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Richardson v. Easterling

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


July 14, 2005

MICHAEL S. A. RICHARDSON, M.D., APPELLANT,
v.
AARON EASTERLING, APPELLEE.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (VSP3770-03) (Hon. Jeanette J. Clark, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge.

Argued June 9, 2005

Before SCHWELB and FARRELL, Associate Judges, and BURGESS, Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.*fn1

Michael S. A. Richardson, M.D., appeals from an order of the trial court, issued on February 6, 2004, dismissing Richardson's First Amended Petition for a Civil Protection Order (CPO).*fn2 In his First Amended Petition, Richardson asked the court to bar Aaron Easterling, Richardson's former homosexual lover, from continuing to engage in conduct which, according to Richardson, constituted "stalking" within the meaning of D.C. Code § 22-404 (b) (2001), and an "intrafamily offense" within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-1001 (2001). The trial judge ruled that no intrafamily offense had been alleged, reasoning that "the Petition sounded in defamation and neither abuse nor violence had been alleged." We conclude that although the Intrafamily Offenses Act does not apply to the alleged defamatory statements by Easterling of which Richardson complains, it does reach Richardson's allegations that Easterling made numerous threatening, abusive and harassing telephone calls directly to Richardson, thereby committing the criminal offense of stalking. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and reinstate, in part, Richardson's First Amended Petition.

I.

On or about November 19, 2003, Richardson filed his initial "Petition and Affidavit for a Civil Protection Order" against Easterling. The Petition and Affidavit were written on standard forms provided by the Superior Court. Richardson alleged that he and Easterling "Now or Previously Having Shared the Same Residence" and had a "Romantic/Dating Relationship." Richardson further alleged that he resided in the District of Columbia, and he answered in the affirmative the question "Did any incident described below occur in the District of Columbia?" Substantively, Richardson alleged that Easterling had:

1. [t]hreatened to contact police and falsely accuse [P]petitioner of knowingly spreading communicable diseases;

2. [c]ontacted District of Columbia Board of Medicine, [and] made false statements regarding Petitioner's sex life and the intentional spread of sexually transmitted diseases by Petitioner;

3. [m]ade calls to [P]petitioner's colleagues and divulged personal information regarding [P]petitioner and made false accusations regarding [P]petitioner's sex life and [P]petitioner's knowing transmission of sexually transmitted diseases;

4. [c]ontacted Petitioner's secretary, by telephone, and made remarks regarding Petitioner's sexuality and the intentional spread of sexually transmitted diseases by Petitioner;

5. [c]ontacted a female colleague of [P]petitioner and advised colleague that [P]petitioner was a homosexual and was knowingly spreading sexually transmitted diseases;

6. [a]ppropriated, from Petitioner's home, forged and attempted to pass a check on a closed financial account in Petitioner's name, resulting in a criminal investigation of Petitioner by Maryland authorities.*fn3

On November 24, 2003, the trial court issued an ex parte Temporary Protection Order (TPO) prohibiting Easterling, for a period of fourteen days, from, inter alia,

1. threatening, stalking, harassing or physically abusing Richardson;

2. contacting Richardson in person, by telephone, in writing or "in any other manner, either directly or through a third party";

3. contacting Richardson's "colleagues, family members, or neighbors."*fn4

The third of these provisions was added to the order in handwriting, apparently by (or with the consent of) the judge.

An evidentiary hearing on the merits of Richardson's initial Petition was scheduled for January 9, 2004. On January 5, 2004, Easterling filed a Motion to Strike or Dismiss the Petition. In his motion, Easterling claimed "with conviction" that none of the conduct complained of constituted a criminal offense against Richardson within the meaning of D.C. Code §§ 16-1001 et seq. Easterling added:

More importantly, it is Mr. Easterling's position that it was his ethical, if not legal, duty to report Dr. Richardson's behavior.

Easterling asked the court to strike or dismiss the Petition and to award Easterling his costs, as well as reasonable counsel fees.

On January 9, 2004 -- the date of the merits hearing -- Richardson filed his First Amended Petition. In this pleading, Richardson broadened his allegations well beyond the defamatory conduct which was the gravamen of the initial Petition. He alleged, inter alia, that Easterling had made numerous abusive and threatening telephone calls directly to Richardson, and that Easterling's conduct was "specifically intended to alarm, annoy, frighten and torment [Richardson] or to otherwise cause [Richardson] emotional distress, a criminal offense pursuant to D.C. Code [§§] 22-404 (b) et seq."*fn5

On February 6, 2004, following the hearing held on January 9, 2004, the trial judge dismissed Richardson's initial Petition and First Amended Petition. As we have noted above, the judge grounded her decision on her view that Richardson had failed to allege any abuse or violence constituting an intrafamily offense. This timely appeal followed.

II.

