BLANK

Category: Civil Stalking Injunction

Wilson v. Wilson, 2024 UT App 87 – civil stalking injunction, appeals

Wilson v. Wilson – 2024 UT App 87

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

TKS CO-PACK MANUFACTURING, LLC AND TROY WILSON, Appellants and Cross-appellees, v. DOUG WILSON, Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion No. 20210855-CA Filed June 6, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

The Honorable James R. Taylor

No. 200401547

Michael D. Stanger, Scarlet R. Smith, and R. Jesse Davis, Attorneys for Appellants and Cross-appellees Brady Brammer and Brenton Ranck, Attorneys for Appellee and Cross-appellant, assisted by law student Annie Carmack[1]

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred, with the exception of Part II.B.2.b. JUDGE HARRIS authored a separate opinion regarding Part II.B.2.b, which JUDGE ORME joined.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This opinion addresses a number of issues related to civil stalking injunctions. It also addresses the requirements for judgments as set forth in rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and the range of discretion given to district courts when deciding whether voluntary dismissal under rule 41(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure should be granted with or without prejudice.

¶2        Troy Wilson is the president and co-owner of TKS Co-Pack Manufacturing, LLC (TKS). He hired his brother Doug Wilson to work at TKS. After a time, Doug[2] left TKS. Subsequently, Troy and TKS (collectively, the TKS parties) filed a complaint against Doug, which contained several tort claims as well as a request for a civil stalking injunction. With their complaint, the TKS parties also filed a motion for an ex parte civil stalking injunction, an ex parte temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction. The district court granted a temporary stalking injunction, and Doug then filed an answer and counterclaims. Doug later asked that his counterclaims be dismissed, and they were dismissed without prejudice.

¶3        After an evidentiary hearing, the district court issued a permanent civil stalking injunction (the Stalking Injunction) against Doug and in favor of Troy. The Stalking Injunction also protected “[a]ny customer of TKS” and “[a]ny employees of TKS.” Subsequently, Doug posted on Facebook about the Stalking Injunction and communicated with a prior TKS customer (Prior Customer). The TKS parties then filed a motion requesting that Doug be held in contempt for violating the Stalking Injunction. The district court held another evidentiary hearing, applied the standard for criminal contempt, found that Troy had not established the alleged violations beyond a reasonable doubt, and denied Troy’s motion.

¶4        In the meantime, the TKS parties had also moved to dismiss their tort claims without prejudice. Doug opposed the motion and moved for dismissal of the claims with prejudice. The court dismissed the tort claims without prejudice.

¶5        The TKS parties appeal the district court’s decision not to hold Doug in contempt. Doug also appeals, asserting that the Stalking Injunction was not properly granted in the first place and that the district court erred by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.[3]

¶6        As to Doug’s appeal, we conclude that the district court did not err in issuing the Stalking Injunction and that the court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. As to the TKS parties’ appeal, we unanimously affirm the district court’s determinations to apply the criminal standard in the contempt proceedings and to not hold Doug in contempt for communicating with Prior Customer. Additionally, based on Judge Harris’s separate opinion, which is joined by Judge Orme, we also affirm the district court’s determination to not hold Doug in contempt based on the allegation that his Facebook post and related comments violated the Stalking Injunction.

BACKGROUND
Pre-litigation History

¶7        Troy offered Doug, who was then living in California, a job at TKS, a business in which Troy held a 50% interest. Doug moved to Utah and began working at TKS as a production manager. After about a year and a half, Doug left TKS in mid-2020. Following Doug’s departure, Troy received reports from TKS employees that Doug had allegedly behaved inappropriately toward multiple employees while he worked there.

¶8        Doug then began working for TKS’s landlord (Landlord), a company that had its office in the same building as TKS. In his new role, Doug continued to have interactions with TKS employees that the TKS parties believed were harassment. Thus, Troy emailed Landlord to request that it appoint another of its employees as a point of contact for TKS. TKS also terminated the employment of several of its employees who it believed were attempting to sabotage TKS at Doug’s request.

The TKS Parties’ Complaint

¶9        In October 2020, the TKS parties filed a complaint against Doug, requesting a civil stalking injunction and asserting seven tort claims: tortious interference with employment relationships, tortious interference with customer relationships, tortious interference with government relationships, tortious interference with the landlord-tenant relationship, defamation, tortious infliction of emotional distress, and trespass. The TKS parties alleged, among other things, that after Doug left TKS, he had

·        driven a forklift “into TKS’s roll up door”;

·         convinced several TKS employees to help him fabricate safety violations by TKS by doing such things as staging pictures to make it look like TKS was violating workplace safety regulations;

·         convinced several TKS employees to sabotage TKS by doing such things as putting “grease on a brand new filter that was being used in production”;

·         attempted to falsely “blow the whistle” on TKS by reporting that TKS was transporting CBD without a permit when TKS had such a permit;

·         persuaded Landlord that TKS “was dumping paint and other toxic items into the sewer,” resulting in Landlord terminating TKS’s lease and then reinstating it after another company was identified as the source of the dumping; and

·         continued to harass TKS employees by confronting them for speeding and using a roundabout improperly, “overzealously monitor[ing]” them, “sexually harass[ing] female employees, both on site . . . and via text and phone,” and telling “an employee of TKS that he now knows ‘why Cain killed Abel.’”

The TKS parties asserted that “[t]hese actions by Doug [had] caused Troy and other employees of TKS to fear for their safety and alter their commuting patterns in an attempt to avoid a confrontation with Doug.”

Temporary Civil Stalking Injunction

¶10 With their complaint, the TKS parties also filed a motion for an ex parte civil stalking injunction, an ex parte temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction. In that motion, the TKS parties alleged many of the details recounted above and requested that the district court “issue a stalking injunction against Doug and issue an injunction in the form of a Temporary Restraining Order and preliminary injunction enjoining Doug from having any contact with any TKS employee (including Troy) or customer, and to stay away from Troy’s home, and to stay out of TKS’s facilities.” The district court issued an ex parte civil stalking injunction on October 27, 2020.

Doug’s Suicide Attempt

¶11 Three days later, Doug attempted suicide, prompting the TKS parties to move to modify the temporary stalking injunction in light of Doug’s alleged actions during that episode. Specifically, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had come with a shotgun in his car to the building that housed TKS and Landlord, that he had gone into the building and left a suicide note, and that he had “then [gone] to the mountains with the intent of taking his own life.” The TKS parties further alleged that Doug had “eventually [been] talked out of killing himself, . . . placed in police custody, and then transferred to a hospital.” They continued, “After being released from the hospital, Doug has returned to work. This is problematic as Doug and Troy both work in the same building and the [temporary stalking injunction] specifically orders Doug to ‘stay away’ from Troy’s work.” The TKS parties explained that law enforcement had “declined” to remove Doug from his workplace because the temporary injunction identified as protected premises “the suite . . . of the building instead of the building itself.” Accordingly, the TKS parties sought an amendment that would clarify that the term “‘stay away’ includes but is not limited to staying away from the building and the parking lot.” They also requested “language specifically stating that Doug is prohibited from possessing a firearm.”

Doug’s Answer and Counterclaims

¶12      In November 2020, Doug filed both an answer to the TKS parties’ complaint and several counterclaims. He asserted that the allegations against him were based on “speculation and rumors” and that he “was distraught over being accused of sexual misconduct.” He also recited the severe impact the allegations were having on his health, job, and marriage. Doug’s complaint then recounted Doug’s attempt to end his life:

On October 30, 2020[,] Doug Wilson left a suicide note at his . . . desk [in Landlord’s office]. The note read:

“To my family I love you all with everything I have. I feel like there is no other way out of where Troy has put me. I do not have the will or strength to fight. I have come to the end of the line. Forgive me. I want no funeral and no burial. Cremate me and take my ashes anywhere. Kids I love you so much. Everything I own I give to my wife, the house, the belongings, everything.” —Douglas Wilson.

He did not have any shotgun at the time he left the note. He left [Landlord’s office], obtained a shotgun and went to the mountains with intent to take his own life.

Doug’s complaint relayed how he encountered hunters in the mountains, he voluntarily surrendered the gun to them, and they called the police to help him. It further stated that the police had noted, “Douglas believes [his family] would be better off without him because his brother Troy is going to make him lose his job so he can’t support them.” (Alteration in original.) Doug’s complaint then asserted counterclaims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation/libel/slander, interference with economic and employment relations, and wrongful use of civil proceedings. Doug later voluntarily dismissed his counterclaims, purportedly at the behest of his mother. His counterclaims were dismissed without prejudice.

Permanent Civil Stalking Injunction

¶13 In December 2020, the district court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion for a civil stalking injunction. After hearing evidence and arguments, the court first identified incidents that it felt did not provide grounds for making the stalking injunction permanent. Specifically, it said that the allegation that Doug left the suicide note with the intent to harm Troy was “extreme” and “unlikely” and that “[t]he placement of the note at [Doug’s] work” did not evidence “an intent to direct that note or the activity that was . . . intended toward either . . . [TKS] or [Troy].” The court also said that it did not interpret Doug’s reference to Cain and Abel “as a threat to commit bodily harm.” And it reasoned that Doug’s efforts to “enforce parking restrictions” were not “necessarily retaliatory toward . . . the company . . . or Troy . . . or directly committed in a way that intended . . . either physical harm or emotional distress to Troy.”

¶14      The district court then identified evidence that it felt did support a permanent stalking injunction. It first pointed to conversations that Doug had engaged in with his and Troy’s sister (Sister). The court characterized those conversations as Doug communicating, “I will ruin Troy. I will contact customers. I will bring the company down. . . . [T]hey will lose the business. They’ll lose everything.” The court said, “That’s personal, that’s harmful; and that evinces an intent to . . . cause emotional distress to a specific person, which is what’s required by the statute.” The court then pointed to a text message Doug sent to a person (Vendor) who works for another company owned by Troy and is frequently on site for TKS. After Vendor had a conversation with a TKS employee while at the TKS plant, Doug texted Vendor asking what the pair had been talking about. The court observed, “[Doug] create[d] the impression that he’s all-knowing, that . . . he sees. He create[d] a sense of unease and discomfort. And that is fearful, and that is emotionally frightening. And that can upset the workings of a company and . . . create a cloud of suspicion and distrust for the company.” Finally, the court pointed to a conversation between Doug and Vendor during which Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer [of TKS] and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled,” which the court said “undermine[d] the wellbeing of the company.” The court concluded by saying that these incidents showed that “Doug engaged in this conduct in order to bring . . . [Troy] down” and “in order to cause distress and ruin the company.” Based on these incidents, the court said, “[I’m] satisfied to a preponderance that there is a course of action, that it was directed in such a way that although it was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and that it satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].”

¶15      The district court further explained that because it did not consider the suicide-related incident to be part of the “course of conduct” required by the stalking statute, see generally Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a),[4] it was denying the TKS parties’ request that the injunction include “the firearms prescription.” The court also denied the TKS parties’ request that Doug be restricted from the building housing TKS and Landlord’s offices. Instead, it clarified that the permanent stalking injunction would restrict Doug from being involved in any direct interactions between Landlord and TKS, from entering TKS’s premises within the building, and from acting inappropriately on the surrounding premises, such as repeatedly driving around in circles, hovering, or acting with the intent to intimidate.

¶16      The district court thereafter issued the Stalking Injunction, which did not detail the facts giving rise to its issuance but stated, “For the reasons stated on the record, the Court finds that there is reason to believe that Doug Wilson has stalked Troy Wilson.” The Stalking Injunction contained both a “Personal Conduct Order” and a “No Contact Order.” The Personal Conduct Order read:

Doug is not to stalk Troy. This means that Doug must not do things such as follow, threaten, annoy, or harass Troy in a way that could cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to be afraid for the person’s safety or the safety of another person. For a legal definition of stalking, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5.

The No Contact Order read:

Doug must not contact, phone, text, mail, email, or communicate with, either directly or indirectly in any way with Troy and any other person listed below.

The Stalking Injunction was issued in favor of Troy (not TKS) and listed as additional protected persons Troy’s spouse and children, Vendor, three named TKS employees, “[a]ny customer of TKS,” and “[a]ny employee of TKS.”

Motion for Contempt Sanctions

¶17      In March 2021, the TKS parties filed a motion to hold Doug in contempt for violating the Stalking Injunction. The judge who received and adjudicated the contempt motion was not the one who had presided over the proceedings related to the issuance of the temporary stalking injunction and the Stalking Injunction. In their contempt motion, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had violated the Stalking Injunction by making a Facebook post along with subsequent comments related to the post and by communicating with Prior Customer.

¶18      As to the Facebook post, the TKS parties identified a post by “John Dough” that read verbatim:

I have kept my mouth shut for far to long. I have listened to some of my family member bear false witness against me all in a attempt to cover up wrong doing. Had family members try to hurt me to the point to drive me to take my life. They hoped for it. Being sued because I stood up and talked out. For the first time I am appalled to be part of this family. To have family members turn their backs on me. So Christ like to take one side of a story and make it true. All that evil needs to prevale in this world is that good people do nothing. I am so glad you act like Christians.

In response to comments on this post, “John Dough” also posted two comments:

There was a law suite filed against me. I have the document. The stalking injunction was filed against me as well in court. [Sister] mislead and lied in court about what was going on and about what was said. This is why I sent out the post in the first place. You have only one side of a truth which is based in lies.

and

I am just so glad my family has both sides of the story. Oh wait they don’t. Thanks for getting my side of the story so you you have all the information.

Doug admitted that he “uses the name John Dough on Facebook.”

¶19 As to Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had informed Prior Customer, “[B]ecause you are a customer of Troy, I am not allowed to talk to you.” The motion ended with the TKS parties’ request that the court “impose a fine and/or incarceration.”

Dismissal of the TKS Parties’ Tort Claims

¶20      By June 2021 and before a hearing on the contempt motion, the parties had engaged in little to no discovery on the TKS parties’ tort claims, and the TKS parties moved to voluntarily dismiss those claims, stating, “Having prevailed on their 8th Cause of Action (Civil Stalking), and having been granted [the] Stalking Injunction against Doug . . . , the TKS [p]arties have obtained the primary relief sought and needed to protect Troy, his family and TKS’[s] employees and customers from Doug.”

¶21      Doug opposed granting a dismissal of the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice, and he moved for dismissal of the claims with prejudice. He contended that the TKS parties never “offered any initial disclosures or proof of the . . . devastating smears on Doug’s moral character,” that they did not participate in discovery though the fact discovery period would end in “less than twenty days,” and that they “should not be allowed to raise these serious allegations, idle away their time before the court, and then withdraw their claims with the intent of bringing them again some other time.”

¶22      The court held a hearing on this matter in July 2021. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated,

I would have found excusable delay on such a short time frame. I find that the [TKS parties] were involved with other stuff in the case even if they weren’t doing that disclosure. Had they sought additional time from me, I would have granted it. I am loath to dismiss cases. I routinely grant more time . . . for the public policy reasons [the TKS parties’ counsel] outlined about cases being resolved on the merits. So if Doug intends to re-pursue his claims, then I think that it is going to open up the necessity to hear a lot of the evidence that Troy alleges in his claims.

On September 14, 2021, the court issued a written “Order Granting Petitioners’ Motion to Dismiss and Denying Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss,” in which it dismissed the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

Hearing and Decision on the Motion for Contempt Sanctions

¶23 The following week, the court held a hearing on the contempt matter, with the judge who had not conducted the original stalking injunction proceedings presiding. The court informed the parties that “any of the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. Thus, the court limited the witnesses to giving “testimony in regards to the allegations in the contempt proceeding.” The TKS parties contended that “the question of . . . whether [Troy] suffered emotional distress [from the alleged violations of the Stalking Injunction] is context specific” and that evidence of events that occurred before the contempt action was necessary to establish “what a reasonable person in Troy’s shoes looks like.” The court indicated that it would “take judicial notice of the fact that there were prior proceedings” and “of the order that was issued by [the previous judge] and the findings that [the previous judge] made in relation to” the initial proceedings. The TKS parties noted their concern that “there was testimony underlying those orders” and “some of the facts that . . . came out [were not] necessarily memorialized in [the Stalking Injunction] itself, or in [the prior] ruling.” Doug also stated his contrary concern that Troy not be allowed to testify about matters the previous judge “found irrelevant or unpersuasive for purposes of [the Stalking Injunction].” The court then reiterated its view that “the scope of [the contempt] proceeding” was the “limited allegations of the order [to show cause].”

¶24      During the hearing, Doug did not dispute that he authored the Facebook post and related comments that the TKS parties contended violated the Stalking Injunction, nor did he dispute their contents. Also during the hearing, the court received evidence of an email Doug sent to Prior Customer in March 2021 asking Prior Customer to tell him the last date he did any business with TKS. Prior Customer responded by saying he was not a current TKS customer but that he had purchased some products from TKS a few months earlier. Prior Customer also testified that when he had initiated contact with Doug in the past, Doug had said, “[I]f you’re a TKS customer, I can’t talk to you . . . .”

¶25 The court issued an order on the contempt motion on October 13, 2021. Therein the court first explained that it was applying the standard for criminal contempt:

Because Doug Wilson has substantially complied with the [Stalking Injunction], were the court to sanction Doug Wilson, the [principal] reason would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance. Because the court’s primary purpose would be punitive in nature, the criminal standard of proof beyond a reason[able] doubt applies to the proceeding.

¶26 The court then addressed Doug’s Facebook post and comments by turning to the language of the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order and noting that it “contain[ed] a citation” to Utah Code section 76-5-106.5 “for the legal definition of stalking” and that “the statute contains a provision precluding an enjoined party from communicating ‘about’ the protected party.” But the court also noted that the Stalking Injunction did “not contain that language, and no evidence exist[ed] in the record that Doug Wilson ever consulted the statute.” The court then determined that “because no evidence exist[ed] [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order, a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether Doug intended the message to violate[] the order.” The court highlighted that “[n]either Troy Wilson nor any other protected party were friends on the Facebook platform with Doug Wilson at the time of his . . . posting, and Doug deleted the post and his account shortly thereafter.” “Moreover,” the court continued, “the post does not reference Troy Wilson by name, such that acquaintances unfamiliar with the details of the lawsuit would not associate Troy with the content of the post.” And the court observed that “[i]n the subsequent comments to the original post, Doug Wilson asserted that his reference to ‘my family member’ who bore ‘false witness against me’ related to [Sister]” and Sister was not “among the protected parties” of the Stalking Injunction. The court concluded that “because Troy was not a Facebook friend of Doug and because the message [did] not reference Troy by name, a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether Doug intended the message to reach Troy and cause Troy emotional distress.”

¶27      The court also considered “the circumstances surrounding the case at bar,” which involved “great turmoil in the extended Wilson family” as “Doug and Troy are the youngest of 11 siblings, and the controversy was causing division and divided loyalties in the family.” Given this, the court concluded that “a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether the [Facebook] post was designed to harass or annoy Troy, rather than Doug’s stated intention of determining who in the family supported him.” Also of note, the court found “that all of the witnesses from [the] Wilson family possess[ed] such significant biases that the court [could not] credit any of their testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.”

¶28 The court further determined that “a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post, even if the post would cause some lesser degree of annoyance.” On this front, the court stated that “[t]he only persons who commented on Doug’s Facebook post were immediate Wilson family members, and the only persons who spoke to Troy about the post were family members and a small number of employees and old family friends.” The court indicated that the evidence suggested that “all of the family members and acquaintances who viewed or learned about the post [held] Troy in high esteem and the post did not influence their perception of him.”

¶29 As to Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the court stated that “the content” of Doug’s messages to Prior Customer raised “a reasonable doubt as to whether Doug intentionally violated the order by sending those messages or whether he merely attempted to comply with the order, by obtaining written confirmation that [Prior Customer] was not a current customer, after [Prior Customer] initiated contact with Doug.”

¶30 Ultimately, as to both the Facebook post and Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the court ruled that the TKS parties “failed to meet the heavy burden of establishing the alleged violations beyond a reasonable doubt” and thus denied the motion to find Doug in contempt.

The Appeals

¶31 In November 2021, the TKS parties appealed the district court’s decision declining to hold Doug in contempt. Later that same month, Doug appealed the Stalking Injunction and the district court’s decision to dismiss the TKS parties’ other claims without prejudice.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
Doug’s Appeal

¶32 As an initial matter, the TKS parties assert that this court lacks jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal. “Whether this court has jurisdiction over [an] appeal is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Ashton v. Learnframe, Inc., 2008 UT App 172, ¶ 7, 185 P.3d 1135, cert. denied, 199 P.3d 970 (Utah 2008).

¶33      Besides jurisdiction, Doug’s appeal raises three issues. First, Doug asserts that the district court erred by employing a legally incorrect interpretation and application of the stalking statute when it ruled that Doug’s actions “aimed at [TKS]” could form the basis of the Stalking Injunction in favor of Troy. “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness . . . .” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up); see also Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶¶ 15, 20, 491 P.3d 835 (reviewing “for correctness” the district court’s determination of whether particular actions by the respondent legally qualified as a course of conduct “directed at” the petitioner (cleaned up)).

¶34      Second, Doug challenges the district court’s finding that he knew or should have known that his actions constituting a “course of conduct” under the stalking statute would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position to experience emotional distress. “On review of both criminal and civil proceedings, we accept the trial court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988) (cleaned up), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991); see also Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16 (“When reviewing factual determinations, [appellate] court[s] will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” (cleaned up)).

¶35 Finally, Doug argues that the district court erred by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. “A trial court has discretion to determine whether to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal,” and it is “entitle[d] . . . to grant or dismiss the motion upon such terms and conditions as the court deems proper.” H&H Network Services, Inc. v. Unicity Int’l, Inc., 2014 UT App 73, ¶ 4, 323 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). Accordingly, “we review a trial court’s decision” as to granting a voluntary dismissal with or without prejudice “for an abuse of discretion.” Id. (cleaned up).

The TKS Parties’ Appeal

¶36      In their appeal, the TKS parties assert that the district court erred when it applied “the criminal standard” for contempt. They further contest the court’s determination not to hold Doug in contempt. When, as here, the alleged “contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, we review a district court’s findings of fact for clear error and apply a correction of error standard to our review of the district court’s legal determinations.” Valerios Corp. v. Macias, 2015 UT App 4, ¶ 10, 342 P.3d 1127 (cleaned up). Once a court finds the existence of facts necessary to support a contempt sanction, “the decision to hold a party in contempt of court rests within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court’s action is so unreasonable as to be classified as capricious and arbitrary, or a clear abuse of discretion.” Anderson v. Thompson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 11, 176 P.3d 464 (cleaned up). “That discretion includes not just the power to decide whether a party should be held in contempt, but the power to determine whether the purpose of a particular contempt order is civil or criminal.” Dickman Family Props., Inc. v. White, 2013 UT App 116, ¶ 3, 302 P.3d 833 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 312 P.3d 619 (Utah 2013).

¶37      The TKS parties also challenge the district court’s decision to exclude from the contempt proceedings evidence of the full circumstances surrounding the incidents that gave rise to the Stalking Injunction. We review the district court’s “determinations regarding the admissibility of evidence under an abuse of discretion standard.” Anderson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 25.

