Court of Appeal misstates the Legislative intent behind the 2021 amendments to the DVPA and conflates “disturbing mental peace” with “coercive control”

The Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1, reversed a domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”) issued by a San Diego County family law court.   (In re the Marriage of L.R. and K.A.  (2021) Cal.Rptr.3d– 2021 WL 3161560.)

The Court of Appeal determined a mother’s behavior did not rise to the level of destroying the father’s mental and emotional calm to constitute “abuse” within the meaning of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”) (Fam. Code, §6200 et seq.)

The Court of Appeal determined that the mother’s conduct did not constitute “coercive control” and therefore did not disturb the father’s mental or emotional peace.  In arriving at this conclusion, the Court of Appeal appears to have ignored that “coercive control” is defined by the 2021 amendments to the DVPA as only one subcategory of conduct that constitutes abusing an individual’s mental or emotional peace.

The Factual Background

A father filed a request for domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”) against his ex-wife alleging that she had abused him and their daughter during a visitation exchange.   Father had custody of the child, who had been home sick for two days.  Father brought the child to the visitation center to visit the mother.  When they got to the lobby, the child vomited.  The mother entered the lobby.  In doing so, she violated the visitation order which required her to wait for a visitation monitor to conduct the exchange.  At that point, the mother argued for about fifteen minutes with the visitation monitor, in front of the child.  The mother insisted the father take the child to the hospital.  

 The mother refused to leave her child’s side and caused turmoil and aguish for everyone, especially the child.  The mother argued about 15 minutes with the monitor in front of the child.  Mother insisted on being present the hospital.  She asserting that joint legal custody gives her the right to attend medical appointments.   The father disagreed and explained that mother’s visitation was conditioned on the presence of a visitation monitor.

At the urgent care facility, the mother held the child the entire time while yelling at the father.  Mother began videotaping the father, put her hands in his face, and generally assaulted him the remaining time.  The child was discharged with strep throat.  

Police responded to the Urgent Care facility, where the incident continued in the parking lot.  The father alleged that the mother “argued, yelled, accused, videotaped, harassed, and bullied three (3) grown men who were employed by the San Diego Police Department,” all “while holding [the child] in a death grip.”

The child was screaming at the top of her lungs.   The father’s request for a DVRO also contained allegations of a prior incident in which the mother abducted the child from his care by driving off. The family law court issued a TRO against the mother.  

The family law court issues a DVRO

Seven months later the family law court conducted a two day evidentiary hearing on the father’s request for a DVRO.  The family law court determined that the father met his burden of proof in demonstrating the mother had committed domestic abuse and issued a three year DVRO protecting the father and child.  

The family law court relied on In re Marriage of Nadkarni (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 1483, concluding that the mother had disturbed the father’s peace and mental calm.

The Court of Appeal’s misinterpretation of the Legislative intent behind the 2021 amendments

The Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 1 reversed the family law court, reasoning that the mother’s behavior did not rise to the level of destroying the father’s mental and emotional calm to constitute abuse within the meaning of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”) (Fam. Code, §6200 et seq.)

In California, issuance of a DVRO requires the protected party to prove at least one prior act of “abuse” whereas that term is broadly defined, and includes disturbing a person’s mental peace.  (Fam. Code, §6320, 6203.)

The Court interpreted the Legislature’s new amendments to the DVPA, including Family Code section 6320(c) which defines “disturbing the peace of the other party” as:

conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party. This conduct may be committed directly or indirectly, including through the use of a third party, and by any method or through any means including, but not limited to, telephone, online accounts, text messages, internet-connected devices, or other electronic technologies. This conduct includes, but is not limited to, coercive control, which is a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty. Examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following:

(1) Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.

(2) Depriving the other party of basic necessities.

(3) Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party’s movements, communications,  daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services.

(4) Compelling the other party by force, threat of force, or intimidation, including threats based on actual or suspected immigration status, to engage in conduct from which the other party has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the other party has a right to engage.

The Court determined the family law courts abused its discretion and that the mother’s conduct did not rise to the level of destroying the father’s mental and emotional calm within the meaning of the DVPA.  And that a DVRO was not appropriate under the facts because the issue was more of a child custody dispute.
The get to this, the Court reasoned that the family law court went over the Legislature’s new “guardrails” for domestic violence.  The Court found that the family law court went over the “guardrails” the Legislature enacted in its amendments to the DVPA for the purpose of ensuring the law only reaches “clearly abusive behaviors.” (Citing Sen. Judiciary Com., Analysis of Sen. Bill 1141, May 6, 2020, pp. 7-8.)
The Court’s decision appears to misinterpret the DVPA by conflating the legal standard of disturbing a party’s mental peace with the requirements for “coercive control” which is merely one type of disturbing a party’s mental peace. 
The Court’s reliance on the Judicial Committee’s analysis is equally inept because pages 7-8 of the May 6, 2020 Analysis of Senate Bill 1141 is discussing arguments presented by “some stakeholders” who were concerned that the amendments to the DVPA would expand the scope of it thereby causing unintended consequences.    The analysis discusses how certain groups argue the bill limits the meaning of “coercive control.”  The analysis does not state that it limits the meaning of disturbing the other party’s mental or emotional peace. 
The Court’s reliance on debates mentioned by political groups that submitted commentary about the legislation before it was enacted should not be used by the Court of Appeal as  the Legislature’s intent.  And even it was the Legislature’s intent, the Court of Appeal’s decision incorrectly finds the lack of coercive control as dispositive, without considering all of the other type of conduct that constitutes disturbing an individual’s mental or emotional peace.

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