Hot Potato

When it comes to neighbors, just what legally constitutes a nuisance?

In August 2005, Nathan Thinnes sold his house. It must have been a relief.

Coming home from work one evening, just days before the closing, Thinnes heard his dog whimpering in the backyard of his small home near Arcadia. You can see Camelback Mountain from the yard, but Nathan Thinnes wasn't outside to enjoy the view.

As he would later tell police, Thinnes found his dog hiding under some bushes, with several potatoes laying on the ground nearby. As he stood there, another potato sailed over the fence.

A police report details what happened next.

Thinnes called out, "Who's there?"

His next-door neighbor, 46-year-old Candy Tatum, answered, "Me, you f---ing pussy." Thinnes asked, "Have you been throwing things at my dog again?"

Tatum answered, "Yep, what are you going to do about it, you f---ing chickensh-t?"

Thinnes saw Tatum, standing in her backyard, a potato in her hand. She threw it. This one almost hit Thinnes; he yelled at her to stop. She threw another one, yelling, "Next time, stay out of my freezer, you f---ing little pussy."

Thinnes ran with his dog into the house, just as another potato flew into the air, landing on the roof.

Like many officers in his precinct, Officer Donald Garcia was not at all surprised to be dispatched to East Montecito. But usually, the 911 calls came from the potato-thrower herself, Candy Tatum. The police tallied 701 calls from Tatum in 2004.

Officer Garcia counted 10 potatoes in Thinnes' backyard and then arrested Tatum for disorderly conduct. (Another police report states that on a separate occasion, Tatum answered her front door with a shotgun in hand.) Court records have been destroyed, but it appears that the potato case never made it to court. Tatum screamed and yelled as Garcia cuffed her and dragged her to his squad car. "I am sorry if I hit [Nathan] with a potato," Tatum said, again accusing Thinnes of stealing from her freezer.

Garcia documented that an angry but cooperative Thinnes told him that "this type of activity has been going on since he moved in. Nathan was completely frustrated with Candy's action and demanded that she be arrested because her actions alarmed and disturbed him. Nathan was also furious that Candy had been torturing his dog."

Six days later, Thinnes closed on the sale of his house and moved to a home a few miles away. Two years later, that August 2005 police report has come back to haunt him.

So has the seller-disclosure paperwork, a legal requirement in Arizona. In it, the seller is asked, "Are you aware if the property is subject to any present or proposed effects of any of the following? (Check all that apply) . . . Neighborhood noise . . . Nuisances . . . Other."

Nathan Thinnes had answered, "No."


No one would say that Glenn Melton got a smoking deal on Nathan Thinnes' house. Melton, the chief operating officer for Realty Executives, paid $297,000 for the 1,000-square-foot house. His stepdaughter, Kelly, soon moved in. Two years later, the house has dipped in value by $35,000. But that's not what's making the Meltons unhappy, they insist. They say Thinnes should have told them about Candy Tatum.

Thinnes, who also is in the real estate business, as a commercial broker for Grubb & Ellis, says Melton has buyer's remorse because the market has tanked. In any case, these two have spent more than $40,000 in a lawsuit that could ultimately set a new precedent for Arizona home sellers, a case that has the attention of national mental health advocates. The question at hand: Should a seller be required to diagnose his neighbor's mental health?

If Melton wins, Thinnes could be forced to buy the house back for the original price and pay an unspecified amount for emotional damages.

In a lawsuit that reads like a script from a Seinfeld episode or maybe a Crazy Cat Lady scene from The Simpsons, Melton accuses Thinnes of acting with "an evil mind, malice, and a reckless disregard" because he didn't disclose that Tatum sometimes wanders the street muttering to herself, and that she once threw a brick through a neighbor's window.

Melton contends that his stepdaughter is living in dire danger, but after two years, Kelly still lives at the house. (And not with her stepdad, who has his own 3,000-square-foot home in Scottsdale.)

Parts of the case are entertaining, à la Seinfeld. But here's where it's made for public television: This case could break legal ground. Mental health experts warn that if Melton wins, Arizona sellers could be expected to disclose their personal opinions on a neighbor's mental health — a first in the country.

"This would open a Pandora's box," says Ron Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Virginia. "This could create a very, very dangerous precedent."

At press time, the case was making its way through Maricopa County Superior Court.

Melton says Thinnes intentionally left the neighborhood nuisance/noise disclosure box unchecked to deceive him. To Melton, the issues are noise, nuisance, and honesty, not mental diagnosis.

In a hearing last month, Thinnes' attorney argued that Melton has nothing more than buyer's remorse and is prejudiced against his neighbor. The judge ruled not to dismiss Melton's case.

