Under the Protection from Abuse Act (PFA Act), "abuse" is defined as follows: "The occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood: (1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape … (2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury."
Over the years, questions have arisen regarding the qualification of standing in PFA cases. In October 2007, I wrote an article appearing in The Legal on the case of Scott v. Shay where the Superior Court held that sexual assault alone does not establish standing in a protection from abuse case. The focus, in part, in the Scott case was the fact that the parties did not voluntarily enter into a relationship. Senior Judge Robert E. Colville stated in Scott : "There is certainly no domestic, familial or romantic relationship created between an assailant and victim of a sexual assault. … An assailant and a victim do not, by virtue of a crime, suddenly have a bond regarding the private matters of life … . There is nothing at all about a sex crime that creates a domestic or familial link." Therefore, because the mutual engagement of the relationship was missing, the petitioner lacked standing in the Scott case.
The recent case of Evans v. Braun provides family law practitioners with further guidance as to what actions constitute standing in PFA cases. According to the Evans opinion, Christine Evans and Gordon Braun were co-workers who began a "stormy dating relationship during the summer of 2009." On one occasion, while the parties were traveling to attend a play in Harrisburg, Braun informed Evans that he was carrying a gun. "Later, when the two returned to his home, [Braun] removed the gun from his waistband, handed it to [Evans], remarked on its weight and told her it could put a very big hole in her," the opinion said. Evans testified that she was not sure whether Braun attempted to impress or intimidate her by making the statement regarding the gun.
On another occasion, Evans asked Braun to meet her at a bar to make amends after another argument. According to the opinion, when Braun arrived at the bar, Evans was standing outside smoking a cigarette with a close friend. The friend went back into the bar once the parties started to get into a heated conversation. Apparently, when Evans turned to go back into the bar, when Evans looked back at Braun after he called her name, Braun pulled back his jacket and exposed his "Colt-45 semi-automatic pistol, held in his waistband," the opinion said. Braun then told Evans "to remember he still had the gun, and he was not afraid to use it," the opinion said.
When Evans returned inside the bar, she did not relay the fact that Braun threatened her with the gun. However, she later informed one of her friends about the threat. The next day, the court wrote, Evans reported the incident to her employer, "impelled by fear due to their shared workplace." She was then informed to report the incident to the police by an employee assistance counselor. The police apparently referred Evans to the Office of Women in Need (WIN). WIN then filed a PFA action on Evans' behalf. The filing resulted in a temporary ex-parte PFA order and a hearing was thereafter held on a continued date by the request of Braun.
After Evans' case in chief during the PFA hearing, Braun moved for a directed verdict. Braun's motion for directed verdict was denied by the court, and after Braun completed his case, the trial court entered a final protection from abuse order, which also required Braun to surrender all of his weapons.
Braun filed a timely notice of appeal and raised two issues: (1) Did the trial court commit an error of law in denying his motion for directed verdict based on a lack of standing following Evans' case in chief "because [Evans] had failed to present any evidence sufficient to support the contention that she is part of the protected class entitled to seek a [PFA] order as defined under the term 'abuse' in the" PFA Act? (2) And did the trial court commit an error of law in granting Evans' PFA despite the fact that Evans failed to demonstrate that she is a member of the protected class as defined under the term "abuse" in the act?
The Superior Court cited the case of Scott v. Shay in analyzing standing. In quoting Shay , the Superior Court stated: "The persons who undoubtedly fit the act's definition of family or household members — e.g., spouses, … persons who undertake romantic relationships — typically share some sufficient degree of domestic, familial and/or intimate interdependence. There is often an obvious emotional bond … even in a dating relationship, where the functional interdependence might not be as substantial as in a family. The participants have elected some measure of personal interaction." In Evans, the Superior Court stated: "With this rationale in mind, we construed the word 'partners' to mean those persons who mutually choose to enter relationships." The Superior Court held that such an interpretation enables the provisions of the statute to achieve the prophylactic goal of the act of "preventing violence among people with a domestic, familial or romantic bond, past or present."
In applying Scott , the Superior Court concluded that "Evans presented sufficient evidence to prove that she and Braun 'mutually chose' to enter a 'dating relationship' which involved a 'romantic bond' albeit short-lived." Interestingly, the opinion reflects that Evans and Braun only dated twice. However, in a footnote contained in the opinion, the Superior Court states that Braun's testimony bolstered the court's conclusion that he and Evans were in a sexual or intimate partnership as defined by Scott , though the Superior Court makes a point to mention that they did not rely on Braun's testimony. Further, Senior Judge John M. Cleland, in his dissent, stated that the trial court found Braun to be not credible. It is important to note that the parties mutually entered into a relationship. The Superior Court further stated: "As noted in Scott , dating relationships such as this may not have a 'functional independence … as substantial as in a family' but, nonetheless, Evans and Braun 'elected some measure of personal interaction.'"
The Superior Court stressed that "criminal law proved to be an ineffective avenue for Evans to seek protection from Braun," as the police did not institute a criminal investigation or charges against Braun despite his alleged threats to Evans regarding his gun. According to the opinion: "Arguably, this is precisely the type of scenario that the Legislature intended the PFA Act to address, which bolsters [the Superior Court's] conclusion that Evans had standing to seek protection under that statute." Likewise, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court and found that it neither committed an error of law nor abused its discretion in denying Braun's motion for directed verdict and granting Evans' PFA petition. In his dissent, Cleland found that Evans and Braun's relationship "simply did not entail the 'significant degree of domestic, familial and/or intimate interdependence' the act is intended to address."
This case serves as further guidance to family law practitioners as to what qualifies for standing in PFA actions. In this case, the parties only dated a few times. However, the fact that they mutually became involved in a relationship appears to trigger the requirements under the definition of abuse, an element that was lacking in the Scott v. Shay case.
MICHAEL E. BERTIN is a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. Bertin is co-chairman of the custody committee and secretary of the family law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and a member of council and past member of the executive committee of the family law section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
This article is reprinted with permission from the April 13, 2011, issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2011 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.
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