Thursday, October 13, 2016

What Counts as "Harassment" in a Restraining Order Case?

The law is full of strange words, like "estoppel", "pretermission" and "res judicata". It's also full of familiar words that carry special, legal definitions which differ from those words' ordinary, everyday usage. One of these common words that carries a special, legal definition -- and one that seems to cause a lot of confusion -- is "harassment".

In normal English conversation, "harassment" may describe behavior that annoys or bothers someone. In restraining order court, though, it carries a much more narrow and specific definition. If you're involved in any type of restraining order proceeding, it's crucially important that you understand how courts define "harassment".

As I've previously discussed on this blog, restraining orders may be granted when the petitioner can prove that he or she has been harassed by the respondent, or that the respondent has committed actual violence or credible threats of violence against the petitioner. Violence and threats are pretty self-defining, so they don't require a lot of explanation here.

As I've also discussed, courts are not in the business of getting involved in every situation where one person is annoyed by another person's behavior. Being the subject of a restraining order may have severe consequences for the person whose behavior is restrained. He or she will be stripped of their right to own or possess firearms. The restraining order will become a public record which may affect the restrained party's employment. It could result in the loss of some professional licenses. Courts don't take these consequences lightly. They will not strip people of their rights just because their behavior annoys or bothers someone else.

To prove "harassment" in a restraining order hearing, the petitioner must establish several elements:
  • That the respondent has engaged in a "course of conduct". Harassment involves a pattern of behavior that takes place over time, not just on a single occasion. That course of conduct must demonstrate a "continuity of purpose".
  • The course of conduct was directed at the petitioner. It is not sufficient to simply prove that the respondent is an asshole in general, has been an asshole to other people on other occasions, or that something he does annoys you. For example, the court will not grant a restraining order just because your neighbor smokes a cigar inside his apartment, the cigar smoke comes through the vents into your apartment, and your neighbor is aggressive towards other people in the complex. The court does not care if you're especially sensitive to cigar smoke or if other people are afraid of your neighbor. Those behaviors might annoy you, cause you distress and interfere with your right to peacefully enjoy the privacy of your own residence, but they're not intentionally "directed at you", so they're not the basis for a restraining order. 
  • The course of conduct serves no lawful purpose except to annoy you or to cause you distress. If your neighbor constantly complains to Code Enforcement over every ticky-tacky parking violation, your neighbor is a whiny asshole. Unfortunately, you cannot get a restraining order against someone for being a whiner. The court will not order someone to stop whining if they have some lawful basis for doing so, no matter how much their whiny behavior annoys you.  
  • The behavior would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. It's necessary but not sufficient to prove that the behavior caused you to suffer emotional distress. The court does not care if you're especially sensitive, fragile, or unreasonable -- those are not compelling reasons to strip someone else of their rights. If you want a restraining order, you must prove that the respondent's behavior was so outrageous that a normal, healthy individual would have been seriously distressed by it. I've been involved in plenty of cases where the petitioner comes to court with stacks of records from their therapist to demonstrate how the respondent's mildly-annoying behavior has exacerbated his or her preexisting health condition (anxiety, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, etc.). It sounds cold, but the court isn't concerned with any of those things if the respondent's behavior would not have similar effects on an otherwise healthy, normal person. 
  • Also keep in mind that "substantial emotional distress" is more that mere annoyance. I've had plenty of roommates, neighbors, coworkers and classmates whose behavior has annoyed me. We all have. Most of those annoyances, though, are not sufficient grounds for the issuance of a restraining order. At the risk of repeating myself, courts are not in the business of getting involved with every dispute that arises between individuals. They cannot and will not order someone to be polite. If rudeness were a legal cause of action, we'd need a bigger courthouse.  
Harassment can be much more complicated and difficult to establish than many litigants imagine. Even if you have been the victim of harassment, proving it in court with reliable, admissible evidence is another story. 

If you or a loved one has questions regarding restraining orders in California, call us for a free attorney consultation.  (714) 449-3335.  Ask for John.  Thanks for reading.