If you are ever the victim of harassment, Massachusetts law affords you protection under G.L.c.258E otherwise commonly referred to as the Harassment Prevention Order statute. This statute affords individual broad protection and permits an aggrieved party with an avenue to obtain a court order preventing the harassing or abusing party from harassing, abusing, contacting, or coming within a certain distance of the plaintiff or from going to the plaintiff's residence or workplace. In certain circumstances, the statute has broad enough reach to afford monetary compensation for losses suffered by an aggrieved individual as a direct result of the harassment. This statute, unlike its cousin, G.L.c.209A "the Abuse Protection Statute", cannot provide an order to vacate the home, or custody, visitation, or support orders which are normally matters associated with domestic relations cases.
1. What do I have to show to get relief under the statute? The harassed party must show a pattern of abuse or harassment that consists of at least three acts of willful and malicious behavior targeted at a plaintiff with "the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or property damage." The statute imposes a further burden on an aggrieved party by requiring that party to prove that they were, in fact, fearful, intimidated, or abused or that their property was damaged. As well, the statute permits protection in situations where through only a single act, a defendant through either force, duress, or threat, caused another to involuntarily engage in sexual relations. These orders can be obtained against a wide array of people including co-workers, clergy, stalkers, and neighbors. In my experience, the largest area for harassment orders is in the employment context, followed by landlord-tenant and then neighbor disputes.
As there is no bright-line standard set forth in the statute as to what specifically constitutes abuse it is then it becomes a subjective determination. To this end, a trial judge will take into consideration a totality of factors including the age of the parties, the position of the parties, the prior history between the parties, prior criminal records if applicable, propensity toward violence and, perhaps most importantly, the credibility of the parties.
2. How do I file a complaint? In applying for a harassment order, the plaintiff can file a complaint in either the district court, municipal court, superior court, or juvenile court in Massachusetts. The complaint can be obtained at any one of the above-mentioned courts and is available in a pre-printed form at the clerk's office. Along with completing the complaint, the plaintiff is also required to submit an affidavit outlining the facts and circumstances that comprise the harassment and/or abuse. The affidavit should be set forth in detail and preferably be organized in numbered paragraphs so as to make it easier to read and understand. The plaintiff must disclose to the court whether there are any prior or pending actions between the parties. If that is the case, judges usually take this into consideration as to whether a harassment prevention order should be granted.
3. Do I get a hearing after I file a complaint? Yes. Every complainant who files a harassment prevention order complaint is automatically entitled to a hearing. At the hearing, you will present your case to a judge and certain findings will be made based on the affidavit and any supporting testimony. At the hearing, and in order to satisfy the requirements of the statute, you will need to show by a preponderance of the evidence that 1.) You were harassed at least three times and that the harassment was directed specifically at you 2.) Each act was willful and malicious in nature 3.) Each act was done with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or property damage and 4.) That each act complained of directly caused you fear and intimidation. You are required to meet each of the four requirements. Additionally, a complaining party may have witnesses testify on his behalf, but should only produce witnesses that have first-hand knowledge of the underlying facts of the case.
4. Once an order is entered, how long does it last? The length of an order will last as long as the judge orders it. Of course, this will vary depending on the circumstances in each and every case. If a judge extends the order beyond the initial ten-day period if the order is granted without notice to a defendant, then a court can extend the original order up to and including a year. A court can also, under certain circumstances, place a shorter period of time on any such order so as to allow a full evidentiary hearing to determine whether the initial order should be extended or vacated. A court can also issue a permanent restraining order after the first year. Any such permanent restraining order will be issued only in the rarest of cases and in the most serious of situations.
5. Going from a civil offense to a criminal violation. Any initial order issued under this statute is civil in nature. However, a violation of terms of the statute, as under G.L.c.209A, will convert the case from a civil action into a criminal offense and thus punishable by two and a half years in the house of corrections and/or a fine of up to $5,000.00.
If you are in need of obtaining an order or you are on the receiving end of an order, please call the Katz Law Group. We have handled many of these matters and are well versed in what it takes to obtain orders and/or defend against them. We have successfully vacated orders and expunged records for our clients. Our experience is what makes the difference in achieving successful results for our clients so call us at 1-508-480-8202.