NC Court of Appeals (No. COA20-545)
Grace DiPrima (“Plaintiff”) and Clifton Benjamin Vann, V (“Defendant”) were the best of friends. Their friendship began in the third grade, and the two stayed friends throughout grade school and beyond. Plaintiff and Defendant attended The Fletcher School (“Fletcher”), an educational institution for children with learning differences. Plaintiff and Defendant would contact each other through various means, including text messages, Instagram, phone conversations, etc. However, by 2018, Plaintiff disclosed to her parents that the relationship had become more volatile. Plaintiff stated that some of Defendant’s recent actions made her feel uncomfortable. Between July 2018 and November 2018, Plaintiff and Defendant exchanged messages concerning suicide.
Although Plaintiff briefly cut contact with Defendant for two weeks in October 2019, by October 21, 2019, the two were spending time together again and going out for pizza, coffee, and to the movies.
In late October 2019, Plaintiff went on a family vacation to Florida. Then, in November 2019, Plaintiff went on a family vacation to Tennessee and invited Defendant to tag along. The Plaintiff’s parents returned from Tennessee and sought to cease all contact between Plaintiff and Defendant. Plaintiff’s parents initially requested that Fletcher prohibit Defendant from future attendance. When Fletcher cleared Defendant to return to school, Plaintiff’s parents became upset. On November 19, 2019, Plaintiff’s mother, Jennifer DiPrima, filed a “Complaint for No-Contact Order for Stalking or Nonconsensual Sexual Conduct” on behalf of the sixteen-year-old Plaintiff against Begee Vann (“Defendant’s Father”) on behalf of Defendant, who was seventeen years old at the time.
On November 19, 2019, the district court entered an ex parte Temporary No-Contact Order against Defendant. The ex parte Order was extended three times until an evidentiary hearing was had on January 31, 2020. At that time, Plaintiff was still sixteen and Defendant was seventeen years of age. The district court undertook the matter and, on February 11, 2020, set a No-Contact Order for Stalking or Nonconsensual Sexual Conduct (“the Order”) to be in effect for one year. Along with maintaining no contact with Plaintiff, the Order prohibited Defendant from entering or remaining present at Fletcher when Plaintiff was present. Defendant timely appealed the Order.
Issue: Was the trial court in error in failing to make any finding that Defendant specifically intended to cause Plaintiff any of the harm outlined in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-1(6)?
“Upon a finding that the victim has suffered unlawful conduct committed by the respondent, the court may issue temporary or permanent civil no-contact orders…” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-5(a) (2019).
There are two types of “unlawful conduct” that warrant the entry of a civil no-contact order: nonconsensual sexual conduct or “stalking.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-1(7) (2019). Here, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant stalked her. Therefore, the Court of Appeals was tasked with deciding whether the evidence presented at the trial level supported a finding that Defendant stalked Plaintiff. The statutory definition of stalking includes behavior that amounts to “harassing.” However, a “finding of harassment alone, even if supported by competent evidence, cannot be the sole basis to sustain entry of a civil no-contact order under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-1(6).” Ramsey v. Harman, 191 N.C. App. 146, 149, 661 S.E.2d 924, 926 (2008). That statute “requires the trial court to further find defendant’s harassment was accompanied by the specific intent either to: (1) place the person in fear for their safety or the safety of their family or close personal associates or (2) cause the person substantial emotional distress by placing that person in fear of death, bodily injury, or continued harassment and in fact cause that person substantial emotional distress.” Id. (citing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-1(6)).
In this case, the trial court was in error in failing to make any finding that Defendant specifically intended to cause Plaintiff any of the harm outlined in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50C-1(6). As held in Ramsey, such a finding must be specifically made and not inferred. While Plaintiff and Defendant may have exchanged disturbing messages that were worrisome to Plaintiff’s parents, without a specific finding regarding Defendant’s intent made by the trial court, it is an error for the Order to remain in full force and effect. As a result, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s Order.