The Definition of “Abuse” Under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act is Not Limited to the Infliction of Physical Injury or Assault

In November 2010, Keri Evilsizor (“Wife”) and Joseph Sweeney (“Husband”) were married. In November 2012, the couple had their first child. Around this same time, Husband became concerned that he was not the child’s biological father after he read a text message on his stepson’s phone leading him to believe that Wife had received fertility treatments. Husband then decided to download the contents of Wife’s phone to obtain more information. After reading the text messages and notes from her phone, Husband confronted Wife with the information that he learned, and proceeded to disclose the private information to her parents. Wife claimed that she was upset and shocked when she heard about the disclosure.

Around February 2013, the couple separated. That month, divorce proceedings were initiated. In response to her text messages being used as exhibits in their divorce proceedings, Wife’s divorce attorney filed a request for a restraining order against Husband under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act. She alleged Husband had downloaded her private text communications to third parties without her consent. As a result, she claimed that she suffered “extreme embarrassment, fear, and intimidation.” Her divorce lawyer also claimed that Husband threatened to reveal more information for leverage in the divorce proceedings.

The divorce court granted Wife’s divorce attorney’s request for a restraining order. The court concluded that even if Husband legally obtained the information from Wife’s phone, the court was authorized under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act to enjoin the disclosure or threats of disclosure of the information to protect Wife’s peace of mind. The court ordered that Husband be prohibited from using, delivering, copying, printing or disclosing the contents of the phone, except as otherwise authorized by the court. Husband was also prohibited from accessing or interfering with Wife’s Internet service provider accounts and social media accounts. Husband’s divorce lawyer then filed an appeal.

California Family Code section 6320 permits a divorce court to enjoin a party from engaging in various types of behavior, including “disturbing the peace of the other party.” The plain meaning of this phrase may be properly understood as conduct that “destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that the definition of “abuse” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act is not limited to the infliction of physical injury or assault. The Court of Appeal noted that it was not necessary for Wife to prove physical abuse to obtain a restraining order, and that “the disclosure of various communications can constitute disturbing the peace of the other party within the meaning of the domestic violence statute.” The Court of Appeal ultimately agreed with Wif’es divorce lawyer and concluded that Husband had disturbed Wife’s “peace” within the meaning of the statute, and therefore affirmed the divorce court’s order granting the restraining order.

In re Marriage of Evilsizor and Sweeney (2015) 237 Cal. App. 4th 1416