The California Court of Appeals has held that a trial court failed to consider whether a wife’s allegations of a pattern of control and isolation by limiting her access to money, communication and transportation amounted to “abuse” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
In Hatley v. Southard [decided on August 1, 2023], a wife filed a request for a domestic violence restraining order against her husband. In her request, the wife alleged that her husband engaged in a pattern of abuse against her, including threats to kill himself in order to exert control over her and threats of abuse against the wife’s pet dog if she tried to seek medical treatment for injuries that the wife believed were inflicted on her by her husband while she was unconscious. The wife also alleged that her husband prevented her from working, limited her use of her vehicle and phone, isolated her from friends and family, controlled how she spent money (including cancelling her ATM cards), and committed sexual abuse against her. In her request for a restraining order, the wife also asked that the trial court award her spousal support.
The trial court denied the wife’s request for a temporary restraining order and set the matter for a further hearing on the request for a domestic violence restraining order. In denying the temporary restraining order, the trial court held that, ‘‘‘[t]he facts as stated in form DV-100 do not show reasonable proof of a past act or acts of abuse.’’ After a further hearing on the restraining order request was set, the husband filed for divorce and contested the wife’s request for a restraining order. In his response, the husband accused the wife of having retaliatory motives for him wanting a divorce. He further argued that there was no need for a restraining order since he no longer lived in California and did not intend to return to the state. Lastly, the husband also objected to his wife’s request for spousal support in her restraining order request, arguing that this request should be heard through the dissolution of marriage proceeding.
At the hearing on the domestic violence restraining order, the wife testified about the husband’s control over her finances, harassing messages, and suicide threats. She also testified that he took her car out of state after their separation and left her without transportation. The wife said that not having a means for transportation caused her to lose her job. The husband did not cross examine the wife and the husband did not testify himself. The trial court interrupted the wife’s testimony several times. For example, after she described how her husband limited and, ultimately, took her car, the trial court asked, ‘‘‘What abuse? Tell me what you’re complaining of. I mean, I know that he took your car, and the car means a lot to you, but what else?’.’’ When the wife then described her husband’s degrading insults and unwanted contact, the trial court did not accept her testimony as evidence of abuse under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act. Instead, the trial court asked, ‘‘‘Has [your husband] ever hit you?’’’ The trial court also refused to allow the wife to testify about her husband’s sexual abuse, finding that the wife did not include sexual abuse in her filings despite a statement in the wife’s declaration, which stated, ‘‘‘[T]here have been incidents involving sexual abuse.’ ’’ After the wife’s testimony, the husband moved for a judgment on the grounds that, even if the wife’s allegations were true, it does not ‘‘‘fall within the domestic violence prevention act.’’’ The trial court found in favor of the husband and denied the wife’s request for a domestic violence restraining order. The court did not address the wife’s request for spousal support.
On appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. Under California Family Code Section 6320, a court may issue a domestic violence restraining order preventing a party from disturbing the peace of another party. “Disturbing the peace” of a party refers to conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroys the mental or emotional calm of that individual; (2) this conduct includes coercive control, which is “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will or liberty”; (3) under California Family Code Section 6203(b), “abuse” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act is not limited to the actual infliction of physical injury or assault; (4) the trial court erred by failing to consider whether the wife’s allegations that the husband’s attempted financial control over her amounted to “abuse” under Domestic Violence Prevention Act; (5) the trial court erred by failing to consider whether the wife’s allegations that her husband limited and deprived her of her vehicle and phone constituted “abuse” under Domestic Violence Prevention Act; (6) on remand, the wife should be allowed to testify as to particular past acts of sexual abuse; (7) the trial court’s error was prejudicial since there is a reasonable probability that the wife would have obtained a more favorable result if the trial court considered whether her allegations establish, under the totality of the circumstances, that the husband’s conduct destroyed her mental or emotional calm; and (8) the trial court erred by failing to address the wife’s request for spousal support. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the wife’s request for a domestic violence restraining order. The matter was remanded back to the trial court for a new hearing on whether such an order is appropriate.