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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  

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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

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Recent thoughts about family law

Recent thoughts about family law

I’ve been prompted recently to express my thoughts and opinions about the judiciary generally in the family law context. Here are a few thoughts I feel are worth sharing:

– Too often litigants and attorneys are afraid to present certain arguments and evidence and proposals for fear that merely raising fair-game topics, much less trying to advance them within the bounds of the law and procedure, will anger and/or offend the court to their detriment.

– Judges and commissioners deciding family law cases must be far more about the law and the facts dictating their decisions and much less about subjectively picking winners and losers.

– Judges and commissioners deciding family law cases must be far more about the law and the facts dictating their decisions and much less about indulging personal biases and subjectively picking winners and losers.

– Judges and commissioners rely on/pass the buck to GALs and custody evaluators far, far too much instead of interviewing children themselves and/or permitting children to testify. Just because this can be said of every district court* (as opposed to juvenile court) in Utah does not make universal failure/refusal right.

*If there is a judge or commissioner in Utah who will/does interview children in child custody cases to avoid the obscene expense, delays, and lack of record suffered by imposing a GAL or custody evaluator on the parties and children, I do not know of any such judge or commissioner. I get told frequently by many judges and commissioners who refuse to interview children something along the lines of, “I am not afraid/unwilling to interview children, I just [insert pretextual/lame excuse here],” and there are many judges and commissioners who tell me that it is their personal policy not to interview children under virtually any and all circumstances.

There are judges and commissioners everywhere, not just Utah, who act a law unto themselves. Always? No. But any time is too often, and there are times when I’ve witnessed this more times than can be written off to mere honest mistakes. Whether a judge or commissioner knowingly acts this way, ignorantly acts this way, or both, it is inexcusable.

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How useful are a GAL’s or custody evaluator’s recommendations?

How useful are a GAL’s or custody evaluator’s recommendations?  

This post is the twelfth in series of 15 posts on the subject of custody evaluations and the appointment of guardians ad litem (“GALs” for short) in Utah child custody cases when the judge could simply interview the children instead. You do not have to read all 16 posts to benefit from this series. Read as many or as few as you wish.  

The purpose of this series is to make the case for the proposition that an interview by the judge is a faster, more accurate, more particular, more reliable, and less expensive form of evidence than what a GAL and/or custody evaluator provides. 

Then there’s the nature and quality of the guardian ad litem’s and/or custody evaluator’s recommendations. They are never, never detailed or presented in a manner that subjects them to independent objective verification.  The guardian ad litem makes a recommendation to the court the guardians recommendations are cursory and vague. Things like, “I’ve spoken to my client and he is scared of his father.” While a custody evaluator’s recommendations may include more background information and supporting detail, as I stated previously, the problem with custody evaluator recommendations is that I’ve had more than one custody evaluator confided to me that they are afraid to give their frank assessments and opinions because they fear being reported to their licensing boards and/or being sued if they happen to make recommendations adverse to a parent. So, custody evaluators also end up giving vague, equivocal, and less than completely forthright analyses and recommendations. 

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

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How can I protect my assets before getting married without prenup?

How can I protect my assets before getting married without prenup? Short answer: One option (not a very good one, frankly, but about the best there is under the circumstances as you describe them in your question) is:

1) own no major/valuable property before you are married (in other words, your spouse would probably not seek (and the court would probably not award to your spouse any part of) a portion of things like your clothes and personal effects, so you could live in a house and drive a car you lease and thus have no such “big ticket” items that could be sold and the proceeds of sale awarded to your spouse in divorce;

2) save nothing in the bank or in investments and retirement accounts, so that there is nothing like in which your spouse could try to claim an interest; and

3) ensure that you do not earn more than your spouse does, so that your spouse cannot make an easy argument for alimony.

Your real question may be this instead: How can I prevent losing too much (being treated unfairly) financially in divorce? If that is your question, it is a very good and very common one. After all, most reasonable people would agree that what a couple acquires together during marriage is considered “their” property, “our” property, instead of “there’s yours and there’s mine”. For example: a couple marries and buys a house together in which they live for years. Sure, it may have been that one spouse worked full time while the other stayed home to take care of the kids and the house, but they are a team, partners (in both a legal sense and a practical sense).

