Domestic Violence Restraining Order properly issued based on coercive control

Parris J. v. Christopher U. (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 4, 2023, No.

B313470) 2023 WL 6458520, at *1Summary: Christopher U. appeals from the five-year domestic violence restraining order (DVRO) issued against him at the request of his former spouse, Parris J. Christopher contends the trial court abused its discretion by granting Parris’s request for a DVRO because the record does not demonstrate he engaged in conduct rising to the level of abuse under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA), Family Code section 6200 et seq. He appealed the order of the trial court to change the beneficiary of the $4 million insurance policy he owns on Parris’s life from himself to a charity of her choice. He also appealed the denial of  his requests for a statement of decision. Christopher claimed  that because the DVRO must be reversed, the trial court’s order awarding $200,000 in attorneys’ fees to Parris as the prevailing party under section 6344 must also be reversed.

The Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by granting Parris’s request for a DVRO. The Court rejected Christopher’s contentions regarding the life insurance policy. There was no reason to reverse the order awarding attorneys’ fees to Parris. It concluded that reversal is not required based on the denial of Christopher’s requests for a statement of decision.

Issuance of a protective order under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA)

Under the DVPA, a court is authorized to issue a protective order ‘ “to restrain any person for the purpose of preventing a recurrence of domestic violence and ensuring a period of separation of the persons involved” ’ upon ‘reasonable proof of a past act or acts of abuse.’ ” (Curcio v. Pels (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 1, 11 (Curcio).) The DVPA defines “abuse” as “any of the following:

 (1) To intentionally or recklessly cause or attempt to cause bodily injury.

(2) Sexual assault.

(3) To place a person in reasonable apprehension of imminent serious bodily injury to that person or to another.

(4) To engage in any behavior that has been or could be enjoined pursuant to Section 6320.” (§ 6203, subd. (a).) “Abuse is not limited to the actual infliction of physical injury or assault.” (Id., subd. (b).)

Behavior that may be enjoined under section 6320 includes “disturbing the peace of the other party[.]” (§ 6320, subd. (a).) As used in the DVPA, “ ‘disturbing the peace of the other party’ refers to 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 … 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. (5) Engaging in reproductive coercion, which consists of control over the reproductive autonomy of another through force, threat of force, or intimidation ….” (§ 6320, subd. (c).)

“The DVPA vests the court with discretion to issue a restraining order ‘simply on the basis of an affidavit showing past abuse.’  The burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence. The DVPA ‘confer[s] a discretion designed to be exercised liberally, at least more liberally than a trial court’s discretion to restrain civil harassment generally.’ ” (Curcio, supra, 47 Cal.App.5th at p. 11.)

“We review the grant of a DVPA restraining order for abuse of discretion, and, to the extent we are called upon to review the court’s factual findings, we apply the substantial evidence standard of review.  In reviewing the evidence, we examine the entire record to determine whether there is any substantial evidence—contradicted or uncontradicted—to support the trial court’s findings.  We must accept as true all evidence supporting the trial court’s findings, resolving every conflict in favor of the judgment. We do not determine credibility or reweigh the evidence. If substantial evidence supports the judgment, reversal is not warranted even if facts exist that would support a contrary finding.” (Curcio, supra, 47 Cal.App.5th at p. 12, 259 Cal.Rptr.3d 912.)

Here, the Court of Appeal rejected Christopher’s argument that courts must apply an objective, reasonable person standard when deciding whether a person has “disturb[ed] the peace of the other party” within the meaning of section 6320. The relevant inquiry is simply whether the person against whom the DVRO is sought engaged in “conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroy[ed] the mental or emotional calm of the other party.” (§ 6320, subd. (c).)

Maintenance of Life Insurance Policy disturbed Paris’s peace

The  record contained substantial evidence to support a finding that Christopher disturbed Parris’s peace and engaged in conduct amounting to coercive control. Christopher manipulated Parris into becoming financially dependent on him to keep her in the relationship and control her behavior. He controlled her behavior through emotional abuse.  Whenever Parris did something Christopher disliked, he aggressively berated, insulted, and demeaned her, often using profanity and crude language to do so. Christopher effectively, and unreasonably, coerced Parris into doing what he wanted without question to avoid further emotional abuse. Even after separation, Christopher repeatedly threatened her and her family, and followed through on several of his threats.

The trial court did not err by finding his maintenance of the Life Insurance Policy disturbed Parris’s peace, and therefore was a form of abuse under the DVPA. the trial court could reasonably find Parris was afraid of Christopher. It could also find Parris’s discovery of the Life Insurance Policy’s $4 million death benefit increased her fear because she learned Christopher had a significant financial incentive to kill her, and that she feared for her safety.

The trial court’s order fell within the bounds of its broad authority under the DVPA to issue “a panoply of remedial orders” (Rivera v. Hillard (2023) 89 Cal.App.5th 964, 980 (Rivera)) to “prevent acts of domestic violence, abuse, and sexual abuse and to provide for a separation of the persons involved in the domestic violence for a period sufficient to enable these persons to seek a resolution of the causes of the violence.” (§ 6220; see also § 6320 et seq. [authorizing issuance of a variety of ex parte orders])

Christopher’s requests for a statement of decision were improper

 “Code of Civil Procedure section 632 authorizes [a] party to request a statement of decision and thereby obtain the legal and factual basis for the trial court’s decision.” (People v. Casa Blanca Convalescent Homes, Inc. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 509, 525 (Casa Blanca).) The requests filed by Christopher, however, did not merely ask the trial court to explain the factual and legal basis for the DVRO. Christopher’s requests inappropriately “s[ought] an inquisition, a rehearing of the evidence.” (Casa Blanca, supra, at p. 525, 206.)

Christopher did not demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the trial court’s failure to issue a written statement of decision.

The Court affirmed the DVRO.

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