California Courts Have Decided Cases Under California’s Coercive Control Law, But Now There is a Published Decision. In the Case of Hatley v. Southard, (“Hatley”) (Decided August 1, 2023) Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2, California, the Court Grants a Restraining Order Based on Coercive Control
On September 29, 2020, Senate Bill 1141, was signed by Governor Newsom. It is one of the country’s first laws explicitly allowing courts to consider coercive control as domestic violence in family court matters. The law defined coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”
This bill would define “disturbing the peace of the other party” as conduct that destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party, as specified. The bill would provide that disturbing the peace of the other party includes coercive control, which is a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty and includes, among other things, unreasonably isolating a victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.
Existing law requires a family court to determine the best interests of a child in deciding child custody in specified proceedings and establishes a rebuttable presumption that an award of child custody to a person who has perpetrated domestic violence is detrimental to the best interests of the child. Existing law defines “perpetrated domestic violence” to mean, among other things, that the person engaged in behavior for which the court may issue an ex parte order to protect the child or the person seeking custody of the child.
By adding coercive control to the basis for the ex parte orders described above, the bill would, for purposes of a family court determining child custody in those proceedings, create a rebuttable presumption that an award of child custody to a party who has engaged in coercive control is detrimental to the best interests of the child.
Section 6320 of the Family Code was amended to define in detail coercive control which states in part:
(a) The court may issue an ex parte order enjoining a party from molesting, attacking, striking, stalking, threatening, sexually assaulting, battering, credibly impersonating as described in Section 528.5 of the Penal Code, falsely personating as described in Section 529 of the Penal Code, harassing, telephoning, including, but not limited to, making annoying telephone calls as described in Section 653m of the Penal Code, destroying personal property, contacting, either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise, coming within a specified distance of, or disturbing the peace of the other party, and, in the discretion of the court, on a showing of good cause, of other named family or household members.
(b) On a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant to the petitioner of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner or the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of either the petitioner or the respondent. The court may order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.
(c) As used in this subdivision (a), “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, 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.
(d) This section does not limit any remedies available under this act or any other provision
California courts have decided cases under California’s coercive control law, but now there is a published decision. In the case of Hatley v. Southard, (“Hatley”) (Decided August 1, 2023) Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2, California, the Court grants a restraining order based on coercive control. The appeals court ruled that “attempts to control, regulate, and monitor a spouse’s finances, economic resources, movements and access to communications are abuse.” “The judge essentially said, ‘A marriage license does not give a person permission to subjugate their spouse,’” said Lisa Fontes of the landmark ruling against coercive control, a type of domestic violence.
Jennifer Ann Hatley alleged that James Braddy Southard had engaged in a pattern of abusive behavior and control during the marriage. She submitted a declaration and documentary evidence describing numerous incidents of physical, financial, verbal, and emotional abuse. There was an allegation of physical harm. Hatley described Southard as exercising control over her by limiting her ability to earn and spend money. She said he “consistently restricted my access to funds by canceling ATM cards, making threats against me, or preventing me from working.”
To get access to funds, Hatley had to tell Southard what she needed to buy and the exact amount, and “he would transfer the requested money into the main account if he approved it.” Hatley said Southard also used his control over her phone to “track my phone calls…to see if I was talking to other men.” She alleged that Southard used access to necessities as a constant threat. “Anything I needed that was a necessity, like my cell phone, was hung over my head.” Hatley said “there have been incidents involving sexual abuse” but did not detail them but described numerous sexually degrading comments. Hatley also requested spousal support. That request was supported by an Income and Expense Declaration (Form FL-150). In a supplemental declaration, Hatley repeated her request for spousal support and noted “the court can order support to a spouse in domestic violence cases, even before proving abuse had occurred.
During her testimony, Hatley was audibly upset, and the trial court repeatedly asked her to try to collect herself. The judge indicated he did not accept that her testimony was evidence of abuse as defined in the Domestic Violence Protective Act (DVPA). After her testimony about the car, he asked her what abuse she was complaining about. “What abuse? Tell me what you’re complaining of. I mean, I know that he took your car, and the car meant a lot to you, but what else? He called you names?” Hatley provided additional details about Southard’s degrading insults and unwanted contact. “It wasn’t just calling me names, it was repeatedly telling me, ‘If you get a lawyer when you’re a college grad, well you can get F’d. You’re pathetic. I know where you live…. I have the text messages that I can pull up that go into more detail, but it was just everything he could possibly think of.”
The trial judge did not accept those incidents as incidents of abuse under the DVPA. The appeals court noted that the trial court, interrupted her and said, “let’s try to focus on what Mr. Southard did to you that you feel was either violent or abusive ․ I don’t want to hear all the problems of your marriage and your relationship.” Hatley then testified about Southard harassing her and taking her car, and the trial judge again directed Hatley to focus on allegations of physical violence, asking “Has Mr. Southard ever hit you?”
The judge also refused to allow Hatley to testify about Southard’s sexual abuse because she had not included sexual abuse in her filings. Hatley testified “there has been sexual abuse” and explained she hesitated to get into details. “I don’t know if I have to get into great detail or not. It’s hard to talk about. It’s embarrassing.” The judge asked, “Did you write about that in your request for a restraining order?” Hatley appeared to understand the judge to be asking whether she had written about specific incidents and answered, “No, I didn’t write about it.” At that point, the judge said, “So then if you haven’t alleged it in your paperwork, then I’m not going to allow you to talk about it here today.” As stated above, Hatley’s declaration avoided specifics but alleged “there have been incidents involving sexual abuse.”
Hatley’s attorney, described coercive control as a “slow, creeping, insidious form of abuse” that destroys a woman’s independence and self-esteem.“ Different from other forms of intimate partner violence,” she said, “coercive control seeks to eradicate the subordinate partner’s sense of self and operates to make the subordinate partner fully dependent upon the dominant partner through more subtle forms of abuse that leave no physical scars—though the emotional scars and loss of self of the subordinate partner often run much deeper and are more difficult to health than bones that are broken. Coercive control “erodes independent, autonomy, self-thought, confidence and self-esteem in the victim.” Victims are “forced to follow ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’ that impose strict, unwavering demands of compliance—or else.”
“This case is one of the first cases in the United States where coercive control was considered domestic violence in the absence of physical abuse,” said Lisa Fontes, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, an expert on coercive control. “The judge essentially said, ‘A marriage license does not give a person permission to subjugate their spouse.’”
With campaigns for similar laws moving forward in several states, the case gives advocates concrete evidence of how coercive control laws are critical for freeing survivors from the grasp of abusive partners. As the lawyer for Hatley explained, “one of the things I come up against is ignorance about how insidious coercive control is. It is a slow build…. The husband tells his partner there’s no need to work, she has no control over the finances, she’s been out of the workforce for years, her resume is stale to put it mildly—and all of this is a deliberate effort to strip her of any power.”
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