If someone in a dating relationship suffers mental abuse, does that mean he or she is the victim of domestic violence. The answer is yes, according to a recent decision of the California Court of Appeal.
Ruling 3-0, the justices held that a trial judge made a mistake when he did not allow a woman claiming domestic violence to present evidence that her former boyfriend had mentally abused her over a long period of time. The same trial judge, in fact, denied the request for a restraining order.
Writing for the appeals court, Justice Laurie Zelon stated “[m]ental abuse is relevant evidence in a [domestic violence] proceeding”. The trial judge had taken the opposite position, stating bluntly “there’s a whole movement who believes mental abuse ought to be considered domestic violence. For whatever reason, the state has not adopted that in its domestic violence statute. So being unpleasant, generally not saying nice things, excluding you from friends and stuff, probably not, under all facts and circumstances, generally is not domestic violence”. (Sic.)
The Court of Appeal was not sympathetic to this reasoning. Indeed, the facts of the case were extreme. The boyfriend isolated the woman from her friends and accused her of cheating. The stress from this alone caused her to obtain psychological help and caused physical symptoms as well.
Furthermore, the boyfriend made the woman keep an ongoing, open connection on her cell phone while she was taking a class and while she was at home, even while she was sleeping. In addition, the boyfriend played with a knife close to the woman’s face; practiced martial arts in close proximity to her; and during her pregnancy, he pulled her hair and kicked and slapped her. He also punched her.
At the hearing, it wasn’t just the woman’s word against the man. The woman’s mother also testified, although certainly just having more witnesses does not guarantee a win; it’s the credibility of the witnesses as the judge sees them not the mere number.
But here, there was both mental and physical abuse. And while the judge thought that mental abuse was not enough, he also thought that the physical abuse, which occurred up to February, 2014, was too remote in time. (The actual hearing was in September and October of 2014.)
An exasperated attorney for the woman, as if to confirm that the ruling had been heard correctly, stated “[y]ou’re making a determination that there was domestic violence in the past and that that is not sufficient to order a restraining order going forward”? The court answered, “[t]hat’s right”. The judge explained that since the violence the man had moved out of Los Angeles County. It appeared that the judge thought that the violence was not going to occur again. However, as the Court of Appeal noted, the trial “court found the testimony of physical abuse credible, and the level of abuse substantial. The court, however, appeared to believe that the absence of actual violence in the six month period leading up to the hearing, as well as the conclusion that respondent had left the area, was an appropriate basis to deny the protective order. The court erred”.
The case, entitled Rodriguez v. Menjivar, was certified for publication, which means that even though the matter originated in Los Angeles County, the central holding of the case — that mental abuse alone can constitute domestic violence — is binding on all trial courts throughout California and can be cited as precedent by judges and lawyers.
In the end, the Court of Appeal referred the case back to the trial judge with orders to enter a restraining order. Domestic violence restraining orders in California can be issued at the time of the hearing for up to five years.
Of course, just because there has been mental abuse, does not mean that a domestic violence restraining order must be granted. It is still basically up to the judge. But evidence of mental abuse is relevant, and the judge in this case was wrong for not at least listening to it and considering it in making his decision.