ANALYSIS

I. Doug’s Appeal

¶38 We first address Doug’s appeal. Doug challenges the district court’s decision to issue the Stalking Injunction in the first instance. He also challenges the district court’s decision to dismiss the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. For their part, the TKS parties contend that “this court lacks jurisdiction to consider [Doug’s] appeal because it was not made timely.” We begin by addressing the threshold issue of jurisdiction. We then address, in turn, Doug’s challenges to the district court’s orders.

A.        Whether This Court Has Jurisdiction

¶39 The TKS parties contend that Doug did not file a timely notice of appeal and, therefore, that this court lacks jurisdiction over his appeal. According to the TKS parties, the court’s order dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice on September 14, 2021, was a final judgment that triggered the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal. Thus, the TKS parties assert, “Doug’s appeal of the principal action was due October 14, 2021—more than a month before Doug filed a notice of appeal.” We hold that the September 14 order was not a final judgment and, therefore, that it did not trigger the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal. Instead, the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal was triggered 150 days after the court entered the September 14 order.[5]

¶40      Rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure provides that, with a few exceptions not applicable here, “in a case in which an appeal is permitted as a matter of right from the trial court to the appellate court, the notice of appeal . . . must be filed with the clerk of the trial court within 30 days after the date of entry of the judgment or order appealed from.” Utah R. App. P. 4(a). Rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that, again with some exceptions that are not applicable here, “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document ordinarily titled ‘Judgment’—or, as appropriate, ‘Decree.’” Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a)—(b). Rule 58A also provides that when “a separate document is required, a judgment is complete and is entered at the earlier of” (A) when “the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket” or (B) when “150 days have run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.” Id. R. 58A(e)(2).

¶41      In Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, 467 P.3d 833, our supreme court analyzed an “Order of Dismissal with Prejudice” entered by the trial court in that case to determine whether it met the requirements of rule 58A(a) and was thus a “judgment” under that rule. Id. ¶¶ 23–28. The order had been prepared in response to a directive from the trial court to the defendant’s counsel to “draft[] a proposed order confirming the court’s oral ruling” on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Id. ¶ 23. The supreme court held that the order did not qualify as a “judgment” under rule 58A(a). Id. ¶ 28.

¶42 The supreme court first explained that “the goal of Utah rule 58A(a) is to impose a clear line of demarcation between a judgment and an opinion or memorandum” and that “to distinguish a judgment from an order or ruling, it should be identified accordingly.” Id. ¶ 22 (cleaned up). The court then observed that the order at issue “was not titled ‘Judgment,’ but was instead named ‘Order of Dismissal with Prejudice’” and that this was “not a mere technical deviation” from the rule. Id. ¶ 23. Rather, the title “accurately described” the document’s purpose, which was to confirm the trial court’s oral ruling, not to be “a separate judgment documenting the resolution of all claims in the district court.” Id.

¶43      The supreme court next emphasized the rule’s requirement that a “judgment be set out in a ‘separate document.’” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up). It noted that “separate means individual; distinct; particular; disconnected” and declared that “a separate judgment, by definition, must be self-contained and independent from any other document in the case, including the decision that gave rise to it.” Id. (cleaned up). Even if a particular decision “disposes of all claims in the action” and the trial court “directs a party to prepare an order confirming [that] decision,” the court explained, “a separate judgment is required” in order to comply with rule 58A(a). Id. ¶ 26 (cleaned up). Although the order at issue in Griffin was “separate from the [trial] court’s oral ruling and accompanying minute entry, that [was] beside the point.” Id. To be a “judgment,” it needed to be wholly separate from the decision giving rise to the judgment. See id.

¶44 Finally, and “[m]ost importantly,” the Griffin court observed that the order in that case “serve[d] a different function than a 58A(a) judgment.” Id. ¶ 27. The purpose of “a separate 58A(a) judgment” is not to “operate at the decision level” but, rather, to “operate[] at the case level to signal that all claims involving all parties have been resolved.” Id. The fact that the order at issue in Griffin “contain[ed] procedural history, legal reasoning, and factual content” indicated that it operated at the decision level, not the case level. Id. ¶ 28.

¶45 In sum, because the document in Griffin was not “clearly identified as a judgment,” was not “separate from the court’s decision on the relevant motion,” and was not “limited to only that information relevant to a judgment,” it was “not a separate 58A(a) judgment.” Id.

¶46 The reasoning of Griffin applies here, compelling the conclusion that the September 14 order is not a separate rule 58A(a) judgment either. Like the order in Griffin, the September 14 order is not titled “Judgment” but, instead, is titled “Order Granting Petitioners’ Motion to Dismiss and Denying Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss.” Also like the order in Griffin, the September 14 order does not amount to a self-contained judgment that is independent from the decision that gave rise to it. Finally, the September 14 order operates primarily at the decision level, not at the case level. It states, in full:

This case came on for hearing on July 13, 2021[,] on: (1) the Motion to Dismiss filed by [the TKS parties], which sought voluntary dismissal of Causes of Action 1–7 contained in the Verified Complaint & Petition for Civil Stalking Injunction (“the Complaint”), without prejudice; and (2) [Doug’s] Motion to Dismiss, which sought dismissal of the same claims with prejudice. . . . The [c]ourt, having considered the motions and corresponding memoranda, and the oral argument of counsel, for the reasons stated on the record, HEREBY ORDERS THAT:

1. [The TKS parties’] Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED;

2. [Doug’s] Motion to Dismiss is DENIED;

3. Claims 1–7 in the Complaint are dismissed without prejudice; [and]

4. With Claim 8 having resulted in the issuance of a civil stalking injunction, and [Doug] having previously dismissed his counterclaim, all claims in this case have now been resolved.

While the order does not wax long on “procedural history, legal reasoning, and factual content,” id., it does address the procedural posture of the motions, recount details of the hearing, and incorporate the reasoning the court stated at the hearing—all decision-level information. Admittedly, the last sentence of the order says that “all claims in this case have now been resolved,” which is a case-level statement. But because the order predominantly operates at the decision level, it does not qualify as a judgment under rule 58A(a). Cf. In re Cendant Corp., 454 F.3d 235, 241 (3d Cir. 2006) (explaining that to qualify as a judgment under federal rule 58(a), an order “must omit (or at least substantially omit) the [d]istrict [c]ourt’s reasons for disposing of the parties’ claims”).[6]

¶47      The TKS parties ask us to conclude that the September 14 order qualifies as a judgment because “the parties exchanged emails about and edited the document to clarify that the case was over with nothing left to be litigated.” After the TKS parties’ counsel emailed the proposed order to Doug’s counsel for approval, Doug’s counsel responded with an email saying, “What is your position as to [cause of action] #8 (injunction)[?] We probably need to make it clear as to whether the case is over or not through this. It seems that this ends the case, but I am not sure if you are of the same opinion.” Counsel for the TKS parties wrote back, “We are of that opinion. Each of the claims in the Verified Complaint has been resolved, and with this dismissal and Doug’s earlier dismissal of his counterclaim, there is nothing left to be litigated in this case. For clarity, I’ve added a sentence in the attached.” From this exchange, it does appear that the parties intended for the September 14 order to serve as a judgment under rule 58A(a). But because this court’s jurisdiction is tied to a timing determination that depends on when a final judgment is entered, the question of whether a document complies with rule 58A(a) cannot turn on the parties’ subjective intent. Cf. Duke Cap. LLC v. Proctor, 2023 UT App 59, ¶ 25, 531 P.3d 745 (recognizing that “parties cannot create, by contract, jurisdiction that would not otherwise exist” (cleaned up)). Instead, rule 58A(a) compliance is determined by whether the document at issue objectively satisfies the requirements of the rule.

¶48 The September 14 order objectively does not satisfy the requirements of rule 58A(a), and it therefore did not trigger a thirty-day deadline to appeal. Instead, that deadline was triggered 150 days after the clerk recorded the September 14 order. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B). Thus, Doug’s appeal, which was filed before those 150 days had run, was timely. See Utah R. App. P. 4(c) (“A notice of appeal filed after the announcement of a decision, judgment, or order but before entry of the judgment or order will be treated as filed after such entry and on the day thereof.”). We therefore have jurisdiction to consider it.

B.        Whether the Stalking Injunction Was Proper

¶49      Having determined that we have jurisdiction to consider Doug’s appeal, we now address his first contention, which is that the district court should not have granted the Stalking Injunction in the first instance. “Under Utah’s civil stalking [injunction] statute, a person who believes that he or she is the victim of stalking may obtain an injunction against an alleged stalker” by “prov[ing] by a preponderance of the evidence that an offense of stalking has occurred.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 78B-7-701. At the time of Doug’s alleged stalking, to prove that an offense of stalking had occurred, a person was required to show that (1) the alleged stalker “intentionally or knowingly engage[d] in a course of conduct directed at [the] person” and (2) the alleged stalker knew or should have known “that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress.” Ragsdale2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2) (2020). Doug asserts that (1) the district court committed legal error when it ruled that Doug had engaged in a course of conduct and (2) even if Doug had engaged in a course of conduct, the evidence does not support a finding that Doug knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. We disagree with each of Doug’s assertions.

1.         Course of Conduct

¶50      Doug asserts that the court committed legal error when it ruled that he had engaged in a course of conduct. The stalking statute’s definition of a “[c]ourse of conduct” is broad. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i). It defines a course of conduct as “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual,” id., and it says that those acts may include “acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual, or interferes with an individual’s property . . . directly, indirectly, or through any third party,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A). It also says that the acts may include instances when the actor “appears at the individual’s workplace or contacts the individual’s . . . coworker”; “enters property owned, leased, or occupied by an individual”; or “sends material . . . for the purpose of . . . disseminating information about . . . the individual to a . . . coworker, friend, or associate of the individual.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(II)–(IV). Any of the foregoing types of conduct qualifies to be part of a course of conduct even if the actor “uses a computer, the Internet, text messaging, or any other electronic means to commit [the] act.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(VI).

¶51      In this case, Doug agrees that the district court identified three instances of stalking behavior that the court said amounted to a course of conduct. First, the court identified the conversations during which Doug essentially told Sister, “I will ruin Troy. I will contact customers. I will bring the company down. . . . [T]hey will lose the business. They’ll lose everything.” Second, the court identified the text message Doug sent to Vendor asking what he had been talking about with a TKS employee, even though Doug had not been visibly present during the conversation and the participants would not, therefore, have had reason to know that Doug was aware the conversation had occurred. Third, the court identified a conversation between Doug and Vendor wherein Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer [of TKS] and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled.”

¶52      After identifying these instances of stalking behavior, the district court said, “[I’m] satisfied to a preponderance that there is a course of action, that it was directed in such a way that although it was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and that it satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].” Based on this statement, Doug contends that the court’s finding of a course of conduct was “mistaken as a matter of law” because “[n]owhere in the stalking statute does it suggest that a harm can be directed at a company” and qualify as part of a course of conduct but, rather, “harms to companies, as opposed to specific individuals, are simply not contemplated by the statute.” Restated, we understand Doug’s argument to be that conduct that the court acknowledges was “aimed at [TKS]” cannot at the same time legally qualify as conduct “directed at” Troy for purposes of finding a course of conduct under the stalking statute.[7]

¶53 Our supreme court considered a related question in Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, 491 P.3d 835. There, the director of “an inpatient treatment facility for young women recovering from severe depression and anxiety” sought a civil stalking injunction protecting her from a neighbor living on the same street as the facility. Id. ¶¶ 1, 6–7. The neighbor “feared [the facility] would increase noise and traffic in the neighborhood,” and he “began protesting the facility directly” by placing “signs in his yard” that disparaged the facility. Id. ¶¶ 6–7. “He also began flipping off and swearing at employees, clients, and anyone else involved with [the facility].” Id. ¶ 7. Eventually, after the neighbor routinely flipped off the director and began “coming out of his garage to say things” to her directly, the director sought a stalking injunction against the neighbor. Id. ¶¶ 7–9. The district court issued an ex parte temporary injunction, but following an evidentiary hearing, it declined to issue a permanent stalking injunction, reasoning that the neighbor had “not direct[ed] his conduct at [the director] but toward [the facility] as a business.” Id. ¶¶ 9, 12.

¶54      On appeal, the supreme court ruled that the district court had “erred in concluding that because [the neighbor] claimed to subjectively target only [the facility], he did not direct his conduct at [the director].” Id. ¶ 24. The supreme court observed that “nothing in the statute defines the term ‘directed at’” or “expressly indicate[s] that [a stalking] petitioner must be the ‘ultimate target’ of a respondent’s course of conduct.” Id. ¶ 31. Instead, the court explained, “regardless of whether a petitioner is a respondent’s ultimate target, the fact that the respondent engaged in any act proscribed by the statute two or more times makes his or her conduct ‘directed at’ the petitioner.” Id. ¶ 32. Thus, the Ragsdale court concluded, “the person toward whom a respondent’s behavior is ‘directed at’ . . . is determined by an objective assessment of whether the respondent engaged in conduct prohibited by the stalking statute.” Id. ¶ 37. “And this is true even where a respondent directs his or her conduct at a petitioner indirectly or through a third party.” Id. (cleaned up). Accordingly, “[t]he fact that [the facility] was allegedly [the neighbor’s] ultimate target [did] not shield him” from a finding that his actions constituted a course of conduct toward the director. Id. ¶¶ 39, 42. “It simply mean[t] [that the facility] could potentially obtain an injunction against [the neighbor] as well.” Id. ¶ 39; see also supra note 7. Based on this holding, the supreme court remanded the Ragsdale case to the district court for a course-of-conduct determination under a proper understanding of the statute. 2021 UT 29, ¶ 43.

¶55 Another case merits mention in this context as well. In Carson v. Barnes, 2016 UT App 214, 385 P.3d 744, a petitioner sought a stalking injunction based on an alleged course of conduct that included an incident where the respondent had taken “a handgun from his vehicle and confronted” two business associates of the petitioner when the petitioner was not present. Id. ¶¶ 3, 9, 16. The respondent contended that reliance on this incident was “problematic because [the petitioner] was not present, and therefore [the respondent’s] actions on that day were not ‘directed at’ [the petitioner] as the statute requires.” Id. ¶ 16. We disagreed and held that “the statute does not require the victim to be physically present for an act to be considered in the course of conduct” because “the plain language of the statute . . . includes situations in which the actor comes to the person’s workplace or contacts the person’s . . . coworkers, without requiring the presence of the victim.” Id. ¶¶ 16–17 (cleaned up).

¶56 The Ragsdale and Carson holdings apply to this case. Specifically, under the Ragsdale holding, the district court’s acknowledgment that Doug’s conduct “was aimed at [TKS]” is not legally at odds with a determination that Doug had engaged in a course of action directed at Troy. That is because an objective assessment reveals that each of the three instances of stalking behavior the court identified qualify as conduct prohibited by the statute. Doug’s conversations with Sister wherein he said, among other things, that he would ruin Troy amounted to acts in which Doug “communicate[d] . . . about [Troy] . . . directly, indirectly, or through any third party.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A)(I). And Doug’s text message to Vendor about a conversation Doug had not been visibly present for as well as Doug’s conversation with Vendor wherein he suggested that he was going to tell a TKS customer how their product was being handled each amounted to Doug “contact[ing] [Troy’s] . . . coworker,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(II), and perhaps also to Doug “send[ing] material . . . to a . . . coworker” of Troy “for the purpose of . . . communicating with [Troy],” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(IV). Additionally, under the Carson holding, none of these actions by Doug are disqualified from contributing to a course of conduct directed at Troy by virtue of the fact that Troy was not present for or the direct recipient of the conduct. Because an objective assessment reveals that each of the three instances of stalking behavior the court identified qualify as conduct prohibited by the stalking statute as against Troy, the court committed no legal error by ruling that these three instances constituted a course of conduct directed at Troy, even if the same instances might also have been aimed at TKS.

2.         Emotional Distress

¶57      Doug also asserts that, even if he engaged in a course of conduct directed at Troy, the evidence does not support the district court’s implicit finding that Doug knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress.[8] At the time of Doug’s alleged conduct, a determination that stalking had occurred required a finding that the actor “[knew] or should [have known] that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2) (2020).[9] The statute defines “[e]motional distress” to mean “significant mental or psychological suffering.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A) (2024). And it defines “[r]easonable person” to mean “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(v). “By including ‘in the victim’s circumstances’ as part of the reasonable person definition, the statute provides for an individualized objective standard, meaning that a court must consider the entire context surrounding the defendant’s conduct.” Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 67, 541 P.3d 274 (cleaned up). “Courts applying this individualized objective standard have considered such factors as the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking, and the cumulative effect of the defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Id. (cleaned up). “Another consideration could be whether the behavior might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationships, or livelihood.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶58 With regard to the consideration of whether a course of conduct might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationship, or livelihood, the stalking case of Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, 541 P.3d 274, is instructive. There, this court emphasized that the respondent “was saying very negative things” about the petitioner, a vice president of a company, to the petitioner’s “fellow employees and boss, including telling [the boss] that he should fire” the petitioner. Id. ¶¶ 2, 69. Because the respondent’s “behavior could have damaged [the petitioner’s] work relationships and reputation as well as his livelihood,” we determined that “ample evidence existed for the district court to conclude that a reasonable person in [the petitioner’s] circumstances would feel emotional distress.” Id. ¶ 69.

¶59      Here, Doug was a former production manager of TKS who was familiar with TKS’s operations and employees. After leaving TKS, he was employed by Landlord and continued to work in the same building that housed TKS. Thus, Doug was well positioned to harm Troy by harming TKS. And that’s exactly what he told Sister he intended to do. Doug asserts that “[e]xpressing an intent to sue is not emotionally distressing” and that “[w]anting to ‘ruin’ someone is more so an expression of frustration or anger rather than a phrase intended to cause significant stress or suffering.” We agree that a threat of civil litigation by itself would not satisfy the emotional distress component of stalking. But Doug did not simply threaten to file a lawsuit, and we do not agree that, under the circumstances, the court was required to interpret Doug’s express desire to “ruin” Troy and cause both TKS and Troy to “lose everything” to be a mere expression of frustration. Actions undermining TKS could certainly undermine Troy’s livelihood where Troy held a 50% interest in TKS. And if TKS employees felt targeted by Doug in his effort to get at Troy, that could certainly interfere with Troy’s work relationships. Indeed, the district court specifically found that the sum of Doug’s communications to Sister “evince[d] an intent to . . . cause emotional distress to a specific person,” namely Troy; that the text from Doug to Vendor “create[d] the impression” that Doug was “all-knowing” and “create[d] a sense of unease and discomfort” that could “upset the workings of a company and . . . create a cloud of suspicion and distrust for the company”; and that the conversation wherein Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled” “undermine[d] the wellbeing of the company.” All of these findings were reasonable under the circumstances, and they amply support the overarching finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause emotional distress to a reasonable person in Troy’s position.

¶60 Accordingly, Doug has failed to demonstrate that the district court erred in issuing the Stalking Injunction.[10]

C.        Whether the TKS Parties’ Tort Claims Were Properly Dismissed Without Prejudice

¶61    Apart from challenging the Stalking Injunction, Doug also argues that the district court abused its discretion when it dismissed the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice, as opposed to with prejudice. Rule 41 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure indicates that “[u]nless the order states otherwise, a [voluntary] dismissal [by court order] is without prejudice.” Utah R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2). This provision confirms that the default for voluntary dismissals is dismissal without prejudice. The rule also directs a court to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal “only on terms the court considers proper.” Id. In Rohan v. Boseman, 2002 UT App 109, 46 P.3d 753, cert. denied, 59 P.3d 603 (Utah 2002), we adopted the Tenth Circuit’s analysis in Ohlander v. Larson, 114 F.3d 1531, 1537 (10th Cir. 1997), which includes a list of “relevant factors the trial court should consider” when determining “proper” terms of dismissal under rule 41(a)(2). Rohan, 2002 UT App 109, ¶¶ 20–22 (cleaned up). The Ohlander factors include “the opposing party’s effort and expense in preparing for trial; excessive delay and lack of diligence on the part of the movant; insufficient explanation of the need for a dismissal; and the present stage of the litigation.” Id. ¶ 21 (cleaned up). These factors have since been employed in analyzing a district court’s decision to grant or deny a motion for voluntary dismissal, see, e.g.Keystone Ins. Agency v. Inside Ins., 2019 UT 20, ¶¶ 25‒26, 445 P.3d 434, and in analyzing a district court’s decision to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal with or without prejudice, see H&H Network Services, Inc. v. Unicity Int’l, Inc., 2014 UT App 73, ¶ 5, 323 P.3d 1025. These factors “are by no means exclusive[,] and any other relevant factors should also be considered.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶62      Doug frames his argument in terms of the factors set forth in Westinghouse Electric Supply Co. v. Paul W. Larsen Contractor, Inc., 544 P.2d 876 (Utah 1975), which are used when determining whether a dismissal with prejudice for failure to prosecute should be granted: “the length of time since the suit was filed,” “the conduct of both parties,” “the opportunity [the parties have] had to move the case forward and what they have done about it,” “what difficulty or prejudice may have been caused to the other side,” and “whether injustice may result from the dismissal.” Id. at 879. These factors are similar to the Ohlander factors, and we agree that some of them are also relevant here.

¶63      Under the Ohlander and Westinghouse factors that we deem to be relevant here, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. First, as to whether injustice resulted from a dismissal without prejudice, we note that Doug’s claims—which he raised as counterclaims to the TKS parties’ complaint—were also voluntarily dismissed without prejudice, leaving Doug able to bring his claims again in the future if he so desires. On this score, the court’s dismissal of the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice preserved parity between the parties regarding possible future litigation, an outcome that appears just on its face. Cf. Clear Creek Dev., LLC v. Peterson Pipeline Ass’n, 2024 UT App 22, ¶ 24, 545 P.3d 306 (stating, in the context of determining when a counterclaim is compulsory under rule 13(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, that an outcome “allowing both parties the option to bring their claims anew in a subsequent action . . . is certainly the more just outcome”).

¶64      Doug argues that the district court abused its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without (as opposed to with) prejudice because “[t]he case had been on the court’s docket for almost eight months,” “fact discovery was set to end [in] less than three weeks,” and “the TKS parties had done nothing to litigate any of their [tort] claims.” These facts implicate the Ohlander factor regarding excessive delay and lack of diligence on the part of the movant. But we believe that these factors ultimately weigh neutrally or in the TKS parties’ favor here. During the eight months that their tort claims were pending, the TKS parties did not exhibit a lack of diligence generally; they were actively litigating their request for a stalking injunction as well as their motion for contempt sanctions. Additionally, we credit the district court’s indication that, in its view, the eight-month delay in discovery was a relatively “short time frame” under the circumstances and that an allowance of “additional time” for discovery would have been merited if the TKS parties had sought it.

¶65      As to the factor regarding the opposing party’s expense in preparing for trial, we do not have reason to doubt Doug’s claim that his litigation expenses “amounted to over a third of his yearly salary.” Yet those expenses were nevertheless limited by the TKS parties’ decision not to initiate depositions and other costly discovery related to their tort claims while they litigated the Stalking Injunction. Thus, we believe that this factor weighs out neutrally when it comes to evaluating the propriety of dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice.

