The litigants were incredulous. The attorneys bickered a bit. And a judge said he was “dubious” over one side's claims.
All textbook courtroom stuff, except for this: They had gathered in the hallowed halls of justice to scrutinize the sobering matter of whether a local real estate agent was sinister or simply sarcastic when she wrote about hitting golf balls into an Omaha man's pool and windows.
The homeowner called it a crime. The real estate agent called it a joke. The judge called it a day.
Saying he was “dubious” of the homeowner's need for a restraining order, Douglas County District Judge Timothy Burns nonetheless took the matter under advisement last week — and allowed attorneys to file written briefs on the matter.
He'll most likely rule by the end of the month on whether to grant homeowner Eric Marsh's request that a nearby homeowner and real estate agent, Julie Tartaglia, stay at least 200 yards from Marsh's property in the Fire Ridge Estates neighborhood near 192nd and Pacific Streets.
After that, Marsh is set to do battle with Fire Ridge officials over their complaints about the root of the dispute: the pool, basketball court and putting green he installed in his backyard and an adjacent lot.
While Round 1 of the Fire Ridge feud provided a glimpse of the highest of U.S. justice system principles — namely, that a judge will listen to both sides of any claim — it also provided a simpler lesson:
Be careful when you hit reply-all.
In early October, Tartaglia received an email from Marsh concerning the board's scrutiny of the wonderland he created in his backyard and adjacent lot. Marsh had invested between $300,000 and $400,000 on his man-land — complete with an infinity-edge pool, tether-ball pole, hog-roasting pit, basketball hoop, sport court and artificial-turf putting green and tee boxes.
The finished product raised eyebrows among homeowners who either loved it or loathed its placement in the 10-year-old neighborhood of big houses on relatively small lots.
Tartaglia, a homeowners association board member last year, said ensuing discussions between the board and Marsh were testy. Marsh said he thought the disagreement, though persistent, was professional — until he received Tartaglia's emails.
In early October, a board member sent an email relaying a resident's concern about Marsh hitting golf balls. Marsh wrote back: “The appropriate response regarding whether I (or anyone else) hit golf balls should have been, 'The FireRidge HOA Board does not have the authority nor desire to regulate what our residents do inside their own yards or within each other's yards.' Your failure to respond this way continues your harrassment (sic) of me in a way you are not harrassing (sic) any other resident.”
Tartaglia fired off an email of her own, addressing it, she thought, to only her fellow board members.
“For the love of all things holy!! I say we go ... hit (golf) balls all at once into his pool for no less than the time it takes to have 100 go in and clog the filter system that I am sure cost more than most vehicles. Game on buddy!”
She followed that email with another: “Sorry for that. I knee jerked. (However I am polishing my clubs. I did win an award for best female drive at a scramble last week. :0) Be a shame if I accidentally hit a window or two or three. But then it wouldn't matter since we don't have any say in what someone does on someone else's property. Whoops and oh well.”
Tartaglia said she deleted Marsh's name from the email thread so he wouldn't receive either email. But she didn't realize that Marsh had copied his attorney, James McVay, on the original email.
So Tartaglia's email went to McVay, who then forwarded it to Marsh.
The game was indeed on.
Marsh testified last week that the emails indicate “they've picked a place to do the crime” and have “quantified” how many golf balls it would take to damage his pool.
He said he took the “threat” so seriously that he spent $18,000 installing security cameras to overlook his property. Marsh said no one apologized to him or indicated to him that Tartaglia was joking. This winter, he said, he has left the cover off his pool to make sure no one does any surreptitious damage.
“I constantly monitor my backyard,” he said. “Constantly look out my back windows.”
His attorney asked him if he had seen Tartaglia near his property.
“Several times,” Marsh said. “She walks past my house.”
“What is your concern?” McVay asked.
“That she will inevitably do damage to my property.”
At that, Tartaglia shrugged her shoulders, put her palms skyward and shook her head.
Tartaglia said she lives with her husband and two school-age daughters about a block and a half from Marsh's house. She laughed when her attorney, David Welch, asked her if she had ever hit balls toward Marsh's house. “No,” she said.
She said she never intended for Marsh to see the emails, let alone be spooked by them.
“The essence of the email — it was all sarcasm,” she said. “It was sarcastic — game on buddy. I can be that way.”
McVay pointed out that Tartaglia never said she was kidding.
“Sorry for that,” Tartaglia said, holding up a printout of the email. “It says, 'Sorry for that.'”
Tartaglia's lawyer noted for the judge that Marsh was “so concerned” about this purported threat that he took six weeks to request a restraining order.
Homeowners association board members have suggested that Marsh filed the lawsuit only because the board had given notice of its plans to sue Marsh over violation of the covenants. No hearing date has been set for that separate case.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, email@example.com