Court, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), has held that a complaint, to avoid dismissal, must be “plausible on its face”:

[W]e do not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Because the plaintiffs here have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed.

The complaint here, not being plausible on its face, was appropriately dismissed….

On the face of the pleadings filed by Blackhouse, and considering the history of his prior action, the wide ranging and severe relief Blackhouse was seeking against Doe and many others, the deprivation of due process for Doe that Blackhouse was requesting as an accommodation, and the apparent incredibility of many of Blackhouse’s claims, the trial court properly dismissed Blackhouse’s action. The finding of insufficiency of the evidence on the merits, made at the temporary order stage, can be affirmed when there is no suggestion that at the final hearing stage any evidence would have been presented that was not before the court when it denied the request for a temporary order.

Reasonable accommodation of anyone with a disability who must be before the court, or who seeks to bring a proper action before the court, is appropriate and is part of our obligation to provide access to justice. But that obligation to provide reasonable accommodation does not extend to lending a hand to promote a facially frivolous, vexatious, or incredible claim, and doing so, as Blackhouse requests, by depriving the targets of his accusations of the right to confront their accuser who seeks to take their money and jeopardize their fundamental right to quiet enjoyment of their homes.

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