¶66 Finally, Doug argues that dismissal with prejudice was required because the TKS parties’ “unsubstantiated claims have cost [him] his personal relationships and led him to try and commit suicide.” While we are not unsympathetic to the emotional and relationship costs that are often incurred through litigation, Doug provides no support for the proposition that this type of prejudice is properly within the scope of our inquiry. Without such authority, we are unconvinced that emotional and relationship costs constitute the type of “legal prejudice” that the Ohlander factors are designed to prevent. See 114 F.3d at 1537 (explaining that “[t]he parameters of what constitutes ‘legal prejudice’ are not entirely clear” but providing factors to guide this inquiry, which speak in terms of “effort,” “delay,” “expense,” and “diligence”). Indeed, although to this point the TKS parties’ tort claims have not been substantiated, there has been no contention that they are frivolous, and our system does not condition the ability to maintain potentially meritorious litigation on a showing that the process will not cause stress to the opposing party.

¶67 In sum, in light of the factors that are relevant here, we determine that the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

II. The TKS Parties’ Appeal

¶68 We now turn to the TKS parties’ appeal. The TKS parties first challenge the district court’s decision to treat their motion for contempt sanctions as a motion to hold Doug in criminal contempt rather than civil contempt. The TKS parties also challenge, for several reasons, the court’s decision not to hold Doug in criminal contempt. We address the TKS parties’ various arguments in turn.

A.        Whether the District Court Applied the Correct Standard for Contempt

¶69 The TKS parties assert that the district court erred by “applying the criminal standard” for contempt. We disagree.

¶70      Whether a contemplated contempt order is civil or criminal determines the standard of proof a court must apply to find that the elements of contempt have been met: for civil contempt, the standard is clear and convincing evidence; for criminal contempt, it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Koehler v. Allen, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 & n.3, 466 P.3d 738. “The primary determinant of whether a particular contempt order is to be labeled civil or criminal is the trial court’s purpose in entering the order.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1168 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). “A criminal contempt order is punitive in nature, whereas a civil contempt order has a remedial purpose.” Koehler, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 n.3. “A remedial purpose is indicated when the contemner is allowed to purge him- or herself of the contempt by complying with the court’s orders.” Von Hake, 759 P.2d at 1168. Accordingly, “a contempt order is criminal if the fine or sentence imposed is fixed and unconditional, but [it] is civil if the fine or imprisonment is conditional such that the contemner can obtain relief from the contempt order merely by doing some act as ordered by the court.” Id. at 1168 n.5. For example, in the stalking injunction context, this court has found a contempt order civil when its sanctions included “a jail term of 10 days and a fine of $300” because “these sanctions were stayed to allow [the contemner] an opportunity to purge his contempt . . . by having no further contact . . . with [the protected party] for a period of two years.” Koehler, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 n.3 (cleaned up).

¶71 The district court determined that the contemplated contempt order in this case was criminal, explaining:

Because Doug Wilson has substantially complied with the [Stalking Injunction], were the court to sanction Doug Wilson, the [principal] reason would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance. Because the court’s primary purpose would be punitive in nature, the criminal standard of proof beyond a reason[able] doubt applies to the proceeding.

This determination was not an abuse of discretion.

¶72 First, the TKS parties did not indicate in their motion for contempt that they were seeking a civil contempt adjudication. Their motion asked the court to “impose a fine and/or incarceration,” without any mention of giving Doug an opportunity to purge his contempt. That the relief the TKS parties requested was not conditional suggests that the contempt they sought was not civil. See id. (“Because this order was conditional such that [the contemner] could obtain relief by staying away from [the protected party], the contempt order is not criminal but civil.”).

¶73 Moreover, regardless of what the TKS parties requested, the court gave sound reasons for its application of the criminal standard. Its finding that Doug had “substantially complied” with the terms of the Stalking Injunction—a finding that the TKS parties do not challenge on appeal—supports the court’s determination that the chief reason for it to hold Doug in contempt “would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance.” This finding supports the court’s determination that a contempt sanction in this case would be “punitive in nature.” The court employed the correct standard in approaching this issue, and it provided sound reasoning for its determination that the proceeding was criminal in nature. Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion related to this issue.

B.        Whether the District Court Erred in Not Holding Doug in Contempt

¶74      The TKS parties next challenge the district court’s decision, even under the criminal standard, not to hold Doug in contempt. Relatedly, the TKS parties also assert that the court abused its discretion by excluding certain evidence during the contempt hearing. The TKS parties’ motion for contempt sanctions was based on two sets of alleged violations of the Stalking Injunction: Doug’s communications with Prior Customer and Doug’s Facebook post and related comments. We first review the court’s determination that Doug’s communications with Prior Customer did not satisfy the elements of contempt. We then review the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post did not satisfy the elements of contempt. We address the evidentiary issue as part of our review of the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post did not satisfy the elements of contempt.

1.         Doug’s Communications with Prior Customer

¶75 The TKS parties identified Doug’s communications with Prior Customer as violative of the Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order. “As a general rule, in order to prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order it must be shown that the person cited for contempt knew what was required, had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). The district court found that the TKS parties failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that by communicating with Prior Customer Doug intentionally failed to comply with the Stalking Injunction. The TKS parties challenge that finding. We determine that this finding is not clearly erroneous and, therefore, that Doug’s communications with Prior Customer cannot be a basis for holding Doug in contempt.

¶76 The Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order stated that “Doug must not contact, phone, text, mail, email, or communicate . . . either directly or indirectly in any way with . . . [a]ny customer of TKS.” While there was evidence that Doug spoke with and emailed Prior Customer, who had at some point been a customer of TKS, the district court was also presented with evidence that Prior Customer had been the one to initiate contact with Doug and that when he had initiated contact, Doug told him, “[I]f you’re a TKS customer, I can’t talk to you . . . .” The court also received evidence that Doug subsequently sent Prior Customer an email asking for the last date on which he had done business with TKS. Prior Customer responded by saying he was not a current TKS customer but that he had purchased some products from TKS a few months earlier. The court found that “the content” of Doug’s communications with Prior Customer raised “a reasonable doubt as to whether Doug intentionally violated the order by sending those messages or whether he merely attempted to comply with the order, by obtaining written confirmation that [Prior Customer] was not a current customer, after [Prior Customer] initiated contact with Doug.”

¶77      The TKS parties acknowledge that if Prior Customer was the one who initiated contact with Doug, “it is unclear how Doug could have handled [the situation] differently” and that when Doug subsequently emailed Prior Customer, Doug “was apparently trying to determine whether [he] was a ‘current’ customer or a prospective customer.” Yet the TKS parties appear to argue that because Doug’s email asking Prior Customer “how long he had been working with TKS” was sent three days after Doug was served with the motion for contempt sanctions, the email must have amounted to an intentional failure by Doug to comply with the Stalking Injunction. Specifically, they apparently contend that because “Doug knew Troy considered his communications with [Prior Customer] to be a violation of the Stalking Injunction” yet “reached out to him anyway,” it was clear error for the court not to find that Doug intentionally violated the No Contact Order when he emailed Prior Customer. We are not convinced.

¶78      Nothing in the record suggests that Doug trusted Troy or the assertions of Troy’s counsel. Accordingly, the fact that Doug learned that Troy and Troy’s counsel considered communications with Prior Customer to be a violation of the Stalking Injunction does not definitively establish that Doug intentionally violated the Stalking Injunction by inquiring of Prior Customer himself whether he was a current customer of TKS, especially where he told Doug that he was not a current customer. Given the evidence that Doug repeatedly told Prior Customer that Doug could not speak with him if he was a TKS customer and the evidence that Doug’s email to Prior Customer was merely to confirm whether he was a current customer, we see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the TKS parties failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that by communicating with Prior Customer Doug intentionally violated the Stalking Injunction. That alleged violation of the Stalking Injunction cannot serve as a basis for holding Doug in contempt.

2.         Doug’s Facebook Post and Related Comments

¶79      We now consider the TKS parties’ challenge to the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post and related comments did not satisfy the elements of contempt. While the Stalking Injunction was in place, Doug made a series of communications on Facebook. The full text of those communications is quoted above. See infra ¶ 18. We address, in turn, the district court’s determination that these communications did not violate the No Contact Order and its determination that they did not violate the Personal Conduct Order.

a.         Whether Doug’s Facebook Post and Comments Violated the No Contact Order

¶80      The Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order forbade Doug from communicating with Troy, even indirectly. For the district court to impose contempt sanctions based on the allegation that the Facebook communications violated the No Contact Order, the TKS parties had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, among other things, Doug intended the Facebook post and comments to be a direct or indirect communication with Troy or that he knew they were a direct or indirect communication with Troy. See Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). The district court determined that it could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the Facebook post was an intentional or knowing violation of the No Contact Order, and we see no clear error in that finding.

¶81      On this point, the court reasoned that “because Troy was not a Facebook friend of Doug and because the message [did] not reference Troy by name, a reasonable doubt exists as to whether Doug intended the message to reach Troy.” Indeed, there was evidence that Troy was not a Facebook friend with Doug, which does support a finding that the post was not a knowing or intentional attempt by Doug to communicate with Troy directly. And there is no evidence that any of Doug’s Facebook friends routinely shared Doug’s posts with Troy, which supports a finding that the post and related comments did not amount to a knowing or intentional attempt to communicate with Troy indirectly.

¶82 Admittedly, we have held in the context of a no-contact order that “a factfinder could readily infer that calls [an ex-husband] placed to [his ex-wife’s new husband] . . . would routinely and predictably be conveyed to [the ex-wife]” and, therefore, that by making those calls, the ex-husband “intentionally or knowingly” contacted his ex-wife at least indirectly. State v. Fowers, 2023 UT App 128, ¶ 13, 538 P.3d 1274 (cleaned up). Similarly, we have held that a factfinder could infer that an estranged husband intended to communicate with or contact his wife, who had obtained a protective order against him, by sending letters with language directed to his wife to the address of the wife’s “sister who lived next door.” State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, ¶¶ 3, 41, 43, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). But in neither of those cases did we say that the evidence required a finding that the defendant knowingly or intentionally communicated indirectly with the protected person. See Fowers, 2023 UT App 128, ¶ 13; Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, ¶ 43. And we are unwilling here to hold that a person who is subject to an order not to contact his or her sibling indirectly necessarily violates that order any time he or she communicates about the sibling with any other family member or friend of the sibling.

¶83 In short, we affirm the district court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post and related comments did not violate the No Contact Order.

b.         Whether Doug’s Facebook Post and Comments Violated the Personal Conduct Order

¶84 The TKS parties allege that Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order because he was thereby communicating “about” Troy. On this issue, Judge Harris’s opinion, joined in by Judge Orme, is the majority opinion; my views in this Part II.B.2.b constitute a dissenting opinion on this issue.

¶85 As to the allegation that Doug’s Facebook post and comments violated the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order, I address each of the elements of contempt in turn. Again, those elements include that Doug “knew what was required [of him by the Personal Conduct Order], had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991).

(i) Whether Doug Knew What Was Required

¶86      The Personal Conduct Order said:

Doug is not to stalk Troy. This means that Doug must not do things such as follow, threaten, annoy, or harass Troy in a way that could cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to be afraid for the person’s safety or the safety of another person. For a legal definition of stalking, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5.

The district court found that “no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order.” In making this finding, the court reasoned that while the Personal Conduct Order “contains a citation” to Utah Code section 76-5­106.5 “for the legal definition of stalking” and while “the statute contains a provision precluding an enjoined party from communicating ‘about’ the protected party,” the Stalking Injunction “does not contain that language, and no evidence exists in the record that Doug Wilson ever consulted the statute.” I believe this approach was erroneous.

¶87 The Personal Conduct Order prohibited Doug from stalking Troy. The supplied list of actions that constitute stalking was not exhaustive, as evidenced by the order’s use of “such as.” See State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, ¶ 70, 532 P.3d 930 (explaining that a rule’s “use of ‘such as’ indicates that the list” following that phrase is “illustrative and not exclusive” (cleaned up)); State v. Verde, 2012 UT 60, ¶¶ 14–15, 296 P.3d 673 (discussing a list following “such as” as “illustrative and not exclusive”), abrogated on other grounds by State v. Thornton, 2017 UT 9, 391 P.3d 1016. Thus, the fact that communicating about Troy was not among the listed examples of stalking is not dispositive.

¶88      Furthermore, the Personal Conduct Order unambiguously stated that the legal definition of stalking could be found in Utah Code section 76-5-106.5. I have some doubt as to whether Doug could successfully claim ignorance on the meaning of stalking even if the stalking statute had not been explicitly cited in the Personal Conduct Order, because “citizens are generally presumed to know what the law is.” Laker v. Caras, 2023 UT App 125, ¶ 21, 538 P.3d 926. At any rate, however, Doug’s argument that he only knew of the listed examples of stalking and not the full definition of stalking is unavailing given that he was plainly forbidden from stalking and told where to find the definition of that term. Cf. State v. Barlow, 153 P.2d 647, 653 (Utah 1944) (“Ignorance of a fact may sometimes be taken as evidence of a want of criminal intent, but not ignorance of the law.”). I reject the district court’s position that a person subject to a court order not to engage in certain conduct does not know what is required if the person elects not to read a statute that defines the forbidden conduct that is expressly identified in the order. Accordingly, I would vacate the district court’s finding that “no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the [Personal Conduct Order],” remand the case, and instruct that the court make a new finding on this issue.

(ii) Whether Doug Was Able to Comply

¶89      As the TKS parties point out, the district court did not make a finding regarding Doug’s ability to comply with the Personal Conduct Order’s restriction against communicating about Troy. However, while it is true that a “district court must make explicit findings, whether written or transcribed, on the three elements of contempt,” Koehler v. Allen, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14, 466 P.3d 738 (cleaned up), I would find the lack of an explicit finding on this element to be harmless, see generally Green, 2023 UT 10, ¶ 101 (“[W]hen an error is harmless, we do not disturb the district court’s decision.”). Because there is simply no evidence to suggest that Doug would have been unable to refrain from posting about Troy on Facebook, the only supportable finding on this point is that Doug could have complied with the Personal Conduct Order.

(iii) Whether Doug Intended Noncompliance

¶90 On the element of whether Doug knowingly or intentionally violated the Personal Conduct Order, the district court found that “because no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order, a reasonable doubt exists as to whether Doug intended the [Facebook post and related comments] to violate[] the order.” I have already expressed my view that the court’s finding of no evidence that Doug knew communicating about Troy would violate the Personal Conduct Order was the product of legal error. See supra ¶¶ 86‒88. Because I would have thus vacated this basis for the court’s finding that Doug did not knowingly or intentionally violate the Personal Conduct Order through his Facebook post and related comments, I would vacate the court’s finding on this point as well.

¶91 Doug contends that there is evidence apart from his professed ignorance of the restrictions imposed by the Personal Conduct Order that supports a finding that he did not knowingly or intentionally violate that order with his Facebook communications. Specifically, he asserts that the post and comments were not knowingly or intentionally “about” Troy but, instead, “only about” Sister. I am skeptical on this point. While the Facebook post and comments may have been, in part, about Sister, that does not necessarily mean they were not also about Troy. They refer to the lawsuit and the request for the Stalking Injunction, neither of which was filed by Sister. Additionally, the Facebook post declares, “I have . . . [h]ad family members try to hurt me to the point to drive me to take my life.” And Doug’s suicide note stated: “I feel like there is no other way out of where Troy has put me. I do not have the will or strength to fight.” Doug explicitly blamed Troy for his suicidal thoughts, so I am doubtful that his Facebook reference to the “family members” who prompted such thoughts was not intended to be about Troy. For these reasons, I do not believe that we can say that the evidence supported only the district court’s finding that Doug did not knowingly or intentionally violate the Personal Conduct Order through his Facebook post and related comments. I would instruct the court to make a new finding on this issue on remand as well.

¶92      In the context of stalking, this third element of contempt—that the stalker intentionally failed or refused to comply with the court’s order, see Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991)—required the TKS parties to also prove that, to the extent the Facebook post and comments were about Troy, the communications would have caused “emotional distress to a reasonable person in [Troy’s] circumstances,”[11] Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25, 322 P.3d 728; see also Utah Code § 76-5­106.5(2). The district court found that “a reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than an inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” I would conclude that the court’s approach that led to this finding suffered from a legal error and that the court exceeded its discretion when it excluded certain evidence related to this finding.

¶93 A determination of whether Doug’s Facebook post and comments would have caused emotional distress involves an “objective inquiry into whether [Doug’s] conduct would have caused a reasonable person in [Troy’s] circumstances emotional distress.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 21. This objective inquiry is “an individualized objective” inquiry, “meaning that a court must consider the entire context surrounding the [alleged stalker’s] conduct,” Anderson v. Deem, 2023 UT App 48, ¶ 29, 530 P.3d 945 (cleaned up), including, as we have already noted, “such factors as the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking, . . . the cumulative effect of the defendant’s repetitive conduct[, and] whether the behavior might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationships, or livelihood,” Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 67, 541 P.3d 274 (cleaned up); see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 84, 86, 527 P.3d 1087; Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45, 491 P.3d 835; Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27. “In this context, acts that seem perfectly innocent or even well intentioned may constitute stalking. For example, conduct such as sending the victim a dozen roses may seem benign and loving to the casual observer, but could mean a very different thing when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up). Moreover, courts “must consider the conduct cumulatively.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶94 At the outset of the contempt hearing, the district court expressly stated its view that “the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. As the majority opinion on this issue points out, the court thereafter did say that it would “take judicial notice of the [Stalking Injunction] and the findings that [the previous judge] made in relation to . . . issuing” it, and the court admittedly had before it evidence of many of the circumstances surrounding the controversy in general. However, after the court expressed its willingness to take judicial notice of the Stalking Injunction and the findings that the previous judge had made in relation to it, the court again affirmed its view that “the scope of [the contempt] proceeding” allowed it to consider only the “limited allegations of the order [to show cause],” not the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the Stalking Injunction in the first place. If we take the district court at its word—and I do—even if it took judicial notice of the findings that the previous judge made in relation to the Stalking Injunction, it did not consider those facts when ruling on the contempt motion.

¶95 A conclusion that the district court did not properly consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s conduct is further supported by an evidentiary ruling the court made at the contempt hearing. Specifically, the court limited testimony at the hearing to “testimony in regards to the allegations in the contempt proceeding.” While a judge who presides over both a stalking injunction hearing and a subsequent contempt hearing may not need to rehear evidence of the events leading to the stalking injunction to be able to fulfill its charge to consider the entire context surrounding the stalker’s conduct when deciding the contempt issue, in this case the same judge did not preside over both hearings. And because the first judge’s findings fell far short of telling the whole story of the parties’ history, the second judge’s willingness to take judicial notice of those findings was insufficient to demonstrate that it met its charge. For example, the TKS parties alleged various misdeeds by Doug that the first judge did not discuss when determining whether there was a course of conduct justifying issuance of the Stalking Injunction. See supra ¶¶ 9, 13–16. Accordingly, I believe the court abused its discretion by excluding from the contempt hearing evidence of the events surrounding the issuance of the Stalking Injunction on the basis that it was irrelevant to the contempt proceeding. And that abuse of discretion further confirms that the district court did not properly consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s conduct when it ruled on the contempt issue.

¶96 The majority opinion on this issue begins by correctly reciting “a few background concepts,” including the standard of review related to a district court’s factual findings and the burden of proof related to criminal contempt. Infra ¶¶ 103‒05. But as the majority opinion on this issue recognizes, those concepts come into play only if “a district court applies the correct legal standard.” Infra ¶ 103. And the correct legal standard was whether, considering the entire context, Doug’s Facebook post and comments would have caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress. And, as explained, it is the district court’s repeatedly expressed intention not to consider the entire context that undergirds my opinion on this issue.

¶97      The majority opinion on this issue also states, alternatively, that, even assuming the district court did not consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s Facebook post and comments, no reasonable factfinder who had considered the entire factual context could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Doug’s Facebook post and comments were more than a “blip on the radar screen” and were capable of causing a person in Troy’s position emotional distress. Infra ¶¶ 107, 113. I disagree. As already noted, even the “seem[ingly] . . . innocent” or “well intentioned” “sending [of] . . . a dozen roses” might, in some circumstances, constitute a violation of a stalking injunction “when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up). In light of that, and given the established context of “division,” “escalated” tensions, and “great turmoil” into which the Facebook post and comments were placed, I am not prepared to hold as a matter of law that no reasonable factfinder considering the entire context could determine that the post and comments would cause an ordinary person in Troy’s position emotional distress.

¶98 For the foregoing reasons, I would vacate the court’s finding as to whether Doug’s Facebook post and comments would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress and direct that the court make a new finding on this issue as well.[12]

CONCLUSION

¶99      We have jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal. As to his appeal, the district court did not interpret or apply the stalking statute erroneously when it found a course of conduct directed at Troy. The court’s finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress was not clearly erroneous. And the court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

¶100 As to the TKS parties’ appeal, we unanimously affirm the district court’s determinations to apply the criminal standard in the contempt proceedings and to not hold Doug in contempt for communicating with Prior Customer. Additionally, based on Judge Harris’s opinion, joined by Judge Orme, we also affirm the district court’s determination to not hold Doug in contempt based on the allegation that his Facebook post and comments violated the No Contact Order.

HARRIS, Judge (concurring in part and authoring the Opinion of the Court as to Part II.B.2.b, in which ORME, J., joined):

¶101 Judge Orme and I join the first 83 paragraphs of the lead opinion without reservation. That is, we agree that this court has jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal—as a direct appeal and not as a cross-appeal—and that, on the merits of that appeal, the district court did not err in issuing the Stalking Injunction, nor did it abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. We also agree that, with regard to the TKS parties’ appeal, the district court correctly treated the motion for contempt sanctions as a motion to hold Doug in criminal contempt rather than civil contempt, and we further agree that the court did not commit reversible error either (a) in finding that Doug’s communication with Prior Customer was not contemptuous or (b) in determining that Doug’s Facebook communications did not violate the No Contact Order. To that extent, we concur fully in the lead opinion.[13]

¶102 We disagree, however, with the lead opinion’s conclusion that the district court committed reversible error in determining that the TKS parties had not proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Personal Conduct Order. In particular, we take issue with the lead opinion’s assessment regarding the emotional distress component of the analysis. On that score, we agree wholeheartedly with the district court’s determination that “reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” On that basis, we affirm the judgments of the district court in their entirety, a result that will bring this case to a well-deserved conclusion and present no need for further proceedings on remand.

¶103 Let us begin with a few background concepts, starting with the applicable standard of review. Assuming that a district court applies the correct legal standard—an “individualized objective standard,” see Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26, 322 P.3d 728—its determination regarding whether a claimant suffered the sort of emotional distress the stalking statute contemplates is a factual finding that we review only for clear error. See Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 42, 541 P.3d 274 (reviewing an emotional distress finding, in this context, “for clear error” (cleaned up)). In this case, the district court applied the correct standard, expressly asking whether “a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person,” suffered emotional distress. Accordingly, the court’s ultimate finding regarding emotional distress is, in this case, a determination we review only for clear error.

¶104 Moreover, the overarching standard of review generally applicable in contempt cases is quite deferential. Indeed, the lead opinion, supra ¶ 36, acknowledges that—regardless of whether the case involves civil or criminal contempt—a district court’s “decision to hold a party in contempt of court rests within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court’s action is so unreasonable as to be classified as capricious and arbitrary, or a clear abuse of discretion.” Anderson v. Thompson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 11, 176 P.3d 464 (cleaned up).

