KEENAN V. KEENAN, 2022-NCCOA-554.
Facts: Plaintiff and Defendant were divorced. In August of 2022, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant came to her home to cut some grass despite Plaintiff telling Defendant not to do so. Defendant then refused to leave the home when Plaintiff asked several times. It should be noted that Plaintiff communicated to Defendant that Plaintiff’s brother had already made plans to address the lawn. Plaintiff alleged that she was very afraid of Defendant due to his past acts of emotional/physical abuse and past text messages. A temporary ex parte domestic violence protective order (DVPO) was granted. At the return hearing, the trial court granted the DVPO against Defendant. Defendant argued that he had a reason to cut the grass, as he thought the long grass was dangerous and sought to protect the children and their best interests. Defendant appealed.
Issue: Did the trial court err in not finding a legitimate purpose for Defendant’s actions?
Rationale: The legal definition of domestic violence includes placing the person seeking a DVPO or a member of their family or household in “fear of imminent serious bodily injury or continued harassment,” and it must rise to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress. Harassment, or continued harassment, is not achieved if the act committed was for a legitimate purpose. However, whether an act served a legitimate purpose is a determination reserved for the finder of fact, such as the trial judge. Therefore, competent evidence to support a finding that there was no legitimate purpose is enough to withstand appellate review. Defendant had argued that he had a legitimate purpose for mowing the grass: that it was to “protect” his children from the long grass. However, Plaintiff had warned Defendant not to come onto the land to mow, and then after Defendant ignored the request, refused to leave the lawn when asked. Those facts were not contradicted or challenged by Defendant at the trial. They were competent and supported the finding that there was no legitimate purpose. Essentially, it is not up to the Court of Appeals to re-weigh the evidence; the trial court heard Defendant’s testimony but found him not credible.
Lessons and notes: The Court of Appeals targeted this “passive-aggressive” behavior in their opinion, stating that the ability to torment a person while ostensibly targeting a nearby object underscored the importance of a factfinder (here, the trial court) and their ability to determine credibility (and/or weight of evidence). Basically, the trial judge believed that Defendant’s testimony that he was protecting his children was a sham to harass Plaintiff. That determination is crucial to the trial court’s duty to find the facts and administer justice. And just because there was “another side of the story,” as indicated by the Court of Appeals, that alone is not enough to require reversal.