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6 comments
Donna Moulton
Donna Moulton

It's pretty disturbing that a real estate attorney with 27 years' experience would state that a seller is required to disclose whether a death occurred in the house, or whether a child molester lives in the neighborhood. The Arizona Association of Realtors' Seller's Property Disclosure Statement specifically excludes these circumstances from required disclosures (lines 241 - 244). I can only hope that the journalist misunderstood Attorney Richard Keyt on this matter.

I am also puzzled about whether the seller checked no in answer to the question regarding nuisances, as stated early in the article, or left the question unchecked, as the plaintiff states later in the article.

Lydia
Lydia

My husband and I lived in pure hell for three years because of a neighbor who was mentally ill. I will not disclose the nature of her illness, because as her SAMHC caseworker once pointed out, the nastiness of the neighbor's behavior was not due to mental illness, but the fact that the woman was (and I quote)," an ***hole."

We tried a restraining order, which she used as yet another means to harass us (filing to contest and then changing her mind at the last minute). I could not go into certain portions of my backyard, and never into the front without being screamed at and threatened. She created posters for her front yard with all kinds of accusations and hung them in her trees. My personal favourite was the sign that referred to me as a," f***ing Hindu," - religious tolerance was not her strong suit (I am Buddhist) and then a mailbox covered with quasi-Buddhist symbolism (fun!)

We had police, with lights blazing, on our street to respond to complaints at least once a week, sometimes almost every day. But we were assured by her mental health caseworkers that she was completely harmless (although the police officers always had to respond in teams of at least two because of her previous threats). For the love of Pete, she tried to have the gnomes in my front yard arrested! Innocent gnomes! The poor officer who had to respond to that complaint. . .

Anyway, I never blamed the man who sold us the house for not telling me the neighbor was mentally ill. And I know he was harassed also on a daily basis (she hated construction and our house was a flip). Imagine my surprise when I discovered our new house had previously been condemned and was reported as a neighborhood eyesore! But not the seller's fault - some people are just really, really weird and that is life. Where on earth should the line be drawn? How mentally ill? Are private medical records going to be dragged into court to prove up property values?

For the record, the neighbor actually died in her home a few months ago. And we all felt so sad - she made the entire neighborhood miserable (our harassment was mild compared to what the neighbors dealt with), but she was still a human being and must have been miserable, alone in her house peeking out the windows at the horrible world.

Sheila
Sheila

I am going to try and sell my home soon. I have a neighbor with an autistic son who talks to himself in the front yard and walks the neighborhood doing things typical of one stricken with this illness. Is Mr. Melton saying that I have to disclose my neighbor�s son as a nuisance? If I do, the mentally ill will become pariah. Worse yet, they will be used as scapegoats for regretful homebuyers who want to unload their home that they�re upside down in. In this depressed real estate market, there are some who will use Mr. Melton�s case as a precedent to get out of their bad purchase. Mr. Melton�s (the CEO of Realty Executives, by the way) actions fly in the face of what Realty Executives has spent tons of advertising money trying to portray - that they �do real estate the right way.� You won�t see a Realty Executives sign in my front yard!!!

Laurie
Laurie

When you buy a home, don't you drive the neighborhood and check out how people take care of their yards, what type of cars they drive, etc to get a feel for who you will be living next to??? When I bought my house in a neighborhood that was turning for the better, I knocked on the doors of the houses on either side to meet the people I would be living next to.... I asked them questions about how safe the area was things of that nature. I do not think Mr. Thinnes needed to disclose any of this information. The buyer should have done more research. If he would have spoken to any of the neighbors on this street it sounds as if from the article he would have heard about Candy and could have made a sound decicision at that time.... Also, as mentioned in the artcle Mr. Thinnes lived in that house for 5 years, if things were really that bad he would have put the house on the market long before he did. The Arizona market was booming and he would have made money at any time over the 5 years or he could have moved out and rented the property he didn't, that says a lot....

Josh Cook
Josh Cook

If home values continued to escalate at levels of the past few years, would Mr. Melton be engaged in this lawsuit? Hardly. He appears to be an ego-maniac who can't cope the reality he bought at the height of the market. Why is he implying his daughter was duped when he, a top real-estate executive, is the one who purchased the home? The assertion Mr. Melton makes that Mr. Thinnes's motivation for selling was his neighbor is absurd when you realize he lived there for over 5 years. If she was such a burden, he would have left earlier. Furthermore, it shouldn't be his legal obligation to disclose he lives next to a person of a protected class. What's next? Disclosing you live next to blind person? This frivolousness should not be tolerated by the courts.

Michael
Michael

As a homeowner in Phoenix I find in apalling that we should be found responsible for disclosing the mental cpacity of our neighbors. If Melton really had a concern about this issue the he could have talked to neighbors or check police reports (public record) prior to purchasing this home. This is simply a case of a home buyer that has buyer remorse and does not want to take any responsibilty for his decisions in a poor real estate market....

 
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