¶105 We also note that the TKS parties were seeking criminal contempt, not civil contempt, and therefore they were required to prove Doug’s contempt beyond any reasonable doubt. See supra ¶¶ 69–73. This is the most stringent burden of proof found in the law, and the district court recognized this concept in its ruling.

¶106 Furthermore, the type of emotional distress at issue here is something far greater than mere annoyance. Utah’s stalking statute—incorporated into the Personal Conduct Order—defines “[e]motional distress” to mean “significant mental or psychological suffering.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A) (2021). This court has previously noted that this definition requires claimants to demonstrate that they have suffered more than just “some emotional distress.” See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 20, 507 P.3d 832; see also Meyer v. Aposhian, 2016 UT App 47, ¶ 16, 369 P.3d 1284 (affirming a district court’s determination that the incidents in question, while “upsetting, intimidating, and annoying,” were not sufficient to cause the sort of emotional distress contemplated by the stalking statute).

¶107 With these foundational principles in mind, we see no error at all—let alone a clear one—in the district court’s determination that “reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” In the grand scheme of this family’s lengthy dispute, this Facebook post was merely a blip on the radar screen, and the district court was well within its contempt-case discretion to determine that the TKS parties hadn’t proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that—of all things in this case’s history—it was these rather innocuous Facebook communications that tipped Troy over the emotional edge into “significant mental or psychological suffering.”

¶108 The lead opinion’s inclination to reverse and remand on this point appears largely driven by the district court’s (perhaps somewhat ill-considered) remarks that “any of the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. In our view, one reasonable reading of the court’s remarks is simply that it did not want to unduly elongate the evidentiary hearing by having witnesses come in and rehash the same testimony they’d given under oath some nine months earlier. Indeed, at one point the court referred to its request—made previous to the contempt hearing—that “the parties . . . provide declarations of any witnesses,” and it stated that it had made that request in an attempt “to avoid going back to other proceedings and trying to listen to the” audio recording of the previous hearing. Nevertheless, the lead opinion has decided to “take the district court at its word” and assume that, because of these remarks, the court “did not properly consider the entire context surrounding” Doug’s Facebook communications. See supra ¶¶ 94–95.

¶109 Our reading of the record is different from the lead opinion’s. As we see it, the district court actually did consider the entire context of the case in making its contempt ruling, even if it refused to allow additional testimony and evidence to be re­presented at the hearing. At the contempt hearing, during the debate over the scope of the witnesses’ testimony, the court noted that “there is a record with regard to” what had happened at the previous hearing that could be reviewed and consulted. The court then expressly took “judicial notice of the fact that there were prior proceedings” and “judicial notice of the [Stalking Injunction] and the findings” the prior judge made in entering it. Our reading of this exchange is that the court was not just taking judicial notice of the Stalking Injunction and related findings made by the previous judge, but of the “record with regard to” the previous hearing. Indeed, in its contempt order, the district court expressly stated that it had considered “the circumstances surrounding the case at bar” that had “created great turmoil in the extended Wilson family.”

¶110 Moreover, during that same debate, Troy’s counsel noted that Troy had submitted a lengthy declaration in advance of the contempt hearing, with the intent of informing the court about “what [Troy] had experienced prior to” the entry of the Stalking Injunction. That declaration was just one of many exhibits submitted by the parties with their briefing in advance of the contempt hearing; that briefing, including the exhibits, contained a whole lot of context and descriptions of past underlying events. Unless this court is aware of some indication to the contrary, it should presume that lower courts read the relevant briefing, including the submitted exhibits, before rendering a decision. See, e.g.Merrick Young Inc. v. Wal-Mart Real Estate Bus. Trust, 2011 UT App 164, ¶ 29, 257 P.3d 1031 (noting the lower court’s statement that it had “fully reviewed this matter” before making its ruling, and “presum[ing]” therefrom that the court “closely examined all of the documents filed in support of the parties’” positions). Here, the district court stated, at the hearing, that it had “received and reviewed all the declarations” submitted by the TKS parties, and it indicated in its final written ruling that it “took evidence and received briefing from the parties” and that it was “fully advised in the premises” before making its ruling. We therefore presume that the district court read all the material Troy submitted in support of his motion.

¶111 In addition, at the contempt hearing, the court heard live testimony not only from Troy but also from several other witnesses, including at least four other members of the family. Two of those witnesses—Troy and his sister—offered testimony about Troy’s reaction to Doug’s Facebook communications.

¶112 In our view, it is nigh on impossible to read the file in this case well enough to be able to rule on a contempt motion and not be fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the controversy in general and the Facebook communications in particular. Here, the district court not only read the file but then presided over an evidentiary hearing at which live testimony was presented and these matters were further discussed. We therefore reach a different conclusion than the lead opinion; as we see it, the district court considered all the relevant contextual circumstances before concluding that the TKS parties had not met their burden of proving that Troy had suffered emotional distress.

¶113 But be all of that as it may, even if we were to assume for purposes of the discussion that the district court truly did not consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s Facebook communications, the parties have—in this appeal—provided this court with all of that context, through briefing and citations to the record, and we have certainly considered that contextual evidence. After undertaking that consideration, we are of the view that—to the extent the district court actually failed to consider the underlying circumstances—any error on the part of the court here was harmless. In our view, no reasonable factfinder, after considering the contextual evidence to which the TKS parties now point, could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Doug’s “John Dough” Facebook posts caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position to suffer the sort of significant emotional distress contemplated by the stalking statute.

¶114 Accordingly, for all these reasons, we part ways with the lead opinion’s analysis in paragraphs 90 through 98. On this record, reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy’s shoes would have sustained significant mental or psychological suffering from Doug’s Facebook posts. The district court’s contempt ruling was sound, and we therefore affirm it. Because we agree with the lead opinion’s analysis affirming the court in all other respects, the court’s rulings are affirmed across the board.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] Because the parties share a surname, we use their given names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[3] As explained in more detail below, although Doug’s appeal has been designated as a cross-appeal for ease of reference, the two appeals in this matter are separate and distinct appeals. See infra note 5.

[4] The stalking statute was amended after the events relevant to this appeal. Compare Utah Code § 76-5-106.5 (2020), with id. (2024). Because the changes to the relevant text are mostly minor and do not affect our analysis, we cite the current version of the statute except where the text has materially changed. See infra note 9.

[5] We are not unaware of rule 4(d) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which states that “[i]f a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 14 days after the date on which the first notice of appeal was filed.” If rule 4(d) applied here, Doug would have had fourteen days from the date the TKS parties filed their notice of appeal to file his notice of appeal, and Doug in fact did file his notice of appeal within fourteen days of when the TKS parties filed theirs. But rule 4(d) does not apply here. This matter involves both the TKS parties’ original lawsuit and a subsequent criminal contempt proceeding, see infra ¶¶ 69‒73 (concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in classifying the contempt proceeding as criminal), and a criminal contempt proceeding is an action “separate and apart from the [principal] action,” Robinson v. City Court, 185 P.2d 256, 258 (Utah 1947). Because the original lawsuit and the contempt proceeding are separate actions, the appeal deadlines for those separate actions operate independently. See Burgers v. Maiben, 652 P.2d 1320, 1322 (Utah 1982) (per curiam) (holding that a notice of appeal that was untimely to perfect an appeal from the original action was timely and conferred appellate jurisdiction to review a related criminal contempt proceeding). Thus, notwithstanding that they have been designated cross-appeals for ease of reference and share a common appellate case number, the two appeals in this matter are separate, and the deadline for Doug to perfect his appeal from the TKS parties’ original lawsuit was thirty days after entry of the final judgment in that lawsuit, see Utah R. App. P. 4(a).

[6] Our supreme court has said that In re Cendant Corp., 454 F.3d 235 (3d Cir. 2006), “provides a helpful description of what a proper separate judgment should look like.” Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, ¶ 21, 467 P.3d 833.

[7] We understand this to be Doug’s argument because the Stalking Injunction was entered in favor of Troy and not in favor of TKS. Because the Stalking Injunction was not entered in favor of TKS, this case cannot implicate or resolve the issue of whether a stalking injunction may be issued in favor of a company. With our supreme court, “we note that at least one court has found its state’s civil stalking statute to ‘protect[] institutions as well as people.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 39 n.29, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Board of Regents-UW System v. Decker, 2014 WI 68, ¶ 26, 850 N.W.2d 112 (alteration in original)). But again, this case does not raise that issue, and we, like the supreme court before us, do not address it. See id.

[8] We see in the record no explicit finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. Generally, however, “unstated findings can be implied if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made.” Uhrhahn Constr. & Design, Inc. v. Hopkins, 2008 UT App 41, ¶ 23, 179 P.3d 808 (cleaned up). And here, the necessary finding regarding emotional distress is implicit in the court’s statement that “although [the course of conduct] was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and . . . satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].” At a minimum, Doug makes no argument to the contrary.

[9] In contrast, the current version of the code requires a finding that the actor “[knew] or [wasreckless as to whether the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the individual’s own safety or the safety of a third individual” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a) (emphasis added).

[10] While we have concluded that the district court correctly interpreted the stalking statute and that its findings here are supported by the evidence, courts should remain cautious about allowing civil stalking injunctions to be used as tools in commercial litigation.

[11] The TKS parties do not argue that the Facebook post and comments would have caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position to fear for his or her safety or the safety of a third person.

[12] The TKS parties also contend that “[t]he district court erred in categorically finding that ‘all of the witnesses from [the] Wilson family possess such significant biases that the court cannot credit any of their testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.’” However, “the factfinder serves as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given particular evidence.” State v. Jok, 2021 UT 35, ¶ 28, 493 P.3d 665 (cleaned up). This includes when the trial court is the factfinder. See In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 17, 478 P.3d 56 (“Trial courts . . . have wide latitude to make credibility determinations, and we defer to such determinations . . . .”). Hence, I believe the TKS parties have not demonstrated error on this point.

[13] Moreover, we take no issue with the lead opinion’s analysis in paragraphs 86 through 88, in which the lead opinion expresses a desire to “vacate the district court’s finding that ‘no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the [Personal Conduct Order].’” But our affirmance of the court’s emotional distress determination is, by itself, sufficient to conclude our analysis on the overarching question of whether Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Personal Conduct Order; thus, Judge Orme and I do not need to specifically assess the other elements contained in Part II.B.2.b of the lead opinion.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2023 UT App 61 – State v. West – violation of civil stalking injunction

2023 UT App 61 – State v. West

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

DEBORAH JEAN WEST,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210335-CA

Filed June 2, 2023

Fifth District Court, St. George Department

The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox

The Honorable John J. Walton

No. 191500815

Nicolas D. Turner, Attorney for Appellant

Eric Clarke and James R. Weeks,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        Deborah Jean West appeals from a jury’s determination that she violated a civil stalking injunction, challenging her conviction and the sentencing court’s sentence on several grounds. West asserts that the trial court erred in denying her pretrial motions to exclude certain evidence and to continue the trial. West also argues that her pro se post-trial motions to dismiss were denied in error. Finally, West argues that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel was violated when the court sentenced her without first determining whether her decision to represent herself was made knowingly and intelligently.

¶2        We uphold the trial court’s denial of the motion to exclude evidence and the motion to continue and therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, because the sentencing court did not ensure that West’s waiver of counsel was done knowingly, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for further proceedings. Because of our resolution of those issues, we do not reach the merits of West’s argument regarding her post-trial motions.

BACKGROUND

The Pretrial Motions and Trial

¶3        In May 2019, West was charged with violating a stalking injunction. The stalking injunction included the restriction that West was not to come within twenty feet of C.L. (Petitioner). The charge against West derived from an encounter between Petitioner and West that occurred in their housing community’s clubhouse library. At trial, the State bore the burden to prove that West intentionally or knowingly violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b).

¶4        After being notified by the State that it intended to introduce evidence that West had allegedly violated the injunction on two other occasions after charges were filed, West filed a motion in limine the day before trial to preclude the admission of that evidence. The court addressed this motion on the first day of trial. West argued that the evidence should be excluded because it was improper character evidence, lacked any relevance, and posed a danger of unfair prejudice. The State argued that the evidence of West’s other alleged violations of the injunction should be admitted and presented to the jury to show West’s intent, knowledge, or lack of mistake, which the State argued was relevant to proving the intent element of the charged crime. See Utah R. Evid. 404(b) (stating that evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove propensity, but may be admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident”).

¶5        When the trial court indicated its intention to admit the evidence, West’s counsel requested a continuance of the trial, arguing that as the State’s disclosure of the evidence was made only fifteen days before trial, he was precluded from appropriately preparing for the evidence, such as giving potential witnesses the proper notice to appear to testify. West’s counsel further contended that based on the sparse information regarding the State’s evidence, he would not have known whom to subpoena. The trial court ultimately denied the motion to continue, stating, “We have a jury here, a jury panel. I want the case tried,” indicating that it might “revisit the issue again” as the evidence was admitted.

¶6        During trial, the evidence presented showed that Petitioner was present at the clubhouse library, West entered the library, a brief verbal interaction occurred between the two, Petitioner called the police, and West left the library.

¶7        Petitioner testified that when she saw West was about to enter the library, she said, “Please don’t come in now. There is a 20-feet rule. You need to stay away from me 20-feet. . . . Or I’m going to have to call the police.” Despite this warning, West continued to enter the library and responded by saying something to the effect that she did not care and to “go ahead.” She then proceeded to remove her shoes, step onto a couch cushion, and hang a poster advertising a community event. Petitioner then left the clubhouse library in search of another person to witness that West had entered the clubhouse library where Petitioner had been. During Petitioner’s testimony, the State also showed video surveillance of the door to the clubhouse library, showing West walking in and Petitioner walking out shortly afterward. And a police officer testified that following the incident, based upon Petitioner’s report, he measured the approximate distance that would have been between Petitioner and West and concluded that West was easily within the twenty-foot radius prohibited by the stalking injunction.

¶8        The State also presented evidence of the two other interactions between West and Petitioner—both occurring after the library incident for which West was charged and before the trial—where West was alleged to have been closer to Petitioner than the injunction’s twenty-foot restriction. In the first incident, both West and Petitioner attended a community potluck, and West sat at a table within twenty feet of Petitioner. In the second incident, while attending services at their church, Petitioner was in the church foyer and West approached, put her things down near where Petitioner was standing, and then stood within the same area for an extended time.

¶9        West testified at trial and she and her counsel had the following exchange after viewing surveillance video from the clubhouse library:

Counsel: [S]o you saw in the video [Petitioner] walks off away from the library, correct? And then the video shows you walking out some seconds later in the same direction. Is that correct?

West: That is correct.

Counsel: Now did you know where she had gone?

West: No.

Counsel: Okay. So where were you going when you walked out of there?

West: I was going to the kitchen . . . . And then I went from there into the exercise room.

Counsel: So you hung up two more posters after the library. And then did you leave?

West: Yes . . . .

¶10 Following deliberation, the jury found West guilty of violating the stalking injunction.

The Post-trial Motions and Sentencing

¶11      After trial and prior to sentencing, West filed several pro se post-trial motions, claiming in each that she was no longer represented by counsel. West also aired numerous grievances, of which few are relevant here. Pertinent to this appeal, West took issue with the trial court’s admission of the evidence of the other instances of alleged contact between her and Petitioner, and she repeatedly requested that her case be dismissed.

¶12      During a sentencing review hearing in December 2019, the sentencing court[1] asked West if she would “like a new lawyer,” to which West responded in the negative. Without engaging in any colloquy[2] and without questioning West about her understanding of the significance and the risk of proceeding without counsel, the court accepted West’s indication to proceed pro se, ordered West’s trial counsel to withdraw, and allowed West to represent herself.

¶13      At her sentencing hearing approximately sixteen months later—the delay in proceedings due in small part to expected scheduling conflicts and in larger part to the COVID-19 pandemic—the court engaged in no further discussion with West about her decision to waive counsel and represent herself, other than to note that West “put [herself] at a disadvantage . . . having fired [her] lawyer,” which was “pretty clear in the record, and [West] confirmed that . . . at [the sentencing review].” During this hearing, the sentencing court focused on West’s post-trial motions. The sentencing court indicated on the record that West had “framed most of the written materials . . . as motions to dismiss,” and noted that the motions had not “been submitted for decision, which would normally be required under the [Utah] Rules of Criminal Procedure.” However, the court expressed its intention to provide immediate responses to the motions, having told West that the court “would rule on [the] motions” during the sentencing hearing. The court then proceeded to deny the portion of West’s motions to dismiss dealing with the evidence of the other alleged injunction violations admitted at trial.

¶14 Next, the sentencing court addressed the other issues raised in West’s motions, simply concluding that “frankly, . . . the motions that [West had] made [were] legally frivolous.” The court ultimately denied all of West’s motions in totality and then proceeded with sentencing. The court sentenced West to serve 364 days in jail, but it suspended the jail time, and imposed a fine. The court ordered West to serve eighteen months of probation with the conditions that she complete community service, complete an anger management course, and continue to comply with the stalking injunction. West appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶15      The first issue we address is West’s challenge to the denial of her pretrial motions. She argues that the trial court erred in denying the motion in limine, contending that she was denied the right to a fair trial when the court allowed evidence of additional interactions between West and Petitioner to be admitted. We review for an abuse of discretion a trial court’s decision to admit evidence under rules 404(b), 402, and 403 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. See State v. Tarrats, 2005 UT 50, ¶ 16, 122 P.3d 581 (“Trial courts have wide discretion in determining relevance, probative value, and prejudice. Therefore, we will not reverse the trial court’s ruling on evidentiary issues unless it is manifest that the trial court so abused its discretion that there is a likelihood that injustice resulted.” (quotation simplified)). In the event that the trial court admits evidence in error, “we will not disturb the outcome of a trial if the admission of the evidence did not reasonably affect the likelihood of a different verdict.” State v. Miranda, 2017 UT App 203, ¶ 24, 407 P.3d 1033 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 417 P.3d 581 (Utah 2018). And West “bears the burden of showing that [she] was harmed by the trial court’s error.” See id. ¶ 44.

¶16      West further asserts that the trial court erred in denying her request to continue the trial after the court determined the other-acts evidence was admissible. We review the court’s denial of a motion for continuance for an abuse of discretion. State v. Cabututan, 861 P.2d 408, 413 (Utah 1993) (“The standard of review for the denial of a motion for continuance is abuse of discretion: It is well-established that the granting of a continuance is discretionary with the trial judge. Absent a clear abuse of that discretion, the decision will not be reversed by this court.” (quotation simplified)). A trial court “abuses its discretion when it denies a continuance and the resulting prejudice affects the substantial rights of the defendant, such that a review of the record persuades the court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the defendant.” Mackin v. State, 2016 UT 47, ¶ 33, 387 P.3d 986 (quotation simplified).

¶17      Next, we address West’s argument that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel at sentencing was violated because the sentencing court did not adequately explore through an on-the-record colloquy whether her waiver of counsel was knowingly and intelligently made with an understanding of the risks of representing herself. In the absence of a colloquy, we review the record de novo to determine whether the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel. See State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716 (“De novo review is appropriate because the validity of a waiver does not turn upon whether the trial judge actually conducted the colloquy, but upon whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” (quotation simplified)). “Whether [West’s] waiver was knowing and intelligent involves a mixed question of law and fact which we review for correctness, but with a reasonable measure of discretion given to the [trial] court’s application of the facts to the law.” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 21, 501 P.3d 116 (quotation simplified).[3]

ANALYSIS

  1. Pretrial Motions

¶18      West first challenges the trial court’s denials of her motion to exclude evidence and motion to continue the trial. We do not reach the merits of West’s argument that the trial court erroneously admitted the other-acts evidence or abused its discretion in denying her continuance motion because even if the trial court erred, West has failed to meet her burden to show that she was prejudiced by either alleged error such that our confidence in the jury’s verdict is undermined. See State v. High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶ 41, 282 P.3d 1046 (“We will not disturb the jury’s verdict unless the likelihood of a different outcome is sufficiently high to undermine confidence in the verdict.” (quotation simplified)). In other words, West has not persuaded us that a “reasonable likelihood exists that the [alleged] error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35, 437 P.3d 544 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 440 P.3d 693 (Utah 2019). “A reasonable likelihood requires a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” State v. Gallegos, 2020 UT App 162, ¶ 62, 479 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 496 P.3d 717 (Utah 2021).

  1. Motion to Exclude Rule 404(b) Evidence

¶19      West contends on appeal that evidence of other uncharged alleged violations of the stalking injunction admitted at trial was “precisely what [rule] 404(b) was intended to bar.”[4] West further argues that had the jury not heard the evidence of these other alleged violations, “there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge.” Rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence provides that other-acts evidence, while prohibited to “prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character,” may be admissible for other purposes, such as “proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Utah R. Evid. 404(b). Such evidence must also pass the muster of rules 402 and 403, which require that evidence be relevant and have probative value that is not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. See id. R. 402, 403.

¶20      However, we need not address the underlying question of whether the trial court erred in admitting the other-acts evidence because, “even if the admission of rule 404(b) evidence by the [trial] court was in error, reversal on appeal is not appropriate unless the defendant demonstrates that the error materially affected the fairness or outcome of the trial.” Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35 (quotation simplified). Thus, the burden rests on West to make such a showing, and she fails to carry her burden here. In arguing that she was prejudiced, West simply asserts that, “[a]bsent the 404(b) evidence, there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge herein.” But she does not then provide much discussion as to how the outcome of the trial would have differed absent the admitted other-acts evidence, other than to essentially conclude that because it was, therefore it is so. That is, West has failed to demonstrate how excluding evidence that she was close to Petitioner at church and at a potluck, after the events in the clubhouse library, would have changed the jury’s determination that West knowingly and intentionally came within twenty feet of Petitioner while in the clubhouse library in violation of the injunction.

¶21      To be sure, the evidence of the other acts was most likely helpful to the State in proving its case. Absent the evidence, the State would have had to rely solely on Petitioner’s credibility in the eyes of the jury and her testimony of what occurred between West and her to support its case that West had knowingly and intentionally violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b). But even without the other-acts evidence, evidence and testimony presented to the jury during trial sufficiently supports our confidence in the jury’s verdict. See State v. Ferguson, 2011 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 250 P.3d 89 (acknowledging that while erroneously admitted evidence had “the potential of being highly prejudicial, the other evidence presented at trial was sufficiently strong as to convince us that there was no reasonable likelihood of a different result” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 262 P.3d 1187 (Utah 2011); High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶¶ 50– 51, 54 (noting that while the case was not like Ferguson, “where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming” in the absence of evidence allegedly admitted in error, the court’s “confidence in the jury’s verdict” was not undermined as “the jury would still have heard unchallenged and properly admitted” evidence supporting the defendant’s guilt).

¶22      For example, here the jury heard generally unchallenged testimony from Petitioner about the nature of her encounter with West: that she told West to stop and not enter until she was finished or she would have to call the police, and that West ignored her entreaty and threat and carried on with her business in the clubhouse library. The jury then heard West testify as to her actions following the encounter with Petitioner. Even by her own account, West did not immediately leave after the incident, but instead made her way through the clubhouse facilities without much concern about whether Petitioner was still in the area or not. The jury was also aware, by nature of the charge against West, that a stalking injunction was in place, and it could have reasonably inferred that West had a history of unwanted interactions with Petitioner that would warrant the imposition of the stalking injunction, and that the reported clubhouse library incident was not just a solitary incident. And West has not argued how all of this, standing alone and absent the added gloss of the rule 404(b) evidence, would have induced the jury to find in her favor instead.

