Utah Supreme Court Update, Baird v. Baird, March 7, 2014

INTRODUCTION

​The Utah Supreme Court decided Baird v. Baird on March 7, 2014. In this case, the Court clarified the approach to determining whether a party has suffered “emotional distress” for purposes of obtaining a stalking injunction. Proof of the element of emotional distress is necessary to obtain a stalking injunction under Utah’s Stalking Statute. The Utah Supreme Court vacated and remanded the district court’s ruling for its incorrect application of a subjective standard to determine whether the petitioner had suffered the amount of emotional distress needed to obtain a stalking injunction. Rather, the Court clearly stated that only an objective standard should apply to an analysis of emotional distress. Additionally, the Court disagreed with the respondent’s definition of emotional distress recognized by Salt Lake City v. Lopez, and held the less stringent definition contained within the Stalking Statute, which was added by the Utah Legislature in 2008, shall apply to the element of emotional distress for the limited purpose of obtaining a stalking injunction.

RELEVANT FACTS

​An adult male with a seizure disorder and mental disabilities sought independence from his mother and decided to move out of their house. The son was able to manage his health issues with medication, but had ongoing problems with personal hygiene, finances, and anxiety. After moving out, his mother began to repeatedly call him and visit him without invitation. While the two had their conflicts when living together, the encounters between mother and son after the move increased in frequency and intensity. More often the confrontations resulted with the mother screaming at her son, or issuing verbal threats to force him to sign papers in order to enter him into a group home.

​The mother continued in this harassing fashion for roughly four months until her son finally filed a request for a temporary civil stalking injunction against her, which the court quickly granted. In response, the mother immediately filed a request for a hearing to challenge the injunction, which request was granted. At the hearing, three different witnesses called by the son testified of the son’s ability to function independently, and that his communications with his mother only seemed to cause him unnecessary stress, anxiety, and even fear. Conversely, the two witness called by the mother testified of her love for her son, and that her actions directly reflected her ongoing concerns with her son’s health and safety.

​The district court found in favor of the son. The court found the son had met requirements for the stalking injunction based on the son’s desire to be independent and his claim that his mother’s contacting him causes emotional upset, emotional disturbance and distress. The court’s decision to grant the stalking injunction was appealed by the respondent mother up to the Utah Supreme Court.

LEGAL ANALYSIS

​The Utah Supreme Court first found the district court had incorrectly applied the subjective approach to determining whether the son had suffered emotional distress. Utah’s civil stalking statute permits an injunction upon proof by petitioner that a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances would believe an offense of stalking has occurred. In other words, the “reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances” language requires courts to apply an objective test to determine whether an offense has occurred. Unlike other emotional distress tests, where the subjective and objective standard is jointly applied, the Stalking Statute element of emotional distress is evaluated under a solely objective standard.

​Here, the district court consistently cited how the mother’s conduct was subjectively causing her son emotional upset and distress. The district court was incorrect in considering the subjective effects of the offending party’s conduct. The court granted the injunction on subjective findings alone, failing to determine whether a reasonable person in the son’s shoes would have believed an offense of stalking had occurred. Therefore, the Utah Supreme Court vacated the injunction and remanded the case back to the district court for application of the appropriate objective standard to determine whether a reasonable person in the son’s circumstances would suffer emotional distress.

​Second, the Utah Supreme Court designated which definition of emotional distress would apply to a petition for a stalking injunction. At trial, the parties disputed whether to apply: 1) the more common definition of emotional distress recognized in Salt Lake City v. Lopez, where emotional distress is sufficient only where it results “from conduct that is outrageous and intolerable in that it offends the generally accepted standards of decency and morality,” or, 2) the definition added by the Utah Legislature in 2008 that provides, “‘[e]motional distress’ means significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required.”

​In Baird, the respondent mother sought to have the more stringent definition of emotional distress, which views respondent’s actions and requires proof of outrageous or intolerable conduct. Contrarily, the petitioning son sought application of the more lenient definition, which considers petitioner’s injuries and requires proof of significant mental or psychological suffering. The court noted the overlapping use and conflicting definitions of the term “emotional distress” in stalking laws compared to other laws such as torts.

​The Utah Supreme Court found that plain language contained in the Stalking Statute, as amended in 2008, provides a clear definition of emotional distress. This provision in the statute trumps the Lopez common law definition of emotional distress, which requires “outrageous or intolerable conduct.” Instead, for purposes of a stalking injunction, the relevant statute requires application of the lessened standard of emotional distress. As such, the district court on remand was instructed to find the element of emotional distress is satisfied only where the petitioner proves by a preponderance of the evidence that they experienced “significant mental or psychological suffering.”

Written by Arnold Wadsworth Coggins

Arnold, Wadsworth & Coggins Attorneys is a premier Utah law firm serving the Wasatch Front in the areas of family law, bankruptcy, criminal law, and civil litigation. Our attorneys provide clients with exceptional legal representation and personal attention. With over 35 years of trial practice and litigation experience, we bring big firm expertise at affordable rates