Another example: Saving up for retirement. It is common for one spouse to be better able to pursue a career and advance in it (thus making more money for retirement) when the other spouse stays home with the children (at least while they are quite young) and keeps house. Both spouses understand that one hand washes the other. The decision to purchase the house and the decision to have one spouse be the primary breadwinner and the other the children’s primary caretaker was made together, for mutual benefit. The spouse with the full-time job knew in advance that he/she would be sharing the house and retirement funds with his/her spouse and worked for the money needed to fund these things. It is understood that these things are marital property that would be divided equally in the event of divorce. It makes sense. But there are other issues that are not so clear cut. Many people—mostly husbands, but a growing number of wives—have this sense that:

  1. a) “divorce should not result in my being financially exploited”;
  2. b) “divorce should not result in being robbed of what was mine before marriage and what I acquired for myself during marriage”;
  3. c) “I shouldn’t have to continue to support a spouse financially if I’ve done nothing to make divorce necessary; if my spouse wants out of the marriage and files for divorce, then he/she should do so with the understanding and expectation that with the end of the marriage comes the end of any and all of my obligations to support my spouse due to the fact that he/she is no longer my spouse”;
  4. d) spouses who: don’t carry their fair share of the weight during the marriage, who don’t do their best to contribute, and/or become financially dependent upon the other spouse as a result of being lazy (as opposed to spouses who are or become, due to disabilities beyond their control, financially dependent on the other spouse); and/or spouses who abuse the other spouse and/or children, commit adultery, or waste marital resources (i.e.,, refuse to uphold their marital responsibilities with impunity); and
  5. e) spouses who are moochers in divorce when they demand that the people to whom they are no longer married nevertheless keep supporting them financially. There is something inherently unfair in that concept.

In response to these questions and concerns the best answers for me personally are:

One, if I am truly worried that my marriage could end in divorce to a gold digger, the solution does not lie in trying to figure out a way to protect my assets but in not marrying the suspected gold digger.

Two, I did not marry to keep tabs on how much I have to lose in divorce. Yes, there are risks in trusting my spouse with my welfare (both physical and emotional), but the opportunity to enjoy a happy marriage is worth the risk to the right person.

Now please understand: I get that sometimes you can do everything right and marry someone who was great but who later changed and turned on you. That is sad, but not enough of a reason to avoid marriage, in my opinion. Well-rounded married people are generally much happier than well-rounded single people. Do not deny yourself the joys and blessings of marriage out of the fear of divorce. There is no meaning to success without the risk of and the fight against failure.

Three, there is no more reliable and cost-effective way to protect your assets in divorce than with some wise financial planning and a well-drafted prenuptial agreement.

Warning: even the most well-drafted prenuptial agreements are not iron-clad, but they are better than nothing (far better) if you are concerned about protecting yourself from being raped and pillaged financially in divorce.

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

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I hired an attorney. I’m so scared how my ex will react.

How can I calm my nerves? I hired an attorney to help with my child custody case against my BPD ex. I’m so scared of what he will do when he finds out.

  1. Know that hiring a good lawyer (a good lawyer, not just any lawyer) is one of the smartest things you could do for you, your nerves, and your children. Talk to people who didn’t hire an attorney in your circumstances, and they’ll tell you that you’ve done one of the best things that can be done. Great first step.
  2. You’ll never fully rid yourself of the ignorance of the legal system and legal processes. So you will never fully rid yourself of the anxiety that flows from it. But (in no particular order):
    1. getting a good attorney and listening to what your attorney tells you and doing as your attorney directs;
    2. educating yourself on the process (it’s nothing like you think it is, so the more you know about how it works, the better you’ll be able to navigate it and leverage it to your and your children’s benefit);
    3. having faith in God;
    4. leaning on friends and family for support as necessary (without wearing out your welcome of course); and
    5. staying vigilant

is the best medicine I can prescribe.

And one more thing: nothing helps you get your mind off your own plight and worries better than helping others in need and in pain.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-calm-my-nerves-I-hired-an-attorney-to-help-with-my-child-custody-case-against-my-BPD-ex-I-m-so-scared-of-what-he-will-do-when-he-finds-out/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Should we put divorcing couples in an adversarial divorce court system?

People who are getting divorced fall into one of two categories:

  • those who want to divorce while doing each other as little harm as possible; and
    those who don’t care what happens to their spouses in divorce and who are driven by self-interest, vengeance, and/or malice.
  • Couples in the first group are not forced into being adversarial with one another or forced to process their divorce to completion through an adversarial system. If and when they simply treat each other as each of them wished to be treated, they can dissolve their marriage and divide their property and responsibility for debts between them in a fair, expeditious, and economical manner, without having to involve the court other than having the judge approve their divorce settlement.

