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A.L.H. v. A.W.H.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 17, 2013

A.L.H., Appellee
A.W.H., Appellant


Appeal from the Order entered August 23, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County, Civil Division, at No(s): CP-14-CV-1707-2012




A.W.H. ("Appellant") appeals from the Protection from Abuse ("PFA") order entered by the trial court at the request of A.L.H. ("Appellee"). We reverse.

Appellant presents the following two issues for our review:

I. Did the Court of Common Pleas commit an error of law in denying [Appellant's] motion for a directed verdict based on lack of standing, which was made at the conclusion of [Appellee's] case in chief because [Appellee] had failed to present any evidence sufficient to support the contention that she is part of the class entitled to seek a Protection from Abuse order, as defined under the term abuse in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6102?
II. Did the Court of Common Pleas commit an error of law in granting [Appellee's] Petition for Protection from Abuse despite the fact that [Appellee] failed to demonstrate that she is a member of the protected class defined under the term abuse in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6102?

Appellant's Brief at 4.

Appellant's issues are interrelated, and challenge Appellee's standing under the Protection From Abuse Act ("the Act"), 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6101 et seq. The essence of Appellant's argument is that the Act "does not provide relief for high school acquaintances who are just beginning a friendship." Appellant's Brief at 6.

Our standard of review regarding an issue of standing under the Protection from Abuse Act is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. McCance v. McCance, 908 A.2d 905, 908 (Pa. Super. 2006). Section 6102 of the Act defines "abuse" as the "occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood." Here, the trial court determined that the parties were "intimate partners." The trial court explained:

Based on [the parties'] respective ages (15 and 17 at the time of the incident) and the nature of their relationship (developing early stages of dating relationship), the Court concluded that their relationship was "intimate" within the meaning of § 6102.

Trial Court Opinion, 11/27/12, at 2 (emphasis added).

To the contrary, Appellant asserts:

The error of law with regard to [Appellant's] motion for a directed verdict controlled the outcome of this case, as standing was the central issue of the hearing. The current state of Pennsylvania law does not allow for the extension of Protection from Abuse relief to classmates, friends, and "not really" more than friends. Testimony at the hearing was void of references to a kiss, a love note, holding hands, a date to the prom, or any displays of teenage romance. The Court of Common Pleas erred when it denied [Appellant's] motion for a directed verdict.

Appellant's Brief at 8.

After careful review of the record, we agree with Appellant. We find no support for the trial court's determination that the parties were "developing early stages of dating relationship" which would render them "intimate partners" under the PFA. See Trial Court Opinion, 11/27/12, at 2.

Appellee was the only witness to testify at the PFA hearing. The notes of testimony are devoid of any reference to the parties dating or being romantically involved. The parties are teenage high school students and neighbors who had previously been "really good friends." N.T., 8/23/12, at 7-9. Appellee testified that she was at Appellant's house on April 20, 2012, when Appellant sexually assaulted her. Id. at 7. After the assault, Appellee's mother contacted the police, and proceedings against Appellant commenced in juvenile court. Id. at 8, 15. As part of the juvenile court proceedings, Appellant agreed to a "no contact" provision and altered his school schedule to avoid any contact with Appellee. Id. at 15.

The PFA hearing convened subsequent to the juvenile proceedings. Appellee was the only witness. She testified about her relationship with Appellant prior to the assault as follows:

COUNSEL: You and [Appellant] were pretty close before the incident?
A. Yeah.
Q. And, I mean, you are 15 correct?
A. Um-hum, yes.
Q. And he's 17?
A. Yes.
Q. So you're both in high school?
A. Yes.
Q. You guys would hang out almost every day?
A. I wouldn't say almost every day but a few times, yes.
Q. And so the two of you were developing a relationship?
A. Yeah.

Id. at 10.

Appellee never described the nature of her relationship with Appellant. On cross-examination, Appellee testified that she was "actually in a relationshipwith someone else." Id. at 11.

When asked "what led to the PFA?", Appellee responded:

Me being terrified of even walking by his house. Him getting in contact with me or my brother or sister because I had trusted him when I went down to his house that night or that day and he had broken my trust for that. So I don't really have any more trust for him.

Id. at 8.

Appellant motioned for the trial court to enter a directed verdict based on Appellee's lack of standing. The trial court denied the motion and entered the PFA order against Appellant. Relying on Evans v. Braun, 12 A.3d 395 (Pa. Super. 2010), the trial court determined that the parties in this case were "intimate", and noted that this Court has held "that a relationship consisting of only two dates constituted an 'intimate partner' classification, and was subject to the [PFA] Act." Trial Court Opinion, 11/27/12, at 3.

Upon review, we find that the facts of Evans are distinguishable from the facts of this case. The parties in Evans had a brief, albeit "stormy dating relationship". Id., 12 A.3d at 396. The record in this case contains no evidence that the parties ever had a "dating" or romantic relationship. Moreover, the language of Evans is instructive to the present case. Citing our earlier decision of Scott v. Shay, 928 A.2d 312 (Pa. Super. 2007), we explained:

As we have already made clear, [the legislators'] intent [in enacting the Protection from Abuse Act] was to prevent domestic violence and to promote peace and safety within domestic, familial and/or romantic relationships.
…[T]he persons who undoubtedly fit the Act's definition of family or household members-e.g., spouses, parents, children, relatives, paramours, and persons who undertake romantic relationships-typically share some significant degree of domestic, familial and/or intimate interdependence. There is often an obvious emotional bond. … In sum, the persons protected by the Act as a family or household members have a connection rooted in blood, marriage, family-standing, or a chosen romantic relationship.

Evans, 12 A.3d at 398-399 citing Scott, 928 A.2d at 315.

Scott is applicable to the present case. The parties in Scott were acquaintances. Leonard Scott, the defending PFA party, had been convicted of sexually assaulting the plaintiff, Robin Shay. More than 15 years later, Ms. Shay continued to come into contact with Mr. Scott, and successfully sought a PFA order. On appeal, we determined that the trial court improperly granted the PFA petition because Ms. Shay lacked standing under the Protection from Abuse Act. We specifically held that "a sexual assault does not establish a family or household relationship, thus subjecting the parties to domestic relations law." Id., 928 A.2d at 315. We further observed:

We must not lose sight of the fact that the Act was passed because the criminal law was sometimes an inadequate mechanism for dealing with violence that arose in the intimate environs of domestic life. Applying the Act to Appellant would not protect a victim of domestic violence because Appellee was not the victim of domestic violence. Also, since there has been no domestic abuse, a PFA order would not prevent domestic abuse from recurring. Similarly, subjecting Appellant to a PFA order would in no way help to cultivate peace or safety in a household troubled by familial violence because the parties to this case do not and did not share a household or similar interaction. It is not within our authority to expand the Act beyond the arena in which it was intended to operate.
…[O]ur interpretation means that persons who choose to have intimate or sexual relationships are within the purview of the domestic relations law. …
Also relevant is the fact that the criminal law already affords protection from harassment, stalking, assault and a multitude of other crimes. The Legislature has not determined that the criminal law is inadequate to deal with interactions between an assailant and a victim who are not in a family setting.

Id., at 315-316.

Given our review of the record, and applying pertinent case law to the facts before us, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that the parties were "intimate partners." Accordingly, Appellee lacked standing to pursue the PFA action against Appellant, such that we reverse the August 23, 2012 order.

Order reversed. Jurisdiction relinquished.

Judgment Entered.

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