¶23 Accordingly, we are not persuaded that exclusion of the other two alleged incidents would so tilt the jury’s view of West’s credibility as to change its verdict. In other words, West has failed to persuade us that even without the admission of the other alleged violations of the stalking injunction, the result of the trial would have been favorable for her.

  1. Motion to Continue

¶24 West also contends the court’s denial of her motion to continue to address the other violations evidence “deprived [her] of her right to a fair trial.” A defendant bears the burden of showing that the trial court’s denial of the motion to continue was “an unreasonable action that prejudiced the party.” State v. Cornejo, 2006 UT App 215, ¶ 14, 138 P.3d 97 (quotation simplified). “Such prejudice exists when our review of the record persuades us that had the trial court not denied the continuance request there would have been a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the moving party.” Id. (quotation simplified). West again fails to persuade us that the denial of the continuance was prejudicial.

¶25      West has not outlined on appeal how her defense strategy would have changed had she been given more time to prepare. And though she indicates in her brief and told the sentencing court judge that she had witnesses to one of the incidents, she has neither provided even the slightest information on who those witnesses may be nor provided an explanation as to whether they would have been available to testify within an appropriate time frame. Moreover, West does not flesh out on appeal why the State’s information was so lacking that she could not subpoena witnesses prior to trial. See id. ¶ 15 (“When a party to a criminal action moves for a continuance in order to procure the testimony of an absent witness, the party must demonstrate that: (1) the testimony sought is material and admissible, (2) the witness could actually be produced, (3) the witness could be produced within a reasonable time, and (4) due diligence had been exercised before the request for a continuance.” (quotation simplified) (quoting State v. Creviston, 646 P.2d 750, 752 (Utah 1982))). West contends only that once the trial court allowed the other-acts evidence to be introduced, “had the continuance been afforded as it should have been, counsel would have had time to gather evidence, find witnesses, and raise a defense against that other evidence.” This simply is not a sufficient showing on appeal to persuade us that the denial of her motion to continue affected the outcome of the trial. Therefore, her claim fails here as well.

  1. Knowing and Intelligent Waiver

¶26 The next question before us is whether West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to be represented by counsel at sentencing. West argues that because there was no colloquy on the record that would inform this court that her waiver was knowingly and intelligently made, her waiver was invalid. The State disagrees and argues that even in the absence of a colloquy conducted by the sentencing court, the record shows that West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel because she “was given a front row seat to the intricacies of navigating a criminal case” as she did not excuse her counsel until after the trial.

¶27 “Under both the United States and Utah Constitutions, a criminal defendant has the right to assistance of counsel,” State v. Hall, 2013 UT App 4, ¶ 25, 294 P.3d 632, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013), which includes the right to effective counsel for sentencing proceedings, see State v. Casarez, 656 P.2d 1005, 1007 (Utah 1982) (“Sentencing is a critical stage of a criminal proceeding at which a defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel.”). “Concomitant with that right is the criminal defendant’s guaranteed right to elect to present [one’s] own defense.” State v. Hassan, 2004 UT 99, ¶ 21, 108 P.3d 695; see also State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26, 137 P.3d 716 (“Defendants also have the right to waive their right to counsel.”). Because the right to counsel and the right to waive counsel are mutually exclusive, “a trial court must be vigilant to assure that the choice [to waive counsel] is freely and expressly made ‘with eyes open.’” State v. Bakalov, 1999 UT 45, ¶ 15, 979 P.2d 799 (quoting Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 835 (1975)). “Before permitting a defendant to [self-represent], . . . a trial court should ensure that the waiver [of counsel] is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26.

¶28      A defendant may employ any of three different methods to validly waive a right to counsel: “true waiver, implied waiver, and forfeiture.” State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 17, 414 P.3d 1092.

¶29      At issue here is true waiver: “A true waiver is one in which the defendant affirmatively represents that [she] wishes to proceed without counsel.” Id. ¶ 18. To be a valid true waiver, a defendant must “clearly and unequivocally” communicate to the court the wish “to proceed pro se.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 34, 501 P.3d 116 (“True waiver occurs when a defendant directly communicates a desire to proceed pro se.”). “Where a defendant expressly declines an offer of counsel by the trial judge” but later challenges the validity of that waiver, “[she] has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not knowingly and intelligently waive this right.” Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 39 (quotation simplified).[5]

¶30 There is no question in this case that West clearly and unequivocally communicated to the court her desire to represent herself at sentencing. In her written motions, and then at the sentencing hearing when the court asked if she wanted a new lawyer, West plainly expressed her wish to proceed on her own without the assistance of counsel. But waiver alone is not enough to verify that West understood the significant right being waived and how her waiver might be applied in the real-world setting of sentencing. So, we must next address whether West’s waiver was knowingly and intelligently made. See id. ¶ 34 (“To be a valid true waiver, the defendant must (1) clearly and unequivocally request self-representation and (2) act knowingly and intelligently, being aware of the dangers inherent in self-representation.” (quotation simplified) (emphasis added)).

¶31 For a waiver to be knowingly and intelligently made, a defendant must understand “the relative advantages and disadvantages of self-representation in a particular situation.” State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 188 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified). In other words, a court must be satisfied that a defendant has “actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se under the particular facts and circumstances at hand.” Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). The best way to ascertain if a defendant has the requisite knowledge of the legal mire she wishes to wade into is for a court to engage in “penetrating questioning,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187, on the record, see Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19. Such questioning is the “encouraged” practice for courts, utilizing Frampton’s “sixteen-point guide” as a framework to ensure a defendant is making the decision to proceed pro se knowingly and intelligently. See id.see also Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42 (“The sixteen-point colloquy found in State v. Frampton establishes a sound framework for efficient and complete questioning.”); cf. State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 14 n.5 (“We encourage trial courts to keep a prepared Frampton waiver-of-counsel colloquy script at the ready on the bench, for use when the occasion arises.”).

¶32      Absent a colloquy, it is still possible for a reviewing court to find that a defendant’s waiver was validly made after examining “any evidence in the record which shows a defendant’s actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se” at the time the defendant communicated the wish to self-represent. Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188. Therefore, we must conduct a “de novo review of the record to analyze the particular facts and circumstances surrounding the case” to establish “whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” See Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41 (quotation simplified). However, more than once and quite recently, Utah’s appellate courts have noted that such a conclusion is rare. See id. (“It is possible—although perhaps rare—for a defendant to knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel without a Frampton colloquy.” (citation omitted)); Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45 (“We therefore anticipate that reviewing courts will rarely find a valid waiver of the right to counsel absent a colloquy.”).[6]

¶33 Given the rarity, we look to Frampton and Bozarth for instruction, both of which demonstrate when the record may support a conclusion that a defendant did knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel in the absence of an adequate colloquy. See Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188–89; Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶¶ 42–48.

¶34      In Frampton, the defendant was represented by counsel at a trial that resulted in a hung jury. 737 P.2d at 186. The defendant then opted to represent himself at a second trial that resulted in a mistrial. Id. A third trial was scheduled, and prior to the third trial, the defendant filed eighteen of his own motions, two of which “asserted his right to assistance of counsel,” but he “insisted on being represented by a non-member of the Bar,” which option is not constitutionally protected. Id. at 189. On the day of the third trial, the defendant indicated that he wished to represent himself, and the court acknowledged the defendant’s right to self-representation and indicated that “[the defendant] would be accorded every courtesy along that line.” Id. at 186 (quotation simplified). The court then appointed standby counsel, over the defendant’s objections, but the defendant “refused to receive any help from the appointed counsel.” Id. at 186, 189. On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that the defendant had “knowingly and intelligently waived the right to representation by counsel” for several reasons. Id. at 188–89. First, the record clearly indicated that the “value of counsel should have been apparent to defendant” because while represented, his trial ended in a hung jury. Id. at 189. Furthermore, the court noted that the record showed several instances that, taken together, supported a conclusion that the defendant was sufficiently versed in legal procedures and proceedings: (1) he had filed eighteen of his own motions, (2) he had explained to jurors “the statute under which he was charged,” (3) he had been informed of the charge he faced and the possible penalty for a guilty verdict, and (4) he had been “accorded . . . every courtesy” by the court when it “explain[ed] applicable procedure and [gave] defendant extremely wide latitude in conducting his defense.” Id.

¶35      Likewise, in Bozarth, this court reached a similar conclusion regarding the question of whether a waiver was knowingly and intelligently made for a similar reason: the record showed as much. 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 44. In Bozarth, the defendant initially requested counsel but reserved his right to self-representation in the event that he wanted to “retake the helm” at a later time. Id. (quotation simplified). Additionally, prior to the defendant undertaking his own representation, the trial court had instructed and the defendant was aware of the importance of having counsel, and the defendant specifically requested that standby counsel be provided to “assist” only. Id. The defendant had even demonstrated knowledge about court procedures: he invoked the exclusionary rule at an evidentiary hearing and negotiated a plea deal that included his reservation of the right to appeal all prior objections, including “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. ¶¶ 14, 18. Lastly, the defendant had been informed of the charges against him and the potential penalties of a conviction on his charges. Id. ¶ 44. The Bozarth court then concluded that, with all these things taken together, the defendant had failed to meet his burden of proving that he “did not knowingly and intelligently waive his right to counsel.” Id.

¶36 But West’s case went differently. Here, unlike the defendants in both Frampton and Bozarth, there is no indication in the record that West had been informed by her counsel or by the sentencing court of the risks she faced by proceeding alone, nor was it clear that she understood the associated value of having the assistance of counsel during her sentencing or that she understood the law or the procedural requirements of a sentencing hearing. When West elected to proceed pro se, the sentencing court simply mentioned on the record that by doing so, she may have put herself at a disadvantage, with no other discussion or explanation as to why West’s decision would have done so. Again, this is in direct contrast to the facts of both Frampton and Bozarth, where those judges not only advised the defendants of the risks of proceeding pro se, but also encouraged or insisted on appointing standby counsel in the event assistance was needed.

¶37      Furthermore, while it is true that West filed several pro se motions prior to sentencing, which action on its face could indicate an awareness of court procedures like in Frampton, the content of West’s filings should have suggested to the sentencing court that she did not understand that attorneys and litigants are expected to conduct themselves with decorum and professionalism every time they enter the courtroom or file a pleading. The sentencing court even commented on the disparaging content of West’s motions: “If you were a lawyer, you would, in all likelihood, if you said those kinds of things to a judge, and wrote the kinds of things that you did, there’s a significant possibility that you would have sanctions issued against you.” But even with these indications that West perhaps did not grasp the implications of proceeding without counsel, the sentencing court’s investigation of West’s knowledge of the risks of self-representation stopped there.[7]

¶38 The State defends West’s waiver as knowing and intelligent because West “was given a front row seat” to observe her trial counsel at trial and argues that this knowledge was sufficient to establish that West knew the “intricacies of navigating a criminal case.” We disagree with this reasoning. Merely observing court proceedings does not provide an untrained pro se defendant with the awareness or knowledge of the risks of appearing for sentencing without representation. Few lay people, even after observing a trial from start to finish, would then be able to understand “the various matters germane to a sentencing proceeding,” such as the ability to argue mitigating circumstances and evidence to influence sentencing. See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 26, 414 P.3d 1092. For instance, a sentencing may involve discussion of the actions that a defendant may take following a guilty verdict, the financial ability that a defendant has to pay a fine or pay for a remedial course, appropriate lengths of jail time or suspended jail time, and previous criminal history. Without prior exposure to a sentencing for a charge of violating a stalking injunction, it is not persuasive to argue that West would understand the differences between a trial and a sentencing proceeding and the risks she assumed by continuing without the assistance of counsel to aid her in arguing, for instance, against the imposition of an anger management class or for a reduced fine or suspended jail time. We therefore strongly disagree that West’s “observations” of her attorney in action in court proceedings resulted in something that resembled the legal acuity or understanding of court proceedings that the defendants in Frampton and Bozarth exhibited.

¶39      Accordingly, we conclude that West has met her burden to show that her waiver of counsel prior to sentencing, though express, was not knowingly and intelligently made. The sentencing court should have conducted further inquiry into West’s awareness, or lack thereof, of the risks of self-representation before allowing her to be sentenced without the assistance of counsel. Therefore, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for resentencing.[8]

CONCLUSION

¶40 We are not convinced by West’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the pretrial motions, because West has not met her burden to show that if the other-acts evidence had been excluded or her motion to continue had been granted the outcome of her trial would have been different. We therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, we are persuaded that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her right to be represented by counsel at her sentencing. We therefore vacate West’s sentence and remand for the limited purpose of resentencing.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] The judge who presided over West’s trial and ruled on the pretrial motions was not the same judge who presided over West’s sentencing hearings and denied West’s pro se post-trial motions.

[2] The entire exchange between the sentencing court and West consisted of the following:

Sentencing Court: [Trial counsel] was appointed to represent you previously?

West: He was.

Sentencing Court: Would you like a new lawyer?

West: No. I will represent myself. I can do better representing myself.

Sentencing Court: Okay. So [trial counsel] is allowed to withdraw from the cases. And Ms. West will represent herself.

[3] West also argues on appeal that the sentencing court erred in interpreting West’s pro se post-trial motions as motions to dismiss instead of considering them as motions for a new trial and denying those motions. However, given our determination that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her constitutional right to counsel at sentencing, which requires vacating the sentence and remanding for further proceedings, we need not reach West’s final argument here. Remand for re-sentencing will allow West to refile her motions for consideration, with the assistance of counsel if she so chooses.

[4] West highlights in her brief the fact that these events occurred after the incident for which she is charged but does not further expound on any potential significance of this. Even so, we reiterate that timing of other acts in relation to the incident for which a defendant is charged is not a precluding factor to the admission of evidence of those acts: “Rule 404(b) itself . . . makes no reference to ‘prior’ crimes, wrongs, or acts, but refers only to ‘other’ crimes, wrongs, or acts.” State v. Barney, 2018 UT App 159, ¶ 16 n.2, 436 P.3d 231. “Many courts have recognized that other crimes, wrongs, or acts can be relevant, even if those acts occurred after the charged conduct.” Id. (collecting cases).

[5] This court has recently noted the dissonance between the language in State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 187 (Utah 1987)—that a defendant who expressly declines a trial court’s offer of counsel then bears the burden to show “by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not so waive this right”—and the language in State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716—that because of the “strong presumption against waiver and the fundamental nature of the right to counsel, any doubts must be resolved in favor of the defendant.” See State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 22 n.6. We again take the liberty to suggest that the “better, and far clearer, rule would be that where a trial court fails to employ a Frampton colloquy, the presumption is that waiver did not occur and the burden would be placed on the State to prove otherwise. We hope that our supreme court would look favorably on such an articulation.” Id.

[6] Echoing previous decisions addressing this issue, “we continue to strongly recommend a colloquy on the record as the preferred method of determining whether a defendant is aware of [the] risks.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42. While we are cognizant that the “colloquy is not mandatory,” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41, 501 P.3d 116, it is nevertheless “the most efficient means by which appeals may be limited,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187. We encourage courts to engage in a full colloquy to ensure that criminal defendants are conscious of the challenges that come with self-representation.

[7] Of further note, the April 2021 sentencing hearing occurred sixteen months after the sentencing review hearing at which West verbally asserted her desire to self-represent at sentencing. Sixteen months is a long time—with a pandemic in the middle, no less—and it would have been helpful to revisit West’s intention of being sentenced without an attorney.

[8] During oral argument, there was discussion about whether what occurred at West’s sentencing would be subject to “harmless error” review. However, the State acknowledged that it did not brief this argument. Therefore, “we do not address [the argument] on its merits.” See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 27 n.2, 414 P.3d 1092.

Tags: , , , , , ,

2023 UT App 48 – Anderson v. Deem – civil stalking injunction

2023 UT App 48 – Anderson v. Deem

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ELLIE ANDERSON,

Appellant,

v.

JACKSON DEEM,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210558-CA

Filed May 11, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 210400723

Jason B. Fida and Patricia Abbott Lammi,

Attorneys for Appellant

Emily Adams and Freyja Johnson,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Jackson Deem used social media to send several messages to Ellie Anderson, his teenaged schoolmate. Anderson requested a civil stalking injunction, and the district court issued a temporary order. Deem requested a hearing, at which the court revoked the injunction and dismissed the case. The court considered each incident separately as to its emotional or fear-inducing effect to reach a conclusion that Deem had not engaged in a course of conduct as required by the civil stalking statute. In addition, the court justified its decision by referring to Deem’s autism and to the potential availability of a no-contact order in an unadjudicated criminal case. Anderson appeals, claiming that the district court applied the wrong standard in its evaluation of the issues. We agree, reverse the revocation and dismissal of the petition (thereby reinstating the injunction), and remand this matter to the district court so that it may apply the correct standard.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2 Deem and Anderson were schoolmates, having intermittently attended elementary through high school together. As it is material in this case, we note that Deem was diagnosed with autism when he was around nine or ten years old.

¶3        The troubles underlying the present case stem from an incident in August 2018 when Anderson and Deem were starting tenth grade. Deem posted a message on Instagram stating that he was considering suicide. Seeing this message, Anderson called 911 to request a welfare check on Deem. Shortly after this, Deem posted that he was upset that someone had made the call. Notably, the record does not state that Deem ever said he knew who made the call, and Anderson testified that she was “not sure if he realized” that it was her.

¶4        After this incident, Anderson alleged that Deem sent her a series of unwelcome communications over a period of about three years.

The Incidents of Alleged Stalking

¶5        First Incident: Allegedly—there is no evidence of this event apart from Anderson’s testimony—Deem posted a “hit list” on Instagram about a week after he posted the message alluding to suicide. According to Anderson, this message “stated that [Deem] wanted to shoot up the school and . . . listed people [he] was going to be targeting,” and she and her friend “were on there.” Anderson asserted that she provided a screenshot of the message to her principal but did not otherwise save it or report it. Deem categorically denied posting such a list.

¶6        Second Incident: In July 2019, on the occasion of Anderson’s sixteenth birthday, Deem posted a message to her Facebook page expressing the sentiment, “die, bitch.” After this post, Anderson attempted to block Deem from contacting her on social media.

¶7        Third Incident: In May 2021, Deem, using a different account, sent Anderson a series of Instagram messages. Anderson testified that the first message was an apology stating that Deem “didn’t think” Anderson was “going to take all of [his] threats seriously.” This message was deleted and does not appear in the record; it was followed by four messages, which do appear in the record, from Deem over a period of about three hours.

¶8        In the first of these messages, Deem wrote,

I don’t know if you saw my apology from before, but I take it back. I wish nothing but the absolute worst for you in life. You being angry at what I said is one thing, but telling other people and blackballing me is another entirely. Why even care about what I said? No one values my opinion. I can scream at people how much I hate them all I want, but it doesn’t erase the fundamental power imbalance. You and all the other people who’ve mistreated me over the years have destroyed my mental health irreparably. And the worst part is that no one cares or even acknowledges how they’ve hurt me. There’s no reason why anyone should remember me because they have great lives today. But I don’t have that luxury of not caring about the past because I have no future. Now there’s not a single person from those schools who doesn’t hate me, so those memories are tainted now.

In the next message, apparently sent immediately afterward, Deem stated,

Unlike you, I acknowledge that I’m a terrible person. But you go about it in a different way. All those times you were nice to me were purely self-serving.

¶9        About two hours later, Anderson messaged Deem, “[P]lease stop harassing me or I will be going to the police.” About an hour later, Deem expressed his discontent with her response by sending two messages of his own. The first read, “I’ll be waiting for you in hell.” And the second was the capitalized epithet “FUCK YOU”—followed by 529 exclamation points.

The Injunction and Dismissal

¶10 After receiving the May 2021 messages, Anderson requested a civil stalking injunction against Deem, citing the three incidents described above and one other incident.[2] See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(1)(a)(i) (“[A]n individual who believes that the individual is the victim of stalking may file a verified written petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker with the district court in the district in which the individual or respondent resides, is temporarily domiciled, or in which any of the events occurred.”). The district court granted that request and issued a temporary stalking injunction, ordering Deem to have no contact with Anderson and to stay away from Anderson’s home, work, and school. See id. § 78B-7-701(3)(a). Deem requested a hearing on the temporary stalking injunction. See id. § 78B-7­701(4)(a) (“[T]he respondent is entitled to request, in writing, an evidentiary hearing on the civil stalking injunction.”).[3]

¶11 At the hearing, Anderson, Deem, and Deem’s mother (Mother) testified. Anderson testified about the incidents described above, namely the suicide threat and the three incidents. Apart from the hit list, Anderson had screenshots of the communications that she referred to in her testimony. She also testified that she last saw Deem in person during their sophomore year of high school, sometime in 2018.

from Deem’s account. The court agreed with Deem, noting that the connection with Deem was tenuous and that the message was directed to a third party without reference to Anderson. Anderson does not challenge the exclusion on appeal.

¶12      Deem testified that he had not posted a hit list. He also testified that he never intended to cause Anderson fear or emotional distress. Rather, he said he “lashed out” on social media and had no intent to follow up, noting that Anderson was “just . . . the first person who came to mind as someone [he would] like to say those things to.” Deem also testified that he was homebound, did not drive or have a license, and never left his house without his parents. And he stated that he understood that he could not have any contact with Anderson and that he “did potentially cause [Anderson] emotional distress.” Finally, he testified that he did not know where Anderson lived.

¶13      Mother testified that she did not recall being informed by the school that Deem sent a hit list or threatened to shoot up the school in 2018. She testified that apart from an incident in fourth grade, she did not know Deem to be physically violent. However, she testified that Deem does “lash out with his words” from “behind a computer screen.” And concerning his mobility, she testified that Deem does not drive or leave the house without her or his father.

¶14 After hearing the evidence, the district court concluded that Anderson had “failed to meet the standard [of] by a preponderance of the evidence for a continuation of the injunction.” See id. § 78B-7-701(5) (“At the hearing, the court may modify, revoke, or continue the injunction. . . . [T]he burden is on the petitioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that stalking of the petitioner by the respondent has occurred.”).

¶15      In arriving at its decision, the court considered the three incidents to determine if there was a course of conduct under the stalking statute: “An actor commits stalking if the actor intentionally or knowingly . . . engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific individual and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: (i) to fear for the individual’s own safety or the safety of a third individual; or (ii) to suffer other emotional distress . . . .” Id. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a).

¶16 Regarding the first incident, the court determined that it was “disputed and there was no independent evidence provided that the list was created or that . . . Anderson’s name was on it.” Concerning the second incident, the court stated that it “certainly” consisted of “conduct that could qualify under the statute as something that would create emotional distress.” And about the third incident, the court noted that it “contain[ed] two potentially concerning language references.” The first was the profane expression of “FUCK YOU,” but the court observed that this phrase is “so ubiquitous in our culture” as to have “no significance at all” or to be in “any way threatening.” The court stated, “[I]t’s not a term that causes emotional distress. It’s replete in our culture, in our language, in our entertainment.” Accordingly, the court found “that saying that to someone alone is not a basis to support the petition” for a stalking injunction. The court reasoned that the other phrase—“I’ll be waiting for you in hell”—“conveys that both parties have engaged in a pattern that makes them worthy of being relegated to hell” and that it was “not threatening on its face.”