Most divorcing couples would choose—and correctly choose—to be nonadversarial if they understood that our adversarial system is an emotional and financial meat grinder.

But, as is typical of human nature, almost everybody going through a divorce for the first time doesn’t believe the horror stories they are told about divorce, or if they do believe the stories (and these stories are true, folks), nevertheless believe that they are exceptional. Their fear, anger, and avarice blind them to reality, causing them to believe that their divorce experience will beat the odds. Fools. Damn fools (and I’m a divorce lawyer, but that doesn’t mean I want to see anybody spend money on my services needlessly). Sometimes you need to go through the court system for a divorce. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. But if you can, for the sake of you, your kids, and yes, even your terrible spouse, don’t seek to vindicate yourself in the court system, seek to extricate yourself from it as much as you effectively can.

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

https://www.quora.com/Should-we-put-divorcing-couples-in-an-adversarial-system-like-a-family-court/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Does anyone secretly want a divorce?

Of course. Tens of thousands. Many of such people do not go through with divorce for various reasons. Some include:

  1. Fear of retaliation (whether in the form of physical, emotional, and/or financial abuse or hardship)
  2. Fear of being left financially destitute after divorce
  3. Resignation to the status quo/fear of the unknown future that a divorce would bring
  4. Fear of disapproval from one’s family, close friends, fellow church members, and other important communities in one’ s life
  5. Fear of embarrassment and humiliation
  6. Adherence to one’s religious beliefs that prohibit divorce except in rare and severe circumstances

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

https://www.quora.com/Does-anyone-secretly-want-a-divorce/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Do you want to know your judge and/or commissioner? View their bench books.

You’ve filed for divorce or had a divorce case filed against you. For most people, this is their first contact with the legal system. This is new and unknown, and so it’s frightening. The best (and first) antidote to the fear is becoming informed and knowledgeable about what you’re in for.

A good place to start is knowing about your divorce case’s judge and/or commissioner. Many judges and commissioners have a profile in the “Judge’s Bench Book,” which is provided by the Litigation Section of the Utah State Bar:

http://litigation.utahbar.org/benchbooks.html

The Judges’ Benchbook provides information on both trial judges and domestic relations commissioners who have agreed to provide information about how they approach a case and how they like to see a case proceed. You and your attorney can learn how to present your case in the way your judge and commissioner prefer. You can also learn what behaviors and practices to avoid.

So read the profiles on your judge and commissioner in the Bench Book. Tell your attorney about it too (not every attorney knows about the Bench Book). Get to know your judge and commissioner better so that you can work with them better and thus improve your chances for success.

The Litigation Section’s web page features other useful resources in addition to the Bench Book, so after you read the Bench Book profiles for your judge and commissioner, spend a little more time checking out those other resources too. A few you might find most useful include:

http://litigation.utahbar.org/50_tips.html

  • a list of 50 important tips for those who have never been to court before and that you would be wise to know before you appear in court

http://litigation.utahbar.org/assets/lawyers_write_persuasive.pdf

  • an article about what judges and commissioners really want to know (and really pay attention to) in the written arguments

http://litigation.utahbar.org/helpful-resources.html#Other

  • you can find links to the Utah rules of Civil Procedure, rules of Evidence, and other information here

http://litigation.utahbar.org/practice_pointers.html

  • a little “inside knowledge” about how the courts work that you’d be wise to review

https://www.utahbar.org/public-services/

  • this page can help you find a lawyer, find legal clinics, available pro bono assistance, and other public services provided by the Utah State Bar

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

How can I prepare myself mentally for divorce?

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Are family courts biased against parents with diagnosed mental illness when deciding custody?

Are family courts biased against parents with diagnosed mental illness when deciding custody?

Yes, they can be, under certain circumstances.

A common tactic in child custody disputes is to accuse the other parent of being mentally ill and a danger to the children. Courts are so accustomed to perfunctory allegations of mental illness being thrown around that courts often become jaded and skeptical, and as a result they sometimes won’t place much stock in such claims. So to those of you thinking that going off half-cocked and accusing your spouse of mental illness will give you a cheap, easy advantage, it won’t do you much good (and may undermine your credibility) without an actual diagnosis by a qualified neutral professional, at the very least.

