July 2021 | Lights, Camera, Action: Can Security Video Recordings Violate Your Neighbor’s Right to Privacy?

Neighbor disputes have become much more interesting with the prevalence of security cameras. The Second District California Court of Appeals considered this issue in allowing security cameras to remain. (Mezger et al. v. Bick, Jr., et al., No. B305745 (Ct. App. July 1, 2021).) The comedian Kathy Griffin and her boyfriend installed security cameras that incidentally captured their neighbor’s loud parties, and the neighbors asserted that the recordings violated their privacy. The Second District found that the security cameras didn’t violate the neighbor’s privacy interests.

Facts of the Case

Plaintiffs Sandra and Jeffrey Mezger filed a lawsuit against their next door neighbors, comedian Kathy Griffin and her boyfriend Randy Bick, Jr. The Mezgers alleged that Griffin and Bick invaded their right to privacy by recording their backyard and private conversations in the backyard with Nest security cameras and cell phones.

The Mezgers claimed that Griffin and Bick pointed their Nest into the Mezgers’ backyard to “spy on and record them”. The Mezgers learned of the recordings when police, called for a noise complaint, told them that Griffin and Bick recorded them. The lawsuit also claimed that the recordings captured conversations inside their home due to positioning of one camera. The Mezgers’ lawsuit included claims for invasion of privacy, violation of Penal Code section 632, nuisance, and false light. It alleged that Griffin and Bick had no legitimate security interest in installing the cameras because of their gated community with guards and patrols.

Griffin and Bick filed a motion for summary judgment on the invasion of privacy and Penal Code section 632 claims. The Defendants argued that Griffin is a public figure who has received death threats and has been stalked. The cameras were intended to ensure her personal safety. One of the cameras was focused on Griffin’s bedroom and balcony, incidentally capturing parts of the Mezgers’ backyard due to its positioning. In addition, a portion of the yard (separated by a six-foot-tall fence) was visible from Griffin and Bick’s balcony, and the Mezgers could see Griffin and Bick’s house from their backyard.

Griffin and Bick had installed the cameras after they complained to the community’s HOA about loud parties and noise at the Mezger’s home. The HOA found that plaintiffs had not violated any rules, but the HOA advised Griffin and Bick to document their complaints, so they took cell phone videos from their property and then installed cameras. The camera that the Mezgers claimed was recording inside their home was nonoperational, left from previous owners.

The Mezgers opposed the motion for summary judgment, providing testimony that the recordings were made without their knowledge and consent. Mr. Mezger said that in the videos, he and guests were speaking at normal volumes and did not know they were being recorded. The trial court summarized the contents of the recordings, noting the focus of the videos on primarily Griffin and Bick’s property, that some of the videos were at night, and that most of the audio is incomprehensible except for some loud voices or music. The Mezgers submitted evidence from audio and surveillance experts opining that the videos’ sound had been amplified and that the cameras could have been positioned differently.

Despite the Mezger’s’ efforts, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no triable issue of material fact and that Griffin and Bick’s conduct had an “insubstantial impact on [the Mezgers’] privacy interests.” They promptly appealed to the California Court of Appeals.

Did the Mezger’s Privacy Interest Outweigh Griffin’s Security Interest?

In California, proving a common law invasion of privacy claim requires a showing of intrusion into a private place, conversation, or matter, in a manner highly offensive to a reasonable person. (Huntingdon Life Sciences, Inc. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, Inc. (2005) 129 Cal.App.4th 1228, 1259.) To evaluate whether the intrusion is “offensive,” the court considers “(1) the degree of intrusion; (2) the context, conduct and circumstances surrounding the intrusion; (3) the intruder’s motives and objectives;

(4) the setting into which the intrusion occurs; and (5) the expectations of those whose privacy is invaded.” (Sanchez-Scott v. Alza Pharms. (2001) 86 Cal.App.4th 365, 377.)

Here, Griffin and Bick provided evidence that they have serious security and safety concerns because of past threats and stalking of Griffin. They also showed that they only made recordings from their property and that all the sounds in Plaintiffs’ yard that were captured could be heard from their property. The trial court’s summary of the video recordings indicates that portions of the Mezger’s property was incidental to capturing Griffin and Bick’s balcony and bedroom.

Plaintiffs argued that Griffin and Bick’s arguments are a pretext for spying on them in their own home. They said that Griffin and Bick installed the cameras right after the HOA declined to take action. They also said that the cameras could have been tilted in other directions.

The Court of Appeal found that that neighborhood residents have a right to privacy in their home and backyard. Plaintiffs failed to show that the cameras intruded on their right to privacy in a highly offensive manner. There was no evidence that moving the cameras would still satisfy Defendants’ security interest or that installing the cameras was a pretext. Rather, Griffin and Bick testified that they were documenting the impact of the Mezgers’ loud parties on them. It was difficult to understand conversations or even make out people in the videos. The words that could be understood were at loud volumes, which the Mezgers “could not reasonably expect to remain private in an outdoor residential setting, with neighbors nearby.” The Court’s opinion concludes that any impact on the Mezgers’ privacy was insubstantial.

Analysis of the other causes of action led to a similar conclusion: the recordings did not violate the Mezgers’ privacy rights.

The Takeaway

While people do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes and backyards, there are limits on that privacy. Home security cameras which only incidentally capture portions of a neighbor’s yard or home may not be “offensive” as required for an invasion of privacy claim. But home security cameras, if misused, could be weaponized to violate a neighbor’s privacy interests.