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Henok Araya v. Aida Keleta


May 12, 2011


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CPO1579-09 & CPO1789-09) (Hon. Erik P. Christian, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Senior Judge:

Submitted September 24, 2010

Before KRAMER,*fn1 Associate Judge, Retired, and NEBEKER and STEADMAN, Senior Judges.

Dr. Henok Araya appeals from a Civil Protection Order ("CPO"), which required him, inter alia, to vacate his primary residence located at 1800 New Jersey Avenue, N.W. ("New Jersey Property"). Dr. Araya contends this residence was his sole and separate property and therefore the trial court lacked the statutory authority to enter the order to vacate. We disagree.


This CPO proceeding arose out of a physical altercation between Dr. Araya and his wife, appellee Aida Keleta. In its amended Findings of Fact, the trial court concluded that during one evening at the New Jersey Property, Dr. Araya violently assaulted Ms. Keleta, who was then two months pregnant with their second child, by "pulling and dragging her across the threshold of the door."

Accordingly, after a four-day hearing, the trial court granted cross CPOs in favor of both parties. These protective orders required, inter alia, that Dr. Araya vacate the New Jersey Property out of "concern for the safety of the parties." The New Jersey Property was titled solely in Dr. Araya's name, pursuant to an April 15, 2004 deed, which was executed four months before Dr. Araya and Ms. Keleta were married. Ms. Keleta has lived in the New Jersey Property since the marriage, where she cooked, cleaned and took care of the parties' offspring.


The portion of the Intrafamily Offenses Act relevant to Dr. Araya's contention, D.C. Code § 16-1005 (c)(4) (2001), reads as follows:

(c) If, after hearing, the judicial officer finds that there is good cause to believe the respondent has committed or threatened to commit a criminal offense against the petitioner, the judicial officer may issue a protection order that:

(4) Directs the respondent to refrain from entering, or to vacate, the dwelling unit of the petitioner when the dwelling is: (A) Marital property of the parties;

(B) Jointly owned, leased, or rented and occupied by both parties; provided, that joint occupancy shall not be required if the respondent's actions caused the petitioner to relinquish occupancy;

(C) Owned, leased, or rented by the petitioner individually; or (D) Jointly owned, leased, or rented by the petitioner and a person other than the respondent[.]


The term "marital property" is not defined in the Intrafamily Offenses Act. Nor is the term defined or even used in the statutory provisions dealing with the allocation of property in divorce proceedings, to which Dr. Araya looks for support.*fn2 D.C. Code § 16-916 (2001) provides that, upon entry of a final decree of divorce, the court shall "(a) assign to each party his or her sole and separate property acquired prior to the marriage, and his or her sole and separate property acquired during the marriage by gift, bequest, devise, or descent . . . and

(b) distribute all other property accumulated during the marriage, regardless of whether title is held individually or by the parties in a form of joint tenancy or tenancy by the entireties, in a manner that is equitable, just and reasonable . . . ." Dr. Araya construes the term "marital property" to mean property subject to equitable distribution in a divorce proceeding pursuant to §16-916 (b). By negative inference, this would exclude his dwelling as "sole and separate property acquired prior to the marriage" under § 16-910 (a). See Sanders v. Sanders, 602 A.2d 663, 666 (D.C. 1992) ("a home purchased prior to a marriage remains the sole and separate property of the purchaser, regardless of contributions from the non-purchasing spouse during the course of the marriage.").*fn3

Dr. Araya's proposed mechanical interpretation transferring divorce law provisions to the Intrafamily Offenses Act posits an "unduly narrow focus" of the latter Act, which we have instructed trial courts to avoid. See Cruz-Foster v. Foster, 597 A.2d 927, 930 (D.C. 1991). The Intrafamily Offenses Act "must be liberally construed in furtherance of its remedial purpose." Id. at 930. Moreover, in Robinson v. Robinson, 886 A.2d 78, 86 (D.C. 2005), we held that the Intrafamily Offenses Act "clearly envisions allowing safety concerns to trump property rights[,]" which serve "as only one factor in the totality of the circumstances[.]"*fn4

In 1982, the D.C. Council amended the Intrafamily Offenses Act to expressly authorize orders to vacate as a means to countermand an "extremely narrow" interpretation of the Act's remedial provisions. D.C. COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, REPORT

ON BILL 4-195, at 10 (May 12, 1982); see Powell v. Powell, 547 A.2d 973, 974 (D.C. 1988).

The Council modeled the Act's vacate provisions after a Missouri statute, MO. REV. STAT.

§ 455.030 (1980), which, inter alia, "permits an order restraining the respondent from entering the family dwelling unit . . . in favor of a spouse who otherwise has no property interest in the home." State ex rel. Williams v. Marsh, 626 S.W.2d 223, 229 (Mo. 1982) (en banc) (emphasis added). Given this background and the liberal construction that must be afforded to the Intrafamily Offenses Act, we conclude that the term "marital property," as it exists in § 16-1005 (c)(4), encompasses the "family dwelling unit," regardless of technical ownership. This term is therefore independent of the parties' property rights under equitable distribution jurisprudence.*fn5

Here, the uncontested evidence reveals that the New Jersey Property served as a family dwelling where the parties cohabitated as a married couple. It was unquestionably "marital property" within the construction we think must be given to the term. Accordingly, the order appealed from is affirmed.*fn6

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