But if a court does acknowledge a parent suffers from mental illness, then yes, there is frequently a bias against that parent. It’s not right, but to some extent, can you condemn them for such a bias? If one parent suffers from no disabilities and the other does (mental and/or physical), right there you have a difference that certainly does the disabled parent no favors in the child custody analysis.

Many people fear mental the mentally ill because they don’t understand mental illness (and have little interest in gaining a greater understanding), so when one does not understand and fears something, one tends avoid that thing. Courts thus often mistreat a mentally ill parent because those courts A) don’t know if the mental illness will render a parent unfit to exercise custody and B) don’t really want to know if the mental illness will render a parent unfit to exercise custody.*

*Note, however, that some judges and other judicial officers suffer from an unusually high incidence of mental health issues (depression and other mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, etc.) and in those cases they may be hypersensitive to reckless allegations that mental illness = parental unfitness.

So if you suffer from mental illness, and if the court expresses concern about it, and if you can prove your mental illness does not pose a threat to the well-being of the children, then bury the court in useful data and facts that prove this six ways from Sunday. Merely trying to reason with someone who doesn’t understand or care to understand mental illness is not enough. Give’em so much evidence that they can’t rule any other way without knowing they’ll be overturned on appeal. Yes, it’s very expensive and requires great and sustained effort. That’s the way it goes. There’s no easier way.

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

https://www.quora.com/Are-family-courts-biased-against-parents-with-diagnosed-mental-illness-when-deciding-custody-agreements/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How to Avoid the Primrose Path in Divorce (if you have the will and the guts)

How to Avoid the Primrose Path in Divorce (if you have the will and the guts)

It’s getting harder to stay in contact with reality.

You have men who, as they look in the mirror, claim they are women.

Banks telling you debt buys happiness.

Weight Watchers telling you that you can eat what you want and still lose weight.

Politicians telling you . . . well, you get the idea.

Virtually everyone who wants your attention or support or money is trying to get it by manipulating your perceptions.

This is no accident.

Get them to believe it! It’s essentially downhill from there.

Divorce lawyers are, for the most part, already quite skilled at manipulation, so many of them (I’d even say most of them) have no qualms manipulating your perceptions to get you as a client.

Persuading the masses by manipulation and deceit is easier than selling honestly.

And while it is wrong to deceive people, if you are deceived it is primarily your fault.

Most of your perceptions cannot be manipulated, unless you allow it. How?

  • Badges and “awards” that lawyers literally buy from vendors who are in the business of selling attorney’s fake awards and certifications
  • Glowing reviews that are fake
  • “Personal stories” of trial and triumph that are heavy on fiction and “my passion,” but light on fact and truth
  • Promises that are technically not promises, so you can’t hold anyone to them

It’s easier for lawyers to sell the illusion than it is for them to be the genuine article. All it takes is people who would rather believe what they see and hear than research and analyze.

Some of the easiest ways to manipulate you are: play upon your fears, your anger/vengeance, your greed, your laziness, your vanity, and your ignorance. This is how many ambitious divorce attorneys now get clients. Sell what sells!

  • Ignorance: “Free consultation! Call me!”
  • Fear: “Don’t lose your [children, house, retirement funds, etc.] in divorce! Call me!”
  • Vengeance: “Make that S.O.B. pay for abusing you. Call me!”
  • Greed: “Get all the money/Save all the money you want deserve. Call me!”
  • Laziness: “Affordable. Call me!”
  • Vanity: “We care. Call me!”

Suckers, being suckers, suck this stuff up. It feels so good, compared to reality. But just scratch the surface—if you dare—and it will reveal this stuff for the scam that it is.

The reality is that honesty doesn’t sell quickly, so in an age of information overload and short attention spans, some lawyers feel they can afford to be honest about what they sell.

But here’s the reality of hiring a divorce lawyer:
  • Being told you need courage and patience doesn’t sell, but courage and patience are essential when you’re involved in a divorce case.
  • Staying cool is hard, but the consequences of acting on anger and/or fear are harder.
  • The lesson of greed is: pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered.
  • Be prepared to have your ego bruised almost to death in a divorce case. Your view of what’s fair will likely be very different from your judge’s view. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
  • There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Garbage in, garbage out. You get what you pay for, period.

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

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