¶17      The court reasoned that because “two of those events [did not] meet the standard for potentially satisfying the requirements of the statute,” it was left “with one [incident] that occur[red] over the period of three years,” which failed “to meet the course of conduct requirement of the statute.” See id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i) (defining course of conduct as “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual, including . . . acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual”).

¶18      The court acknowledged that Deem’s communications had a “significant impact” on Anderson. But when viewing the communications “independently” and “objectively,” and “weighing [the evidence] against the statutory requirement,” the court concluded “that there [was not] a further basis to enjoin . . . Deem’s behavior.” The court clarified that while Deem “communicated to or about” Anderson, he did not do so “in a way that invokes the necessity to enjoin him in the future,” noting that there was not “a course of conduct at issue here given the time frame [and] given the specific language that was used.”

¶19      The court then made two additional observations to justify

not extending the injunction. First, it delved into the impact of Deem’s autism:

And furthermore, I think that all this has to be taken in terms of whether or not he knowingly and intentionally[[4]] engaged in the course of conduct and whether or not he knew or should have known that a reasonable person would be in fear[.] [T]hat has to be viewed in light of . . . Deem’s special circumstances. If he didn’t have the diagnosis and the things that he does have, we might attribute more mens rea to him[,] and I think that somebody receiving communications from him in terms of how threatening they are or whether they would put someone in fear [or] apprehension, has to be viewed in the context of his condition, of the fact that he has no history of violence, that he’s not mobile. All those things relate to the reasonableness with which somebody would view this language.

¶20 Second, the court considered the impact of a criminal case—presumably related to the third incident. The court noted that Deem indicated that he would be “stipulating” to “a criminal no contact order . . . in that case.” The court observed that this potential no-contact order would provide Anderson “with the protection that she’ll need, if that protection is needed, which is, you know, not certain in this [c]ourt’s mind.”

¶21      With that, the district court ordered the stalking injunction dismissed. Anderson appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶22      The issue on appeal is whether the district court “erred in its construction and application of the Utah stalking statutes” when it declined to continue the temporary stalking injunction. A court’s “interpretation and application of the relevant statutory provisions” regarding continuing a stalking injunction “is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusions.” Ellison v. Stam, 2006 UT App 150, ¶ 16, 136 P.3d 1242 (cleaned up). Although the question of whether the course of conduct would “cause a reasonable person [in a petitioner’s circumstances] to suffer fear or emotional distress” is “a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835.[5]

ANALYSIS

¶23      Those who believe they are victims of stalking may file a petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker with the district court. See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(1)(a)(i). If the court determines there is reason to believe that there has been an offense[6] of stalking, it may issue a civil stalking injunction restraining the alleged stalker from, among other actions, going near the other party or having contact with the other party. Id. § 78B-7-701(3)(a).

¶24      Our supreme court summarizes stalking as follows:

The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person. Second, that person must know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress. A district court may enjoin an alleged stalker only if both elements are met.

Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a). Here, the district court’s approach suffered from two primary infirmities that we will address in turn. First, the district court erroneously considered incidents to be potentially part of a course of conduct only if each discrete incident was capable of causing fear or emotional distress. Second, and relatedly, the district court considered each incident in isolation as to whether fear or emotional distress might be engendered. In both regards, this approach is at odds with the applicable statute and precedent.

  1. Course of Conduct Analysis

¶25 Here, there is no dispute as to the first element. Deem intentionally or knowingly communicated with Anderson in the second and third incidents.[7] Indeed, Deem “concedes that there was a course of conduct here, as defined by the statute.” But for the sake of clarity and as this matter is being remanded for further consideration, we note that a course of conduct does not necessarily involve threatening behavior—as it appears the district court seemed to require in its approach to this case. Rather, a course of conduct merely requires “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual.” See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i). These acts might well be threatening, but they don’t have to be. Instead, they can include “acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual,” directly or indirectly and by any means. See id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A).

¶26      As our supreme court has made clear, establishing a course of conduct is the first step in the stalking analysis. See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835. This step should not be conflated or combined with the second part of the analysis, which involves a determination as to whether the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person fear or emotional distress. See id. Here, the district court’s analysis on this point lagged a bit in clarity. The court said that because two of the three alleged incidents were not capable of inducing fear or emotional distress in the court’s view, they did not “meet the standard for potentially satisfying the requirements of the statute, . . . leav[ing] us with one [incident] that occur[ed] over the period of three years[,] which also fails to meet the course of conduct requirement of the statute.” Insofar as the district court was saying that while Deem committed two more acts that would have satisfied the course of conduct requirement had those acts been threatening in nature, the district court erred in its interpretation of the statute. For the purpose of showing a course of conduct, the Ragsdale court clearly explained, “[I]f a respondent follows, threatens, or communicates to a petitioner only once, he or she has not engaged in a course of conduct. But if a respondent follows, threatens, or communicates to the petitioner on two or more occasions, he or she engages in a course of conduct directed at the petitioner.” Id. ¶ 31 (emphasis added).[8] Deem’s communications in the second and third incidents easily fit the bill required by the first element of the statute. Deem acknowledged that he intentionally or knowingly communicated on multiple occasions with Anderson. That’s likely why Deem concedes that the course of conduct occurred.

But the district court’s consideration of whether fear or emotional distress was associated with each communication was an erroneous distraction in this part of the statutory analysis.

  1. Emotional Distress and Fear for Safety Analysis

¶27 Regarding the second element, the district court determined that only one communication—the second incident— would cause “a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress.” See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up). In so concluding, the district court considered each communication in isolation. This was error.

¶28      The court declined to consider the alleged communication associated with the first incident because (1) the incident was disputed and (2) Anderson did not provide evidence, apart from her sworn testimony, to corroborate the claim that the hit list was created or that her name was on it. And the court concluded that the third incident was not threatening or emotionally distressful. Given that this effectively left only one incident to constitute the course of conduct in the court’s view, the district court concluded that Anderson had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that Deem had stalked her so as to satisfy the conditions for continuing the injunction. See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(5). However, precedent holds that a district court should consider the course of conduct cumulatively. This the district court failed to do. While the district court was free to ignore the first incident because the court ruled it had not been proved to have occurred, the court erroneously failed to consider the remaining acts in the course of conduct collectively.

¶29      To qualify for a stalking injunction, “a petitioner must meet an objective—not subjective—standard.” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 24, 322 P.3d 728. Under this “solely objective standard, the subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant. Rather, the petitioner must establish only that the respondent’s conduct would cause emotional distress to a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. ¶ 25. But by “including ‘in the victim’s circumstances’ as part of the ‘reasonable person’ definition,” the statute “provides for an individualized objective standard,” meaning that “a court must consider the entire context surrounding [the] defendant’s conduct.” Id. ¶ 26; see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 82, 91 (reciting the same standard); Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(v) (defining a reasonable person as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances”). [9] Thus, “acts that seem perfectly innocent or even well intentioned may constitute stalking. For example, conduct such as sending the victim a dozen roses may seem benign and loving to the casual observer, but could mean a very different thing when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 26 (cleaned up). “Courts applying this individualized objective standard have considered such factors as the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, . . . and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Id. ¶ 27 (cleaned up) (emphasis added); see also Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 83–86 (noting that the factors listed in Baird are not exhaustive of the behaviors “that could, in certain circumstances, cause a victim emotional distress”).[10]

¶30      Here, the district court’s analysis was legally flawed because it approached the matter using an insular rather than a holistic framework to arrive at its conclusion that Deem’s course of conduct was not of such a type as to cause fear or emotional distress to a reasonable person. In other words, the court erred by looking at the individual acts that created the course of conduct rather than the course of conduct and other relevant incidents cumulatively.

¶31      The district court’s focus on the individual acts in isolation from the overall course of conduct is especially problematic with regard to the third incident. First, the district court concluded that the term “‘fuck you’ . . . is so ubiquitous in our culture” that it was of “no significance at all” or in “any way threatening.” The court stated that this profane statement is “not a term that causes emotional distress” given that its use is “replete in our culture, in our language, in our entertainment.” From its common use, the court found “that saying that to someone alone is not a basis to support the petition” for a stalking injunction. The court might be right that, standing alone, this term would not cause fear or emotional distress.[11] But analyzing the profanity in isolation from the other acts establishing a course of conduct is not what the stalking statute asks us to do. As our supreme court has clarified, courts “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case,” rather than considering the individual acts making up the course of conduct in isolation from each other. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up); see also Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27. Thus, while the profanity alone might not be enough to cause fear or emotional distress, when considered in conjunction with Deem’s wish to see Anderson in hell and his earlier communication that she was a “bitch” that he would like to see “die,” a different picture emerges. Moreover, Deem’s use of capital letters and hundreds (529, to be precise) of exclamation points in his final communication could be seen as expressing a certain amount of rage that goes well beyond the casual use of profanity. Thus, Deem’s overall course of conduct could very well be enough to cause fear or emotional distress.

¶32      Second, concerning Deem’s statement, “I’ll be waiting for you in hell,” the district court made a similar error in concluding that it conveyed nothing more than “that both parties [had] engaged in a pattern that [made] them worthy of being relegated to hell” and that it was “not threatening on its face.” Saying “I’ll see you in hell” might carry a benign meaning when said jokingly between friends, but when coupled with the profanity and Deem’s birthday greeting of “die, bitch,” it takes on an altogether different connotation. In other words, evaluating the hell statement in isolation makes it seem benign, but when viewed as part of Deem’s overall course of conduct, it could very well contribute to instilling fear or causing emotional distress.

¶33      On remand, we direct the district court to assess “the entire context surrounding” Deem’s conduct—rather than relying on a “blanket conclusion” that the ubiquity of profanity precludes it from instilling fear or causing emotional distress—so as to “account for the cumulative impact of his behavior” over the entire period of the course of conduct. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 47; see also Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 116 (“Although the jury found that [certain] prior conduct did not constitute stalking, [that prior conduct] remained relevant to understand [the respondent and petitioner’s] relationship, the history they shared, and, therefore, whether [the respondent] knew or should have known [later actions] would cause a reasonable person in [petitioner’s] position emotional distress.”).

¶34      The district court also should conduct this analysis in light of the standard of a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 48. This does not give license for the district court to conduct “a purely subjective analysis” that provides voice to unreasonable sensitivity or paranoia. See Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27. But it does mean that the court must consider factors such as Anderson’s “knowledge of and relationship” with Deem and their shared history in reaching its conclusion on whether Deem’s course of conduct would cause fear or emotional distress. See id.[12]

¶35      In sum, we remand this matter to the district court so that it may apply the appropriate objective standard as outlined above to its emotional distress and fear determination regarding the cumulative effect of Deem’s multiple communications directed at Anderson. This standard requires that the court look at the context surrounding Deem’s course of conduct. Specifically, we direct the district court to avoid looking at whether each of Deem’s individual acts induced fear or caused emotional distress, instead focusing on the impact of the overall course of his conduct on a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances.

CONCLUSION

¶36      The district court misapplied the standard in determining whether a course of conduct existed that would cause a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances to suffer fear or emotional distress. We reverse the revocation and dismissal of Anderson’s request for a civil stalking injunction (thereby reinstating the injunction) and remand this matter so that the court may apply the correct standard.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] In the context of a “civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 2 n.1, 340 P.3d 797.

[2] Anderson also asserted that “around [the] time or before [the] time” of the May 2021 messages, a hacked Instagram account sent a message to her friends’ accounts stating, “I will murder your family.” Anderson said the name on the sending account “was a bunch of scrambled letters” but that she had deciphered it to reveal Deem’s name. Anderson speculated that Deem was surreptitiously sending the message to her through a third-party account, even though the message did not reference her in any way. Anderson attached a screenshot of this message to her request for the stalking injunction. At the hearing for the injunction, Deem objected to the admission of this evidence on the ground that there was not “any foundation” to show that it was

[3] If a respondent requests a hearing within ten days “after the day on which the . . . civil stalking injunction is served,” the “burden is on the petitioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that stalking of the petitioner by the respondent has occurred.” Utah Code § 78B-7-701(4)(a), (b)(ii). “If the respondent requests a hearing after the 10-day period after service, . . . the burden is on the respondent to show good cause why the civil stalking injunction should be dissolved or modified.” Id. § 78B-7­701(7). Here, Deem filed the request within ten days. Accordingly, at the ensuing hearing, Anderson bore the burden of proof.

[4] The statutory standard is “intentionally or knowingly,” not “intentionally and knowingly.” See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2).

[5] Anderson also argues on appeal that the district court erred in considering that a no-contact order was available to her from Deem’s criminal matter—presumably arising from the third incident—in determining whether she was entitled to a stalking injunction. We agree. Consideration of whether other remedies (criminal or otherwise) exist is not contemplated in relevant caselaw or the stalking statute. See infra note 12. But we need not address this issue further given the manner in which we resolve this appeal.

[6] While it may seem odd to discuss an “offense” in a civil context, the stalking injunction statute borrows its definition from the criminal stalking statute. In other words, to “obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish the elements necessary to meet the definition of stalking in the criminal code.” See Higley v. Buhler, 2019 UT App 96, ¶ 11, 446 P.3d 92 (per curiam); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2).

[7] Deem stated that Anderson was “the first person who came to mind” when he wanted to lash out.

[8] The third incident likely established a course of conduct by itself. In Hardy v. Hardy, 2020 UT App 88, 467 P.3d 931, cert. denied, 474 P.3d 948 (Utah 2020), our court said, “We could conceive of a circumstance in which a single event with multiple distinct acts undertaken for different purposes or separated by some amount of time might constitute a course of conduct.” Id. ¶ 7 n.4; see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 126 (explaining that repeatedly replying to emails in the same thread “does not convert each of [the] separate emails into a single act” when the emails in the chain were sent over a period time). This is what we have in the third incident. See supra ¶¶ 7–9. First, there was an apology. Second, there were two consecutive messages in which Deem rescinded the apology and complained about the way he had been treated. Then—about three hours later and after Anderson had replied with a message telling Deem to “please stop harassing her or [she would] be going to the police”—Deem sent a third set of messages with the profanity and the reference to hell. These three communications likely constituted a course of conduct because each had “different purposes” and because they (or at least the second and third communications) were “separated by some amount of time.” See Hardy, 2020 UT App 88, ¶ 7 n.4. Thus, it seems likely that there were four communications—or “acts” in the parlance of the statute (namely, the second incident, the apology, the rescindment, and the profanity and hell comment)— to satisfy the course of conduct requirement.

[9] In this regard, the district court’s approach was arguably backward. The district court considered the individual circumstances of the respondent—a consideration absent in the statute—and failed to properly consider the individual circumstances of the petitioner. See supra ¶ 19.

[10] Still, our supreme court has cautioned that “when assessing these and other relevant factors, . . . courts must avoid succumbing to a purely subjective analysis, which is inconsistent with the objective standard’s intent to protect against criminalizing conduct that only an unreasonably sensitive or paranoid victim would find harassing so as to reduce the risk of a truly innocent defendant falling within the ambit of a stalking statute.” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up).

[11] Although even this conclusion seems to rest on shaky ground. Our supreme court in Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, 491 P.3d 835, noted, “[T]he fact that [the respondent] flipped off and communicated obscenities” to the petitioner “on two or more occasions” meant that the petitioner “could potentially obtain an injunction against” the respondent. Id. ¶ 39. Granted, the supreme court added, “But this does not mean that every person flipped off and sworn at two or more times by the same individual is entitled to a stalking injunction.” Id. ¶ 39 n.29. Yet, this is the point. In context, considering the particular circumstances of a petitioner, even profanity ubiquitous in society might very well form the basis for an injunction.

[12] Anderson asserts that the district court erred in considering Deem’s autism and other facts such as Deem’s lack of a history of violence and immobility. The district court’s consideration of these points strayed well into the realm of the irrelevant. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Anderson should have regarded Deem’s course of conduct as more or less threatening than it would have been had he not been diagnosed with autism. On remand, given the dearth of evidence about Anderson’s knowledge of (1) the impact autism had on Deem’s behavior, (2) Deem’s lack of past violent conduct, and (3) Deem’s other personal circumstances, we caution the district court to avoid the line of reasoning it previously embraced in this respect.

The district court should also avoid speculation regarding the availability of a no-contact order because consideration of other remedies is nowhere contemplated in the stalking statutes. The consolation of the merely potential no-contact order is nebulous at best, especially considering that the criminal case was unadjudicated at the time of the hearing. Cf. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 119 (noting that the availability of an existing stalking injunction does not necessarily “mitigate” or “eliminate the emotional distress [a respondent’s] behavior caused” when the course of conduct is ongoing).

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Corona-Leyva v. Hartman – 2022 UT App 45 – civil stalking injunction

Corona-Leyva v. Hartman – 2022 UT App 45
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

SERGIO CORONA-LEYVA,  

Appellee,  

JESUS HARTMAN,  

Appellant. 

Opinion 

No. 20200948-CA 

Filed April 7, 2022 

Fourth District Court, Provo Department 

The Honorable Thomas Low 

No. 200401402 

Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, and Nathan S.  

Shill, Attorneys for Appellant 

Sergio Corona-Leyva, Appellee Pro Se 

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred. 

TENNEY, Judge: 

¶1 Sergio Corona-Leyva obtained a civil stalking injunction against Jesus Hartman. By statute, the district court was required to determine that Hartman’s “course of conduct” “would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021).20 And in Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26, 322 P.3d 728, the supreme court emphasized that a district court must apply an “individualized objective standard” to this element. 

¶2 In granting the injunction in this case, however, the district court found that the fear element had been met because of the subjective fears of Corona-Leyva and his neighbor. We accordingly reverse and remand so that the court can apply the correct standard. 

BACKGROUND21  

¶3 Utah Code section 78B-7-701 outlines the process for obtaining a civil stalking injunction. First, “an individual who believes that the individual is the victim of stalking may file a verified written petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-7-701(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). A district court can then issue “an ex parte civil stalking injunction” if “the court determines that there is reason to believe that an offense of stalking has occurred.” Id. § 78B-7-701(3)(a). “Within 10 days after the day on which” the “ex parte civil stalking injunction is served, the respondent is entitled to request, in writing, an evidentiary hearing on the civil stalking injunction.” Id. § 78B-7-701(4). At the evidentiary hearing, “the court may modify, revoke, or continue the injunction. The burden is on the petitioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that stalking of the petitioner by the respondent has occurred.” Id. § 78B-7-701(5). 

¶4 In September 2020, Sergio Corona-Leyva petitioned for a civil stalking injunction against Jesus Hartman, who was dating Corona-Leyva’s estranged wife. The petition covered both Corona-Leyva and his daughter (Daughter). After Corona-Leyva filed his petition, the district court granted an ex parte civil stalking injunction against Hartman, and the injunction covered both Corona-Leyva and Daughter. Hartman then timely requested an evidentiary hearing. 

¶5 The court held the evidentiary hearing in November 2020. At that hearing, Corona-Leyva represented himself and presented testimony from, among others, his neighbor, Daughter, and himself. These witnesses each corroborated Corona-Leyva’s claim that Hartman was stalking him. 

¶6 For example, Corona-Leyva’s neighbor testified that she had “seen [Hartman] on numerous occasions sitting out in front of [her] house, down [her] street.” She said that she “called [the police] on numerous occasions due to the fact that [she didn’t] feel safe with him just sitting out there.” The neighbor also explained that when she first saw Hartman, she had “no idea who he was” and that she didn’t “feel comfortable having just a random car sitting” on her street “by where [her] kids [were] playing.” 

¶7 The court asked the neighbor “how many times before September 8” she had “notice[d] him before [she] finally called the police.” The neighbor responded, “Probably at least 20 times.” When the court asked her how many times she had seen Hartman since calling the police on September 8, 2019, she replied, “Numerous times. I would say easily 25, 30 times.” She also explained that although she hadn’t seen Hartman “as much” in the “past few months,” she had “still . . . seen him drive through.” 

¶8 The court also questioned the neighbor about how she knew it was Hartman “when he’s just driving by.” The neighbor explained that “there’s suspicious behavior that he does, where he pulls up next to [her] house, will sit there for 10, 15 minutes, and then slowly creep down the road, and then race down past.” She said that “[a] lot of the times he does have windows open, a lot of times he has his music blaring.” The neighbor also identified Hartman, who was present for the virtual hearing, as “the same one who sat out in the cars.” 

¶9 Daughter testified next. She explained that she lived with her dad (Corona-Leyva), and that she didn’t have parent-time with her mom (who was living with Hartman) because Hartman “just [didn’t] make [her] feel safe.” Daughter also testified that she had seen Hartman “park and drive by” her dad’s house “[a] lot of times.” When the court asked if Hartman was driving by Corona-Leyva’s house to visit her, Daughter said, “No.” Daughter also explained that she knew it was Hartman driving by because he drives “kind of like crazy, or he just like slowly drives past and stops.” She additionally testified that his driving was “really suspicious.” But when the court asked if she “need[ed] a stalking injunction” against Hartman, Daughter responded, “No.” 

¶10 Corona-Leyva testified next, explaining that Hartman used to drive by his house “every other day” and would park outside his house “numerous time[s] half an hour to an hour.” He also testified that there was no reason for Hartman to be on his street because “it’s a dead end” and because Hartman didn’t need to drop off Corona-Leyva’s children. He further explained that Hartman continued to come to his house “all the time,” even after Corona-Leyva’s wife and other children moved in with Hartman. 

¶11 After Corona-Leyva presented his case, Hartman called several witnesses, including his parents, his sister, himself, and a licensed clinical psychologist. In contrast to Corona-Leyva’s witnesses, Hartman’s witnesses testified that Hartman was afraid of Corona-Leyva and that Hartman only went to Corona-Leyva’s house to pick up his girlfriend and her children. 

¶12 After each side presented its witnesses and gave closing arguments, the district court issued an oral ruling from the bench. The court first explained that it was “going to grant the stalking injunction, with one modification”—it removed Daughter as “a protected party.” The court stated that it was removing Daughter because there was no evidence that she was “threatened, harassed, monitored, surveilled, that kind of thing.” 

¶13 The court then recited the “elements of stalking” from the stalking statute. Of note here, these include a determination that the alleged stalker “intentionally or knowingly engage[d] in a course of conduct directed at a specific person” and that the alleged stalker “knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2). 

¶14 The court found that the course of conduct element was “easily satisfied with two or more acts”—namely that “Hartman has parked outside and driven past [Corona-Leyva’s] home many times.” The court expressed its view that this element was “easily” established by the neighbor’s testimony that she had seen Hartman “at least 20 times before calling the police and at least 25 to 30 times after calling the police.” 

¶15 The court then addressed whether Hartman’s conduct “would cause a reasonable person . . . (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Id. The court stated that  

[e]motional distress has been emphasized by [Corona-Leyva], and it’s true that [Corona-Leyva] has not adduced much evidence on that issue, although he did establish that he bought a ring doorbell specifically for this purpose, which tends to indicate some emotional distress. But even so, the emotional distress requirement is not necessary here. What [Corona-Leyva] has satisfied, again, overwhelmingly, is the fear for the safety of self or another. 

¶16 When describing how Corona-Leyva demonstrated “fear for the safety of self or another,” the court referred to the neighbor’s testimony. As recounted in the transcript, the court stated that  

[t]he fact that a neighbor who has no connection to these parties had enough fear for her safety and the safety of her child to call the police, this easily establishes and corroborates [Corona-Leyva’s] expression that he fear[ed] for his own safety than that of another. That namely Daughter was who he was concerned for. 

