Posted by Nydia Streets of Streets Law in Florida Domestic Violence

In yet another case of feuding neighbors seeking injunctions against domestic violence, the matter of Caterino v. Torello, 2D18-1712 (Fla. 2d DCA June 26, 2019) lays out the standard for obtaining an order of protection against stalking. The parties in this case were neighbors involved in a somewhat bitter dispute regarding homeowners’ association issues.

The testimony and evidence presented at trial indicated the parties were members of the same neighborhood. A dispute about a violation of the homeowners’ association evolved into accusations of one neighbor following the other and verbally harassing her. The alleged victim also accused the alleged stalker of entering her property to remove a permit from her garage. Accordingly, the alleged victim testified she was in fear for her safety and that her life was made difficult by the accused’s behavior.

The accused stalker defended on the basis that this was a neighbor feud gone too far. She claimed there was some aggressive behavior on the part of the alleged victim and that the time she was accused of removing a permit from the alleged victim’s property, she was actually going to drop off a document that outlined other neighbors’ frustrations with the alleged victim’s actions. At the end of the hearing, the trial court entered an injunction against the accused stalker for a period of 2 years.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed the injunction, holding “Stalking is defined as the ‘willful[ ], malicious[ ], and repeated[ ] follow[ing], harass[ing], or cyberstalk[ing] [of] another person." § 784.048(2).’ 'Harass' means to engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose.’ § 784.048(1)(a); see also § 784.048(1)(b) (defining '[c]ourse of conduct' as ‘a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, which evidences a continuity of purpose’) . . . . Touhey v. Seda, 133 So. 3d 1203, 1203-04 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014) (alterations in original). Moreover, ‘[c]ourts apply 'a reasonable person standard, not a subjective standard,' to determine whether 'an incident causes substantial emotional distress.' Id. at 1204. (quoting Goudy v. Duquette, 112 So. 3d 716, 717 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013)). ‘Each incident of stalking must be proven by competent, substantial evidence to support an injunction against stalking.’ Id.”

Finding there was insufficient evidence of stalking to meet the statutory definition, the appellate court held, “While Ms. Caterino's conduct may have been willful and malicious, at least with regard to her entering upon the property the first time to remove the permit, in order to constitute stalking by harassment the conduct must have caused substantial emotional distress. See § 784.048(1)(a). The court made no findings as to emotional distress, and although Mrs. Torello and her husband testified regarding the affect Ms. Caterino's conduct has had on Mrs. Torello, in determining whether conduct causes substantial emotional distress we must use a reasonable person standard and not a subjective standard. [. . .] While it is unfortunate that these neighbors are unable to get along, an injunction is not designed to 'keep the peace' between parties who, for whatever reason, are unable to get along and behave civilly toward each other.’”

If you are considering a obtaining a Florida injunction against domestic violence, schedule a consultation with a Miami family law attorney. A meeting may help you determine the best way to move forward given the specific circumstances of your case.