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Harassment and Substantial

Emotional Distress as Domestic Violence

North Carolina courts can enter domestic violence protective orders (DVPOs) if any one of several grounds exist. DVPOs can require someone to stay away from the home, school or workplace of the other person, surrender firearms, cease all contact with the other person including by e-mail and text, and even award temporary child custody of the children of the parties. While a DVPO is a civil order and not a criminal order, the stigma associated with it is just as bad if not worse.

What Are the Grounds for DVPOs?

There are four different grounds for the granting of a DVPO. One ground for getting a DVPO is any attempt someone makes to cause bodily injury, or intentionally causing bodily injury. Another ground is committing sexual assault against someone. These two grounds are more objective, looking at what any reasonable person would think about what happened. These grounds are sometimes easier to prove than the next two grounds.

The court will grant a DVPO is someone places someone “in fear of imminent serious bodily injury . . . that rises to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress.” And the last ground for a DVPO is when someone places someone “in fear of continued harassment that rises to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress.” [1] These require the court to make a ruling about how the victim specifically feels about what happened, using a subjective standard instead of looking objectively at how any reasonable person in that situation would likely feel. In other words, the court can find that grounds for a DVPO just because the victim was fearful because of what the defendant did even if most reasonable people wouldn’t be fearful.

What’s the Legal Definition of Harassment?

Our criminal statutes for stalking define harassment as “[k]nowing conduct . . . directed at a specific person that torments, terrorizes, or terrifies that person and that serves no legitimate purpose.” There are many ways someone can commit harassment, including “written or printed communication or transmission, telephone, cellular, or other wireless telephonic communication, facsimile transmission, pager messages or transmissions, answering machine or voice mail messages or transmissions, and electronic mail messages or other computerized or electronic transmissions.” [2]

What is Substantial Emotional Distress?

For the court to enter a DVPO, there has to be harassment but it must also lead to substantial emotional distress to the person allegedly being harassed. The criminal laws define what this means in fuzzy terms: Significant mental suffering or distress that may, but does not necessarily, require medical or other professional treatment or counseling. [3] What meets the standard of harassment that causes this level distress? Like most legal issues, there’s no clearly defined answer because North Carolina courts look at each situation on a case-by-case basis.

In one case, the defendant sent text messages threatening suicide, then that “I invited you to come home time and time again. Take the wrath that comes.” He sent numerous other texts and she feared that he was “coming to kill” her. She became so fearful that it curtailed her ability to work, persuading the Court of Appeals to decide that her case did constitute substantial emotional distress. [4]

In another case, the Court of Appeals reminded us that just being harassed isn’t enough. It has to rise to the level of substantial emotional distress. [5] There, the person seeking a DVPO said that the other person made Facebook posts in which “he continues to lie on social media about me[.]” In court, the attorney asked her what the posts had done to her, specifically. She replied that “It’s emotional distress. I can’t live every day wondering what he’s going to do and say on Facebook that’s going to damage my family, my children, my grandchildren, myself.” This wasn’t substantial emotional distress. It was merely harassment.

[1] NC Gen. Stat. §50B-1.
[2] NC Gen. Stat. §14-277.3A(b)(2).
[3] NC Gen. Stat. §14-277.3A(b)(4).
[4] Stancill v. Stancill, 241 N.C. App. 529, 543 (2015).
[5] Morgan v. Defeo, (unpublished) 822 S.E.2d 792 (2019).

Laws change. This article is current as of 2019. ©

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