The court continued that “[j]ust having a vehicle parked outside of your home that frequently at odd hours of the day and night is enough to cause fear for the safety of one’s self or another.” 

¶17 Based on these findings, the court entered a civil stalking injunction against Hartman and in favor of Corona-Leyva. Hartman timely appealed. 

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW 

¶18 On appeal, Hartman argues that the district court misapplied the stalking statute “to the facts and circumstances of this case.” “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusions.” Ellison v. Stam, 2006 UT App 150, ¶ 16, 136 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). 

ANALYSIS 

¶19 Hartman claims that the district court “incorrectly applied the ‘fear for one’s safety’ element” of the stalking statute. We agree. 

¶20 A district court may enter a civil stalking injunction if it concludes that the alleged stalker’s “conduct violated Utah’s criminal stalking statute, Utah Code section 76-5-106.5.” Allen v. Anger, 2011 UT App 19, ¶ 14, 248 P.3d 1001. 

¶21 Under the criminal stalking statute, 

(2) A person is guilty of stalking who intentionally or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: 

(a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or 

(b) to suffer other emotional distress.  

Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). 

¶22 A “reasonable person” is “a reasonable person in the [petitioner’s] circumstances.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(d). This statute accordingly uses an “objective standard” for this element. Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25, 322 P.3d 728. This means that “the subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant.” Id. But our supreme court has also clarified that the question for this element is whether “the respondent’s conduct would cause emotional distress [or fear] to a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. In this sense, the element is analyzed under “an individualized objective standard.” Id. ¶ 26. 

Corona-Leyva v. Hartman 

¶23 In past cases, the supreme court has vacated injunctions based on courts’ failures to either apply an objective standard at all or instead to apply the individualized gloss to that objective standard. In Baird, for example, the court vacated an injunction because the district court had improperly focused on whether the conduct was “subjectively causing” the petitioner “distress.” Id. ¶ 28 (quotation simplified). And in Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶¶ 44, 48, 491 P.3d 835, the supreme court vacated an injunction because the district court had failed to consider the “entire context surrounding” the conduct and its impact “not just on a reasonable person, but a reasonable person” in the petitioner’s “specific circumstances.” 

¶24 The district court here likewise applied the wrong standard. As noted, the court determined that Corona-Leyva had “overwhelmingly” demonstrated “fear for the safety of self or another.” But when describing the basis for this determination, the court stated that the 

fact that a neighbor who has no connection to these parties had enough fear for her safety and the safety of her child to call the police, this easily establishes and corroborates [Corona-Leyva’s] expression that he fear[ed] for his own safety than that of another. That namely [Daughter] was who he was concerned for. 

(Emphases added.) 

¶25 The court thus appears to have determined that the injunction was warranted based on the subjective fears of two people: Corona-Leyva and his neighbor. In doing so, the court therefore erred by using a “subjective analysis,” rather than the “individualized objective standard” required by Baird. In light of this, “we remand so the district court can apply the correct standard.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 49.22  

¶26 Given the likelihood that this will be further litigated on remand, we make two additional observations. Cf. Sheppard v. Geneva Rock, 2021 UT 31, ¶ 47, 493 P.3d 632 (noting an appellate court’s ability to “provide additional guidance on issues that are likely to recur on remand”). 

¶27 First, while advancing his legal argument, Hartman at least arguably makes a factual challenge of his own to the court’s ruling, contending that there was “no evidence in the record” that Corona-Leyva was “in fear of his own safety or the safety of others.” If Hartman means to advance this as a separate ground for relief, we note that he has made the same error that he faults the district court for making: he improperly focuses on Corona-Leyva’s subjective fear (or lack thereof), as opposed to whether a reasonable person in Corona-Leyva’s circumstances would have had such fear. 

¶28 Second, if Hartman means to instead suggest that there’s no evidence from which the court could find that a reasonable person in Corona-Leyva’s circumstances would have any such fear, we note our disagreement with Hartman’s unduly restrictive approach to the evidence. In his brief, for example, Hartman contends that the neighbor’s testimony could not be relevant to the court’s analysis of the fear element. In a similar vein, Hartman suggests that the court’s assessment of that element should be limited to very recent events. 

¶29 But Baird itself recognized that the “individualized objective standard” allows a district court to look at a variety of factors, including “the victim’s background,” “the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant,” “any history of abuse between the parties,” “the location of the alleged stalking and its proximity to the victim’s children,” “the cumulative effect” of “repetitive conduct” by the respondent, and “any other relevant factors.” 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27. And this holistic approach is likewise consistent with Ragsdale’s insistence that a district court should consider the “entire context surrounding” the conduct when making the fear determination under the individualized objective standard. 2021 UT 29, ¶¶ 44, 48. 

¶30 Here, the neighbor testified that she saw Hartman drive by “at least 20 times” before calling police and “easily 25, 30 times” after calling the police. Hartman fails to even acknowledge this testimony in his brief, let alone account for it. And although this testimony came from the neighbor, it could certainly be used in conjunction with testimony from any other witness to establish what Hartman had actually done—which could then inform the court’s assessment of, among other factors, the “history of abuse” between the parties and the “cumulative effect” of any “repetitive conduct.” As noted, both of these can be relevant to the court’s assessment of whether Hartman’s behavior would cause fear in a reasonable person in Corona-Leyva’s circumstances. See Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27.23  

CONCLUSION 

¶31 The district court misapplied the stalking statute when it focused on the subjective fears of Corona-Leyva and his neighbor. We therefore reverse and remand so that the district court can determine whether Hartman’s conduct would cause a reasonable person in Corona-Leyva’s circumstances to suffer fear for self or another. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33 – civil stalking injunction

Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL EARL NOEL,

Appellee,

v.

WILLIAM THOMAS JAMES,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200565-CA

Filed March 10, 2022

Sixth District Court, Kanab Department

The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley

No. 190600053

William Thomas James, Appellant Pro Se

Frank D. Mylar, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        To obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged stalker’s “course of conduct . . . would cause a reasonable person: (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021); see id. §§ 78B­7-102(21), -701(1), -701(5). In this case, the district court granted a stalking injunction against Appellant William James, but it made no finding as to whether James’s course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Appellee Michael Noel’s position to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the basis for the injunction is not apparent in the record, we vacate the injunction and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Noel sought a stalking injunction after he and James were kicked out of a Kanab City Council meeting. Noel is an experienced public official who previously served as a state legislator for sixteen years and now serves as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. James is a member of a local conservancy group. Both had attended the meeting to give public comment on a controversial permitting issue.

¶3        Noel “got up and got in line” once the comment period opened. James then “got up from the corner” and joined Noel in line. As Noel later testified, “[James] came right at me in kind of a burly manner . . . requiring me to move over for him to get by in an intimidating way. . . . I’m not saying I was fearful, but he came at me and forced me” to move aside. “If I wouldn’t have moved, he would have banged into me.”

¶4        While waiting in line, Noel decided he wanted to be the last person to address the council. Accordingly, he left his place in line and moved to the back. James, however, “wanted to prevent [Noel] from having the last word on [him]”—so he, too, gave up his spot and moved to the back of the line. Noel eventually gave up waiting in line altogether. But when he turned to leave, James stood in his way “to stop [Noel] from getting behind” him once again. And so Noel and James “jockeyed” for a few moments, with Noel unable to get past James and James unwilling to let Noel through. Noel testified, I wanted him to get out of the way, and he was blocking me, and it did anger me to do that. But I was also wondering if there was going to be a confrontation here. I was actually fearful that he might, you know, . . . take a shot at me.

¶5        Noel called James “a worthless piece of garbage.” James, in turn, shouted to the audience, relaying what Noel had just called him. At this point, law enforcement intervened and asked both men to leave the meeting. Noel went home, and James was arrested after he refused to comply. At the encouragement of the chief of police, Noel later petitioned for a civil stalking injunction against James.

¶6        The district court held a full-day evidentiary hearing on the petition. At the hearing, James sought to admit videos of both the city council meeting and a chamber of commerce meeting earlier that day through a witness who had attended both meetings. The videos had not been previously disclosed.

¶7        When the issue first arose, the court and counsel for both parties were under the impression that there were only two videos—one of the chamber of commerce meeting recorded by the witness herself and one of the city council meeting recorded by a videographer hired by the conservancy group. Noel stipulated to the admission of the first video, but he objected to the second video because the videographer was not present to lay foundation. Specifically, Noel’s counsel explained, “If there’s a woman here [who] says she videoed this on her camera, and it accurately depicts what she videoed on her camera, and she was there at the meeting, and she’s subject to cross-examination, and she made the video, I think that that’s proper. But the other one I don’t.”

¶8        But when the witness was called to testify, she explained that there were actually three videos: one video from each of the two meetings that she recorded with her personal cell phone, and a third video from the city council meeting recorded by the videographer. At that point, Noel’s counsel objected to the admission of all three videos because they had not been disclosed and he was “surprised” that they were being offered as evidence. James’s counsel did not dispute that the videos had not been disclosed in advance but claimed that, when the matter was discussed earlier, Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded.” In response, Noel’s counsel argued that he had merely stipulated to the chamber of commerce video: “That’s all we were discussing at the time.” The court agreed with Noel’s counsel that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. And because Noel “didn’t make the objection before about not having [the chamber of commerce video] in advance,” the court held him to that stipulation. The court received the chamber of commerce video into evidence per the stipulation, but excluded the other two based on the objection.

¶9        At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court determined that James had engaged in a course of conduct directed at Noel, as required under the civil stalking statute. The court found that the course of conduct consisted of two component acts, each committed at the city council meeting: (1) when James approached Noel “in a kind of burly manner,” and (2) when James “blocked [Noel] from going back to his seat.” The court did not make an express finding that James’s conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Nonetheless, the court granted the requested stalking injunction.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 James now appeals, contending that the district court erred in imposing a civil stalking injunction against him.[2] James primarily argues that his course of conduct would not have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Although the question of whether “a reasonable person would suffer fear or emotional distress” under the circumstances “is a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation [and application] of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835; see also Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (“The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusion.” (cleaned up)).

¶11 James also challenges the district court’s decision to exclude video evidence of the city council meeting. Specifically, he contends that the “videos met the [parties’] stipulation for new video evidence” and that, therefore, the district court erred by excluding them. “The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Civil Stalking Injunction

¶12 To obtain a civil stalking injunction, the petitioner “must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that ‘an offense of stalking has occurred.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(7) (LexisNexis 2017)).[3] “The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must ‘intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person.’” Id. (cleaned up) (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis 2017)). By statute, a “‘[c]ourse of conduct’ means two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (listing several examples of qualifying acts). Second, the respondent “must ‘know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person’ to ‘fear for the person’s own safety’ or ‘suffer other emotional distress.’” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5­106.5(2)). A “reasonable person” is statutorily defined as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” § 76-5­106.5(1)(d).

¶13      Although the district court recited both elements, it made findings on the first element only. It identified an intentional course of conduct consisting of two acts: approaching Noel in a “burly manner” and later blocking Noel from returning to his seat. But the court did not make a factual finding on the second element, that is, whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. “When confronted with questions of fact, this court will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” See Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up). Otherwise, “remand is appropriate” to allow the district court to make that determination. See id.

¶14      Noel acknowledges that the district court never addressed the second element on the record, but he argues that James failed to preserve the issue for appeal. We disagree. To issue a stalking injunction, “the district court necessarily had to consider whether [Noel] had established each element of a stalking offense.” See id. ¶ 20. Thus, the court had an opportunity to rule on whether the statutory elements were met, and that issue is “adequately preserved” for appeal. See id. In any event, James specifically argued to the court that “[t]his [was] not a situation where a reasonable person . . . in [Noel’s] position” would have been “afraid of physical harm or . . . in emotional distress.” And he moved “essentially for a directed verdict” on that basis. Therefore, we are confident that James presented this issue “to the district court in such a way that the court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on it.” See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 15, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up).

¶15      Alternatively, Noel contends that we can affirm on appeal because the district court “had evidence to determine that James acted in a threatening manner that would have made a reasonable person fearful or suffer some emotional distress over the two encounters.” When the district court does “not explicitly make a necessary finding,” we may still affirm “if the evidence and statements contained in the record make the evidentiary basis for this finding sufficiently clear.” See Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 8, 340 P.3d 79 (cleaned up); see also State v. Bingham, 2015 UT App 103, ¶¶ 28–29, 348 P.3d 730 (explaining that a reviewing court may “assume that the [district] court found the facts in accord with its decision,” unless “the ambiguity of the facts makes this assumption unreasonable” (cleaned up)). But here, the evidentiary basis for finding that Noel satisfied the second element is not sufficiently clear from this record.

¶16 To determine whether the petitioner has met the second element required for a civil stalking injunction, we apply “an individualized objective standard.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26. Under this standard, the “subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45. Instead, the relevant question is whether the conduct would have caused fear or emotional distress to “a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. (quoting Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25). “In applying this standard, courts must consider the entire context surrounding a respondent’s conduct” and “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶17      Our supreme court has suggested a non-exhaustive list of factors that may be relevant to this assessment. Those factors include “the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking and its proximity to the victim’s children, if any, and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (cleaned up). “Furthermore, under an individualized objective standard, a court may consider whether the defendant had knowledge of a particular vulnerability of the victim and then acted with full knowledge of the victim’s vulnerability.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶18 Under this standard, it is far from obvious that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have feared for his safety or suffered emotional distress, given the context in which James’s conduct took place. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a)–(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). The encounter occurred in a public place—a city council meeting—and in full view of a room packed with witnesses. Law enforcement officers were stationed at the meeting and ready to intervene. And Noel is an experienced public official accustomed to dealing with members of the public. See Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (indicating that the individualized objective standard considers “the victim’s background”). Although Noel testified that James was “a loose cannon” and “a different guy than [Noel had] dealt with in [his] years of public service,” the district court made no finding that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have found James particularly threatening. And even though James was ultimately arrested, his arrest was based not on his conduct toward Noel, but on his refusal to comply when law enforcement ordered both men to leave the meeting.

¶19 Noel argues that a reasonable person would fear for his safety under these circumstances. He suggests that the district court’s finding that James approached in a burly manner “could mean that James was acting tough or flexing his muscles or puffing his chest in a manner that would suggest physical aggression.” Perhaps it could, but we have no findings to that effect. Nor do we have a finding that such a display would cause a reasonable person to fear for his safety in the context in which it occurred—a well-attended, public meeting, with law enforcement officers standing by.

¶20 Noel also argues that the evidence supported a finding that James’s conduct would have caused “some emotional distress,” but that is not the standard. The stalking statute defines “emotional distress” as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b) (emphasis added). Noel has pointed to no evidence in the record that would have clearly supported a finding that James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to suffer “emotional distress,” as defined by statute.

¶21      If the district court applied the correct legal standard and implicitly found the second element satisfied, the evidentiary basis for that ruling is not clear on this record. Although the interaction that occurred at the city council meeting was certainly uncivil, it is not the type of conduct that would ordinarily cause a reasonable person to fear for his physical safety or experience “significant mental or psychological suffering”—at least not without other contextual facts not apparent from the record. See id.

¶22 Having heard the evidence firsthand, the district court is in an advantaged position to make factual findings as to whether Noel has proved the second element by a preponderance of the evidence. We ordinarily rely on the district court to make those kinds of assessments, because it has “personally observed the quality of the evidence, the tenor of the proceedings, and the demeanor of the parties.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 30. “This is particularly true in a case like this one where the record consists almost entirely of evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing.” See id. Therefore, we vacate the injunction and remand for the district court to determine whether Noel has proved the second element under the legal standard explained in this opinion.

II. Scope of the Stipulation

¶23 Because we are remanding for further findings, we must also reach the question of whether the district court properly excluded video of the interaction between James and Noel at the city council meeting. James argues on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by excluding both videos of the city council meeting, because Noel had stipulated to the admission of late-disclosed videos so long as James laid sufficient foundation by calling the person who recorded each one.

¶24 But in excluding the videos of the city council meeting, the district court found that the parties’ stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. James’s counsel asserted that Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded,” but Noel’s counsel pointed out that, at the time of the stipulation, he was unaware of the existence of the third video and that the only thing counsel had discussed was the chamber of commerce video. The court agreed with Noel’s counsel, saying, “That’s the way I understood the stipulation.”

¶25 The district court’s finding that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video was not clearly erroneous. At the time of the stipulation, the parties were discussing only two videos. Noel stipulated to the admission of the chamber of commerce video taken by the witness and objected to the admission of the city council video taken by the videographer based on lack of foundation. His stipulation to the chamber of commerce video cannot fairly be read as a stipulation to a third video that he did not know existed.

¶26 James has not argued that the videos were timely disclosed, that the disclosure violation could be excused for good cause, or that the failure to disclose was harmless. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”). Therefore, he has not established any basis on which to reverse the district court’s exclusion of the city council videos.

CONCLUSION

¶27 James has not established that the district court erred in excluding the late-disclosed videos of the city council meeting, but he has established that the injunction was entered without the necessary findings. Specifically, the district court made no express finding as to whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the record does not provide a clear evidentiary basis for the court’s decision, we vacate the stalking injunction against James and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[1] “On appeal, when a trial court has made findings of fact to support a civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 2 n.1, 340 P.3d 797.

[2] James, a non-attorney, represents himself in this appeal. We hold him “to the same standard of knowledge and practice as any qualified member of the bar,” but accord him “every consideration that may reasonably be indulged.” See State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 19, 128 P.3d 1171 (cleaned up).

[3] Although the 2018 amendment of the civil stalking statute governs this case, we cite the most recent version of the civil stalking statute for convenience—unless a prior version is quoted by a different source. Regardless of the version quoted throughout this opinion, the statutory language at issue is the same.


Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2022 UT App 15 – Miller v. DaSilva – protective order objections

2022 UT App 15 – Miller v. DaSilva

http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/view.html?court=appopin&opinion=Miller v. Dasilva20220203_20200719_15.pdf

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

LISA M. MILLER,
Appellant,
v.
AMY ELIZABETH DASILVA,
Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20200719-CA

Filed February 3, 2022

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Robert P. Faust

No. 204904364

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton Brimhall, Attorneys
for Appellant

Amy Elizabeth Dasilva, Appellee Pro Se

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES
GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        A final judgment on a petition for a cohabitant abuse protective order cannot be entered based on a commissioner’s recommendation until the parties are afforded their statutory right to object. If a timely objection is filed, the objecting party is entitled to a hearing before the district court. In this case, once the commissioner recommended that the protective order be denied and the case dismissed, a final order was immediately entered and the petitioner’s timely objection was subsequently denied without a hearing. Because a final judgment was entered before the time for filing an objection had passed and without holding a hearing on the objection, we vacate the final judgment and remand to the district court to hold the required hearing.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Lisa Miller petitioned the district court for a cohabitant abuse protective order against her former friend and tenant, Amy Dasilva. A temporary protective order was issued, and a hearing was scheduled before a commissioner. At the conclusion of the hearing, the commissioner made the following findings:

I cannot find that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that Ms. Da[s]ilva has been stalking Ms. Miller. And I cannot find a fear of ongoing physical harm.[1] And, therefore, I am going to respectfully dismiss the protective order.

A minute entry reflected that the “Commissioner recommends” that the petition “be DENIED and this case be dismissed” because “[t]he evidence does not support the entry of a protective order.”

¶3        That same day, at the direction of a district court judge, the court clerk entered a final order that stated: “This case is dismissed. Any protective orders issued are no longer valid.”

¶4        Miller filed a timely objection to the commissioner’s recommendation, requesting an evidentiary hearing before the district court pursuant to rule 108 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. The next day, the district court denied that objection on the grounds that “dismissal of a protective order . . . is not a matter that is heard by the District Court Judges under Rule 108 as it is not a recommendation of the Commissioner, but rather a final decision.”

¶5        Miller filed a timely notice of appeal.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶6        The dispositive issue before us is whether, under Utah Code section 78B-7-604(1)(f), the district court was permitted to immediately dismiss the case based on the commissioner’s recommendation and thereafter deny Miller’s objection and request for a hearing. “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law, and we afford no deference to the trial court in reviewing its interpretation.” Patole v. Marksberry, 2014 UT App 131, ¶ 5, 329 P.3d 53 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶7        Under the Cohabitant Abuse Act, the court may issue a protective order without notice to the other party (an ex parte protective order) if it appears from the petition “that domestic abuse has occurred” or is substantially likely to occur. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-7-603(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2020). If the court issues an ex parte protective order, it must schedule a hearing and provide notice to the respondent. Id. § 78B-7-604(1)(a). After notice and a hearing, the court may issue a cohabitant abuse protective order, which is effective until further order of the court. Id. § 78B-7-604(1)(e). If such an order is not issued, the ex parte protective order expires unless extended by the court. Id. § 78B-7-604(1)(b).

¶8 A commissioner may conduct the required hearing in cohabitant abuse cases and “[m]ake recommendations to the court.” Utah R. Jud. Admin. 6-401(1)–(2)(D). If the hearing takes place before a commissioner, “either the petitioner or respondent may file an objection within 10 days after the day on which the recommended order [is issued by the commissioner] and the assigned judge shall hold a hearing within 20 days after the day on which the objection is filed.”[2] Utah Code Ann. § 78B-7­604(1)(f).

¶9        Here, the district court denied Miller’s objection to the commissioner’s recommendation without holding a hearing. Miller argues this was a “violation of the mandate in Utah Code Ann. § 78B-7-604(1)(f).” We agree.

¶10 In denying Miller’s objection, the court ruled that “dismissal of a protective order” is not a matter that can be heard by the district court under rule 108 because “it is not a recommendation of the commissioner, but rather a final decision.” Because commissioners are prohibited from making “final adjudications,” Utah R. Jud. Admin. 6-401(4)(A), we assume that the district court was referring not to the commissioner’s recommendation, but to the order dismissing the case entered at the direction of a district court judge immediately after the hearing before the commissioner. Even so, the rule expressly provides that “[a] judge’s counter-signature on the commissioner’s recommendation does not affect the review of an objection.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(a). Once Miller filed a timely objection to the commissioner’s recommendation and a request for hearing, the district court was statutorily required to hold a hearing within twenty days. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-7­-604(1)(f). The district court erred by denying the objection without holding such a hearing.

CONCLUSION

¶11 The district court did not have authority to enter a final order dismissing this case before the time for filing an objection to the commissioner’s recommendation had expired. Because Miller filed a timely objection and request for hearing, she was entitled to a hearing before the district court. Accordingly, we vacate the final judgment, reverse the district court’s order denying the objection, and remand for the district court to hold the hearing required by statute.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

T.W. v. S.A. – 2021 UT App 132 – child custody

2021 UT App 132 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

T.W.,
Appellant,
v.
S.A.,
Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200397-CA 

Filed November 26, 2021 

Third District Court, West Jordan Department 

The Honorable Dianna Gibson 

No. 134401457 

David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant
Laja K. M. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee 

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred. [22]  

HAGEN, Judge: 

¶1 T. W. (Father) appeals the district court’s custody order awarding S. A. (Mother) primary physical custody of their son (Child). In so doing, the court rejected the custody evaluator’s recommendation that Father be awarded primary physical custody. The court also scheduled parent-time in accordance with the minimum parent-time schedule in Utah Code section 30-3-35, as opposed to the optional increased parent-time schedule in section 30-3-35.1. Father argues each of these rulings was made in error. Because the court sufficiently supported the parent-time schedule it ordered as well as its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation, we affirm. 