In holding that no intrafamily offense had been alleged, the trial judge effectively dismissed Richardson's First Amended Petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The only issue before us in reviewing such a dismissal is whether the complaint is legally sufficient, and to test its adequacy we apply the same principles as those utilized by the trial court. Aronoff v. Lenkin Co., 618 A.2d 669, 684 (D.C. 1992). Accordingly, our review of the judge's decision, as of any ruling on a question of law,*fn6 is de novo. Osei-Kuffnor v. Argana, 618 A.2d 712, 713 (D.C. 1993). In determining the legal sufficiency of Richardson's First Amended Petition, we must accept his allegations as true, and we construe them in the light most favorable to Richardson. McBryde v. Amoco Oil Co., 404 A.2d 200, 202 (D.C. 1979). Dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted is only permissible "where it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id. (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45 (1957)).

Richardson's claim is based on D.C. Code § 16-1005 (2001), which provides in pertinent part:

If, after a hearing, the [court] finds that there is good cause to believe [that] the respondent has committed or is threatening [to commit] an intrafamily offense, it may issue a [CPO].

The term "intrafamily offense" is defined in the statute as an act punishable as a criminal offense committed by an offender upon a person:

(A) to whom the offender is related by blood, legal custody, marriage, having a child in common, or with whom the offender shares or has shared a mutual residence; or

(B) with whom the offender maintains or maintained a romantic relationship not necessarily including a sexual relationship. A person seeking a protection order under this subparagraph shall reside in the District of Columbia or the underlying intrafamily offense shall have occurred in the District of Columbia.

D.C. Code § 16-1001 (5). Richardson has alleged, and indeed it is undisputed, that he and Easterling have previously both shared a residence and maintained a romantic relationship. At the time Richardson filed his initial Petition, he resided in the District of Columbia, and he claims that Easterling's allegedly unlawful conduct occurred in the District. The disputed question is whether Richardson's pleadings sufficiently allege that Easterling has committed one or more "act[s] punishable as a criminal offense" within the meaning of the Intrafamily Offenses Act.

Although the trial judge ruled that the Act has no application where "neither abuse nor violence had been alleged," we discern no such restriction in the language of the statute, which embraces any "act punishable as a criminal offense" by a person subject to the Act. "[T]he words of the statute should be construed according to their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them." United States v. [Loretta] Smith, 685 A.2d 380, 385 (D.C. 1996) (citations omitted). Moreover, "[t]he paramount consideration concerning [the Intrafamily Offenses Act] is that it is remedial, and the Act must be liberally construed in furtherance of its remedial purpose." Cruz-Foster v. Foster, 597 A.2d 927, 929 (D.C. 1991).*fn7 Under these circumstances, we may not read into the Act limitations or restrictions which it does not contain. We therefore conclude that the Act applies, as its terms state, to any criminal offense committed by an offender upon a person related to him or her within the meaning of § 16-1001 (5).

Richardson contends that in his First Amended Petition, he has fairly alleged that Easterling has committed the criminal offense of stalking. We agree. In [Loretta] Smith, this court, in upholding the constitutionality of our anti-stalking statute, discussed its reach and coverage in some detail. We concluded that the prosecution in a stalking case may establish a violation of the statute in a number of different ways, one of which is by [p]roving that the accused on more than one occasion engaged in conduct with the intent to cause emotional distress to the complainant by willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly harassing the complainant. 685 A.2d at 383.*fn8

We entertain no doubt that the First Amended Petition contains allegations of the type of stalking described in the foregoing quotation from [Loretta] Smith. Accordingly we conclude that the trial judge erred in dismissing Richardson's allegations of stalking, which constitute all or parts of paragraphs 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 14 of the First Amended Petition.

We agree with the trial judge, however, that Richardson's claims that Easterling defamed him do not implicate the Intrafamily Offenses Act. If the representations allegedly made by Easterling about Richardson were both defamatory and false, Richardson had an obvious remedy in tort.*fn9 A defamatory statement is not, however, a criminal act. Moreover, an order prohibiting Easterling from making representations to others regarding Richardson's allegedly culpable conduct at least arguably constitutes constitutionally impermissible prior restraint of speech; ordinarily, "equity does not enjoin a libel or slander." Comm. for Creative Non-Violence v. Pierce, 259 U.S. App. D.C. 134, 143, 814 F.2d 663, 672 (1987). The Intrafamily Offenses Act should be construed "so as to avoid serious doubts as to their constitutionality." Riggs Nat'l Bank v. District of Columbia, 581 A.2d 1229, 1242 (D.C. 1990) (quoting Communications Workers of Am. v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735, 762 (1988)). Accordingly, we discern no error in the trial court's decision insofar as it affects allegations of defamation and like conduct, as found in the first five paragraphs of Richardson's initial Petition and in paragraphs 6, 8, 11 and 12 of the First Amended Petition.

III.

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment appealed from is reversed to the extent specified above. The case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So ordered.*fn10


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