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Law School Case Brief

Polay v. McMahon - 468 Mass. 379


The standard for making a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress is very high. The door to recovery should be opened but narrowly and with due caution. Liability cannot be predicated on mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities, nor even is it enough that the defendant has acted with an intent which is tortious or even criminal, or that he has intended to inflict emotional distress, or even that his conduct has been characterized by "malice," or a degree of aggravation which would entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages for another tort.


Around April, 2008, McMahon and other neighbors entered into a common plan to harass Polay.  Among other actions, McMahon installed several video cameras in his house, which were pointed at the plaintiffs' property. Polay alleged that these cameras record their house on a continuous basis, and enable McMahon to see into the windows of their home. Polay’s complaint alleged that McMahon's conduct caused "extreme discomfort and distress," and that "the emotional distress suffered by them was severe and of such a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it." McMahon filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The Superior Court allowed McMahon's motion to dismiss. Polay appealed, challenging only the dismissal of their invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims.


Did the trial court err in dismissing plaintiffs' claims against defendant neighbor for intentional infliction of emotional distress due to defendant's harassment?




The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the dismissal of the invasion of privacy claim, but otherwise affirmed. Because the plaintiffs have alleged a continuous surveillance of the interior of their home that was conducted for the purpose of harassment, the plaintiffs have made out a plausible claim for invasion of privacy. The Court explained that whether McMahon acted for the legitimate purpose of securing his property in a way that outweighs any incidental intrusion on the plaintiffs' privacy interests is, however, a question of fact not suitable for resolution on a motion to dismiss.

Next, the Court found that the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently to allege severe emotional distress. Other than referring to the plaintiffs' emotional distress as "extreme," the complaint contains only a conclusory statement. In determining whether McMahon engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct, the Court did not consider the allegations that he filed false police reports and harassment prevention petitions. For a defendant's conduct to qualify as extreme and outrageous, the defendant must have acted "without privilege." The Court held that the fact that McMahon allegedly acted for the illegitimate purpose of harassing the plaintiffs supported their claim of an unreasonable and substantial or serious invasion of privacy; however, such did not raise McMahon's conduct to the level of extreme and outrageous behavior. Thus, there was no error in the judge's dismissal of the plaintiffs' claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

As for the applicable standard of review, the Court reviews the allowance of a motion to dismiss de novo. In so doing, the Court accepts as true the facts alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint as well as any favorable inferences that reasonably can be drawn from them. However, the Court does not regard as "true" legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations must plausibly suggest and not merely be consistent with an entitlement to relief.

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