BACKGROUND [23]  

¶2 Father and Mother ended their relationship before Child’s birth. The following year, Father petitioned for custody. Father later moved to Grantsville, Utah to live with his now-wife and her children, along with Father’s other child from a prior relationship. Grantsville is approximately fifty miles from Sandy, Utah where Mother resides. 

¶3 Shortly after his move, Father requested a custody evaluation. The court-appointed custody evaluator initially recommended Mother be awarded primary physical custody, but at a trial on that issue, the parties stipulated to joint legal and physical custody, with each parent enjoying alternating weeks of equal parent-time. The stipulated terms were then set forth by the court in its parentage decree. At the time, the logistics of complying with an alternating week schedule were relatively easy because Child was not yet attending school. 

¶4 Around the time Child was to begin kindergarten, a dispute arose over whether Child would attend school near Mother’s home in Sandy or near Father’s home in Grantsville. Father moved for a temporary restraining order that would specify where Child would attend school. After a telephonic hearing, the court commissioner recommended that, for the time being, Child would attend school in Sandy pending an evidentiary hearing. 

¶5 Child had been attending school for several months when the evidentiary hearing was held in December. After conferring with counsel off the record, the court expressed “some concerns about the workability of [Child] residing in Grantsville and going to school in Sandy or residing in Sandy and going to . . . school in Grantsville.” The court reasoned that the alternating week schedule was unworkable, and the parties agreed that now that Child was in school “continuing the commute [was] not in [his] best interest.” The court ultimately found that “the commute from Sandy to Grantsville is approximately 50 miles and can take approximately 50 minutes, and sometimes more, in the morning” and, “[f]or various reasons, including road/weather conditions, [Child had] been late to or missed school.” Because the long commute was unworkable, the court recognized that the issue before it was “a much larger issue than just determining where [Child] goes to school”—it would require “a change in the parent-time arrangement” as well. To resolve both the parent-time arrangement and where Child would attend school in the future, the court set the matter for trial. 

¶6 Before trial, the custody evaluator submitted an updated report. The evaluator recommended that Father and Mother be awarded joint legal custody but that Child’s primary physical residence be with Father. The evaluator made this recommendation based on two considerations. First, he opined that Father was “in a more stable physical situation” than Mother because he owned his house and was “not likely to move,” whereas Mother “rent[ed] an apartment and ha[d] a history that raise[d] concern about her ability to maintain a consistent residence.” Second, he noted that Child had developed “positive and reciprocal relationship[s] with his [half-sibling and step-]siblings,” who resided with Father, and Child would “attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” 

¶7 During trial, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life.” That letter further stated that Child was experiencing “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” 

¶8 Mother testified about Child’s emotional and social challenges as well. She explained that Child’s school counselor had been helping him to make and keep friends and to learn “what’s acceptable social behavior” and “how to control [his] emotions in school.” Mother testified that although Child was “struggling with focus and attention in school” as well as “emotional outbursts,” he had “improved.” She recounted that Child “struggled with making friends in the beginning,” but was “finally making more” and by that time had friends at the school. Because Child “knows the school now” and “knows the people,” Mother did not “feel that [it would be] right” to “rip [him] away from [the progress he had made] and have him start all over in a new school.” Given that Child was “in therapy for adjustment disorder,” she believed that “[h]aving him switch schools would just exacerbate that [condition]. He again would have to adjust to a huge change in his life.” 

¶9 Mother also testified about her work schedule. She described how she had started her own business so her schedule would be “flexible” for Child, that she “make[s her] own schedule,” and that the reason she did this was “to be available to [Child] and his school needs and his extracurricular needs . . . so that [she could] revolve [her] work around [her] son.” Mother testified that she and Child have a regular daily routine with a set schedule for school, homework, extracurricular activities, playtime, and sleep when Child is residing at her home in Sandy. Mother asserted that requiring Child to commute to school from Grantsville “probably has at least something to do with [Child’s] activity in school,” that “he hates [the commute],” and that he is sometimes late to school because of “the weather” or “accidents on the freeways.” 

¶10 After considering the original evaluation, the updated evaluation, and the other evidence presented at trial, the court issued its custody order. It found that because of Child’s “current emotional and behavioral issues which [had] been diagnosed as an Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct,” his “psychological and emotional” needs were the deciding factor and those needs would benefit from residing primarily with one parent. In support, the court found that Child “struggles in social settings” and has “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” Moreover, “the commute is hard on [Child]” as he was “tired in school,” had “been late on several occasions,” and had even “missed school” because of the long commute. 

¶11 Having decided that it was in Child’s best interest to reside primarily with one parent, the court ruled that it was in Child’s best interest for Mother to be the primary custodial parent because Mother’s testimony was “credible and persuasive” regarding the negative impact a change in school would have on Child. The court found changing schools would require Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust,” negatively affecting the progress he had made establishing friends. Moreover, Mother had the ability to provide the “maximum amount of parent-time with the maximum amount of flexibility,” and Mother had “established routines in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” 

¶12 In keeping with its custody determination, the court also ruled that, “solely” because of “the 100-mile round-trip commute,” the parent-time schedule of “every other week for five days in a row, was not in [Child’s] best interest,” and that the parent-time schedule would be altered in accordance with Utah Code section 30-3-35—Utah’s minimum parent-time schedule. The court ruled that “on alternating weekends, [Father] shall have parent-time from the time [Child’s] school is regularly dismissed on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.” Additionally, Father was awarded a mid-week overnight during which Father “pick[s] up [Child] after school, and [Mother] pick[s] up [Child] the next morning.” The court explained, “The new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]” because “it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” 

¶13 After the court filed its custody order, Father filed a motion for new trial as well as a motion to amend the court’s findings. The court denied both motions. Father now appeals. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶14 Father challenges the district court’s custody order on two grounds. First, he alleges the court failed to articulate sufficient reasons for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation to award him primary physical custody and that the court based its custody determination on an erroneous fact. Second, he alleges the court failed to make sufficient findings about why it did not award increased parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 303-35.1. 

¶15 On appeal, we review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion. LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17, 440 P.3d 874. This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it “within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 648 (Utah 1988) (cleaned up). We review the court’s “underlying factual findings for clear error.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17. “A finding is clearly erroneous only if the finding is without adequate evidentiary support or induced by an erroneous view of the law.” Id. (cleaned up). 

ANALYSIS 

  1. The Rejection of the Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶16 Father first challenges the district court’s decision to award primary physical custody to Mother. When determining custody, the court considers many statutorily defined factors, including “the parent’s demonstrated understanding of, responsiveness to, and ability to meet the developmental needs of the child, including the child’s . . . physical needs; . . . emotional needs; . . . [and] any other factor the court finds relevant.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019).24 But the factors the court considers are “not on equal footing.” See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “Generally, it is within the trial court’s discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. 

¶17 Although the district court has broad discretion to make custody determinations, it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996). The findings “must be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933 (cleaned up). The district court’s conclusions must demonstrate how the decree “follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence,” Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 17, 169 P.3d 754 (cleaned up), “link[ing] the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs” whenever “custody is contested,” K.P.S., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27. 

¶18 Father contends that the court failed to “articulate sufficient reasons as to why it rejected [the custody evaluator’s] recommendation[]” that Child should primarily reside with Father. “[A] district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if it rejects such a “recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. 

¶19 Here, the court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation. The custody evaluator recommended that the court award primary physical custody of Child to Father for two reasons: (1) Father was in “a more stable physical situation” and “not likely to move,” and (2) Child had a “positive and reciprocal relationship with his siblings and [would] be able to attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” The court found the evaluation “very helpful” but did “not agree with the ultimate recommendation.” 

¶20 The court based its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation on several factors. First, the court disagreed that Mother’s rental apartment was less stable than Father’s living situation because both Mother and Father had relocated multiple times in the last few years and both testified that they intended to stay in their current homes. Second, although the court agreed that keeping the siblings together “would be beneficial” to Child, the court did not “give this factor quite the weight” that the custody evaluator did, because Child had never “lived exclusively with his siblings” and their relationship was not the same as a relationship “between siblings who have been reared together prior to the separation between the parents.” 

¶21 The court also detailed how physical custody with Mother would better serve Child’s “psychological and emotional needs.” It found that Mother had “established routines” with Child “in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” She “lived a one[-]child-centered life” and indeed had “built her life around her son”; whereas, Father’s attention was divided among several children. Mother also enjoyed “flexible” self-employment that allowed her to personally provide care for Child, whereas Father’s work schedule was “less flexible” and would require surrogate care. 

¶22 The court further determined that it was not in Child’s best interest to change schools, which would be required if Father were awarded primary physical custody. The court emphasized the need for “consistency” and “routine” for Child, as he was exhibiting signs of being “under stress,” “struggle[d] in social settings,” and had “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” In light of these factors, the court determined that “making too many changes all at once” would not be in Child’s best interest. Most notably, the court found Mother’s “testimony credible and persuasive regarding the impact a change of school would have on [Child], given his current condition and the Adjustment Disorder diagnosis.” Because Child had made significant progress “adjusting” to his current school and establishing friendships, the court found that requiring Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust”—would “impact the progress” he had made and would not be in his best interest. Consequently, granting Father primary physical custody, which in turn would require Child to transfer to a school in Grantsville, was not in Child’s best interest. 

¶23 Father contends that the court erred because it rejected the custody evaluator’s “recommendation solely based on [an] ‘Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct’ diagnosis” even though “at no[] time was there any testimony as to how [the diagnosis] affected the Child, and/or how it related to the Child’s relationship with each parent.” But the court did not rest its decision solely on the fact that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Instead, it considered evidence that the disorder was caused by stress, that it manifested as behavioral and social impairments, and that introducing a change such as transferring schools would exacerbate these problems. Specifically, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life” and that he experienced “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” Mother also gave extensive testimony regarding Child’s struggles with “focus,” “emotional outbursts,” and “making friends,” and she detailed the improvements he had made in those areas. She further testified that, in light of Child’s adjustment disorder diagnosis, “having him switch schools would just exacerbate that” condition and undo the progress he had made because it would require him to “start all over.” 

¶24 In sum, the evidence presented at trial sufficiently supports the court’s ruling that Child’s best interests, i.e., his “psychological, physical, and emotional” needs, were best met by Mother being awarded primary physical custody, “outweigh[ing] the factors favoring” a custody award in favor of Father. And the court’s careful evaluation of that evidence certainly “articulate[s] some reason” for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. Thus, the court acted within its discretion in rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation and awarding Mother primary physical custody. 

  1. The Parent-Time Schedule under Utah Code Section 30-3-35

¶25 Father also contends that the district court erred because it did not adopt the optional increased parent time schedule set forth under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1 without making sufficient findings. We disagree. 

¶26 “[D]istrict courts are generally afforded broad discretion to establish parent-time.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up). When parents do not agree to a parent-time schedule, Utah Code section 30-3-35 prescribes a “default minimum amount” of “parent-time for the noncustodial parent,” unless “‘the court determines that Section 30-3-35.1 should apply’ or a parent can establish ‘that more or less parent-time should be awarded.’” Id. ¶¶ 5–6 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 303-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017)); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-335(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021)). Under that default minimum parent-time schedule, the noncustodial parent is entitled to time with the child on “one weekday evening and on alternating weekends, which include Friday and Saturday overnights.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 6. Thus, the noncustodial parent, at minimum, enjoys “two overnights in a typical two-week period.” LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 874. 

¶27 The court “may consider” an “optional parent-time schedule” set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-35.1(1)–(2), (6), which increases parent-time from two overnights to five overnights in every two-week period “by extending weekend overnights by one night, and affording one weeknight overnight each week.” See Id. ¶ 21; see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(6) (LexisNexis 2019). The court may adopt the optional parent-time schedule when either (a) “the parties agree” or (b) “the noncustodial parent can demonstrate the presence of at least four factual circumstances.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 22 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(2). 

¶28 But even if either of these two prerequisites is satisfied, the district court is not obligated to adopt the increased parent-time schedule.25 Under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1, the court “is authorized, but not required, to consider the optional increased parent-time schedule as described in the statute.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 13. The statute “provides legislatively established standards for the district court to apply in evaluating whether increased parent-time is warranted, and it eliminates the need for a district court to independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule by providing a detailed schedule for the court to modify or adopt.” Id. ¶ 16. But by providing “the district court with some guidance and tools for adopting increased parent-time schedules,” the legislature did not eliminate “the court’s discretion to apply those tools in the best interest of the child.” Id. To the contrary, the statutory language plainly indicates that the adoption of the increased schedule is permissive rather than mandatory. See id. 

29 Nonetheless, Father argues that once the court “considered” section 30-3-35.1, it was obligated to make findings articulating why it rejected the increased parent-time schedule suggested by the statute. In setting the parent-time schedule, the court largely adopted the minimum schedule set forth in section 30-3-35, except that it increased the weekday evening parent-time to a mid-week overnight. As a result, the only difference between the increased parent-time schedule under section 30-3-35.1 and the schedule actually ordered is an additional weekly Sunday overnight. Father contends that “the trial court should have addressed how it was in the best interest for [Child] to be returned home on Sunday as opposed to Monday morning for school.” 

¶30 But Father misunderstands the statutory scheme. When parents cannot agree to a parent-time schedule, section 30-3-35 provides a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more time than the statute provides. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(1)–(2) (“[T]he court may . . . establish a parent-time schedule” but “the parent-time schedule as provided in Section[] 30-3-35 . . . shall be considered the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.”). If the court orders more parent-time than the presumptive minimum, it may “independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule” under section 30-3-35, or it may adopt the “detailed schedule” set forth in section 30-3-35.1. See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16. In any event, in awarding parent-time, the court is simply required to “enter the reasons underlying [its] order.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). The statute does not require the court to articulate specific reasons for rejecting all other alternatives, such as an additional Sunday overnight that would necessitate another long commute to school every other Monday. 

¶31 In keeping with the statutory requirements, the court entered sufficient findings to support its parent-time award under section 30-3-35. The court ordered that “[Father] shall have parent-time pursuant to the guidelines established in Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” and articulated its reasons for customizing that schedule to allow Father an additional mid-week overnight. The court explained that it was 

interested in maximizing [Father’s] time (along with his family) with [Child]. Section 30-3-35 permits a mid-week visit. It is in [Child’s] best interest to have a mid-week visit at [Father’s] home. [Child] will benefit from doing homework with [Father], [his stepmother,] and his siblings. And, because it is only one day a week, the impact of the commute will be minimized. The parties can determine which day works best for them and [Child]. 

The court concluded that “[t]he new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]—it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” These findings adequately support the ordered parent-time schedule. 

CONCLUSION 

¶32 Custody and parent-time determinations “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982). The broad discretion we accord the district court “stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). That is precisely the situation the district court faced here. And “where analysis reveals that the best interests of the child would be served equally well with either parent,” we cannot say the “court has abused its discretion in awarding custody to one parent over another.” See id. at 1216. Because the district court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation for primary custody and articulated the reasons for the parent-time schedule it adopted, we defer to the court’s sound judgment. Affirmed. 

Click to access T.W.%20v.%20S.A.20211126_20200397_132.pdf

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Can I get a stalking injunction against someone in a different state who stalks via social media?

How would you go about getting an order of protection against someone in a different state for harassment and stalking via social media?

I will answer your question based upon the law of the state of Utah, where I practice divorce and family law. And the answer is yes, you obtain a stalking injunction or a protective order against someone in a different state for harassment and stalking via social media.

We’ll start with what factors must be satisfied to obtain a criminal stalking injunction or a civil stalking injunction.

First:

§76-1-201. Jurisdiction of offenses.

(1) A person is subject to prosecution in this state for an offense which he commits, while either within or outside the state, by his own conduct or that of another for which he is legally accountable, if:

(a) the offense is committed either wholly or partly within the state[.]

So it is possible to commit the crime of stalking in Utah even if the victim does not reside in Utah.

Second:

§78B-7-701. Ex parte civil stalking injunction — Civil stalking injunction.

(1)(a) Except as provided in Subsection (1)(b), an individual who believes that the individual is the victim of stalking may file a verified written petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker with the district court in the district in which the individual or respondent resides or in which any of the events occurred. A minor with the minor’s parent or guardian may file a petition on the minor’s own behalf, or a parent, guardian, or custodian may file a petition on the minor’s behalf.

So a civil stalking victim may seek a civil stalking injunction against the stalker in the state of Utah, if the stalker resides in Utah or if the act of stalking was committed in Utah.

Third:

78B-7-102. Definitions.

(21) “Stalking” means the same as that term is defined in Section 76-5-106.5.

§76-5-106.5. Stalking — Definitions — Injunction — Penalties — Duties of law enforcement officer.

*****

(2) A person is guilty of stalking who intentionally or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person:

(a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or

(b) to suffer other emotional distress.

(3) A person is guilty of stalking who intentionally or knowingly violates:

(a) a stalking injunction issued under Title 78B, Chapter 7, Part 7, Civil Stalking Injunctions; or

(b) a permanent criminal stalking injunction issued under Title 78B, Chapter 7, Part 9, Criminal Stalking Injunctions.

Fourth:

§76-5-106.5. Stalking — Definitions — Injunction — Penalties — Duties of law enforcement officer.

(1) As used in this section:

(a) “Course of conduct” means two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person, including:

(i) acts in which the actor follows, monitors, observes, photographs, surveils, threatens, or communicates to or about a person, or interferes with a person’s property:

(A) directly, indirectly, or through any third party; and

(B) by any action, method, device, or means; or

(ii) when the actor engages in any of the following acts or causes someone else to engage in any of these acts:

(A) approaches or confronts a person;

(B) appears at the person’s workplace or contacts the person’s employer or coworkers;

(C) appears at a person’s residence or contacts a person’s neighbors, or enters property owned, leased, or occupied by a person;

(D) sends material by any means to the person or for the purpose of obtaining or

disseminating information about or communicating with the person to a member of the person’s family or household, employer, coworker, friend, or associate of the person;

(E) places an object on or delivers an object to property owned, leased, or occupied by a person, or to the person’s place of employment with the intent that the object be delivered to the person; or

(F) uses a computer, the Internet, text messaging, or any other electronic means to commit an act that is a part of the course of conduct.

Fifth:

If the nature of the activity on social media satisfies the factors necessary to obtain a protective order (as opposed to a stalking injunction), then it is possible to obtain a protective order in response to online harassment and stalking.

Utah has a variety of possible protective orders available, depending upon the victim type:

Title 78B Judicial Code

Chapter 7 Protective Orders and Stalking Injunctions

Part 2 Child Protective Orders

78B-7-202. Abuse or danger of abuse — Child protective orders — Ex parte child protective orders — Guardian ad litem — Referral to division.

(1)

(a) Any interested person may file a petition for a protective order:

(i) on behalf of a child who is being abused or is in imminent danger of being abused by any individual; or

(ii) on behalf of a child who has been abused by an individual who is not the child’s parent, stepparent, guardian, or custodian.

Part 4 Dating Violence Protective Orders

§ 78B-7-403. Abuse or danger of abuse — Dating violence protective orders.

(1) An individual may seek a protective order if the individual is subjected to, or there is a substantial likelihood the individual will be subjected to:

(a) abuse by a dating partner of the individual; or

(b) dating violence by a dating partner of the individual.

Part 5 Sexual Violence Protective Orders

§78B-7-503. Sexual violence — Sexual violence protective orders.

(1)

(a) An individual may seek a protective order under this part if the individual has been subjected to sexual violence and is neither a cohabitant nor a dating partner of the respondent.

§ 78B-7-502. Definitions.

As used in this part:

*****

(3) “Sexual violence” means the commission or the attempt to commit:

(a) any sexual offense described in Title 76, Chapter 5, Part 4, Sexual Offenses, or Title 76, Chapter 5b, Part 2, Sexual Exploitation;

(b) human trafficking for sexual exploitation under Section 76-5-308; or

(c) aggravated human trafficking for forced sexual exploitation under Section 76-5-310.

Part 6 Cohabitant Abuse Protective Orders

§ 78B-7-602. Abuse or danger of abuse — Cohabitant abuse protective orders.

(1) Any cohabitant who has been subjected to abuse or domestic violence, or to whom there is a substantial likelihood of abuse or domestic violence, may seek a protective order in accordance with this part, whether or not the cohabitant has left the residence or the premises in an effort to avoid further abuse.

§ 78B-7-102. Definitions.

As used in this chapter:

(1) “Abuse” means, except as provided in Section 78B-7-201, intentionally or knowingly causing or attempting to cause another individual physical harm or intentionally or knowingly placing another individual in reasonable fear of imminent physical harm.

If the nature of the social media usage rises to the level of “intentionally or knowingly placing another individual in reasonable fear of imminent physical harm,” then it possibly could qualify the victim for a protective order.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Does a Restraining Order Prevent Me from Communicating with the School?

Does a Restraining Order Prevent Me from Communicating with the School?

If a school age child has a restraining order against a parent prohibiting him from coming within a certain distance from the school, can they still call the school to inquire about the child if the order is silent on it?

If I were a judge and asked to analyze and answer such a question (I am a Utah divorce and family lawyer and have been in practice for 24 years), I would do so this way:

1. Does the restraining order contain any clear, express provisions prohibiting the restrained parent from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child?

2. If the answer is “no,” then I would read the entire order to determine whether in the prohibition against the parent restrained from coming onto school grounds there was any clear contextual intent to bar the restrained parent from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child. It would, in my mind, have to be extremely clear/highly suggestive that the intent was to prevent calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child before I would even consider construing the “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” to mean “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.”

3. It is extremely likely that if I were the judge construing the order, I would not try to stretch it to cover things not expressly articulated in the order itself. In my legal opinion, “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” does not come anywhere close to meaning “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.” I believe most judges would hold the same opinion.

4. All that stated, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, don’t be surprised if you have a judge who does construe “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” to mean also “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.” Why? Because in my experience and opinion, there are certain judges who will indulge in this kind of expansive construction and interpretation not because they actually believe what they are doing is correct, but because they reckon that by construing the order to be as restrictive and limiting for you as possible, they will prevent you from doing anything that could possibly cause the child or the child’s other parent from calling the police and/or coming back to court to complain about you. Thus, you and the case coming back in front of the court to be dealt with in the future is avoided. It’s a labor-saving device, not a correct legal construction principle.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Can I get a restraining order against a couple?

Can I get a restraining order against a couple?

In a sense, no (but you can still obtain a restraining order against both people).

A “couple” would not be something against which you can get restraining or protective order, but if both members of a couple individually commit the acts that would entitle you to restraining order, protective order, or stalking injunction, then you would apply for the order against each member of the couple because you want and need protection from both of them.

Let’s say that one spouse of a married couple is assaulting you, or attempting to assault you, or threatening to assault you. And let’s say that there is no question that the other spouse in the couple has done nothing wrong (isn’t even aware of what his/her spouse is doing wrong). In that scenario, there would be no basis for seeking a restraining order against both people. But if both of them are causing, attempting, or threatening harm, then you could certainly seek a restraining or protective order or stalking injunction against them both.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Can-I-get-a-restraining-order-against-a-couple/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

 

Tags: ,
Click to listen highlighted text!