Fappani v. Bratton – 11/16/2017

December 4, 2017

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that an abuse of process claim cannot be founded on mere complaints to law enforcement personnel, because such complaints do not entail the use of a judicial process.

A homeowner built a motorbike track on his property.  His neighbor made repeated complaints to the sheriff’s office about the resulting noise.  The sheriff’s office cited the homeowner for noise ordinance violations.  At the neighbor’s urging, the county attorney prosecuted the citations in justice court, which found the homeowner not guilty.  The homeowner then sued the neighbor for intentional abuse of process.  The superior court granted the neighbor’s motion to dismiss.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The elements of abuse of process are:  (1) a willful act in the use of judicial process; (2) for an ulterior purpose not proper in the regular conduct of the proceedings.  The Court of Appeals held that the homeowner’s allegations were deficient as to both elements. 

First, the neighbor had not used a judicial process.  Instead, she had urged law enforcement officials to issue and prosecute the citations.  The officials had made their own decisions and exercised their own discretion; thus, they were the ones who used the judicial process.

Second, even if the neighbor had used a judicial process, she had not acted with an improper purpose.  An improper purpose exists if, for example, a person uses litigation to extort the defendant.  The homeowner alleged that the neighbor complained about the noise because she did not like it and thought the track devalued her property.  These were proper grounds for a noise complaint.  The complaint’s unsupported references to “extortion” did not salvage the claim.   

Justice Brown delivered the opinion of the court; Judge Johnsen and Judge Thompson joined.