Law School Case Brief
Bunting v. Bunting - No. COA18-839, 2019 N.C. App. LEXIS 607 (Ct. App. July 16, 2019)
Any person residing in North Carolina may seek relief under N.C. Gen. Stat. ch. 50B by filing a civil action or by filing a motion in any existing action filed under N.C. Gen. Stat. ch. 50B alleging acts of domestic violence against himself or herself or a minor child who resides with or is in the custody of such person. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50B-2(a) (2018). If a court finds that an act of domestic violence has occurred, the court shall grant a protective order restraining the defendant from further acts of domestic violence. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50B-3(a) (2018). Although N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50B-3(a) (2018) states that a trial court must "find" that an act of domestic violence has occurred, in fact this is a conclusion of law. Domestic violence is defined as placing the aggrieved party or a member of the aggrieved party's family or household in fear of imminent serious bodily injury or continued harassment, as defined in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-277.3A (2018), that rises to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50B-1(a)(2) (2018).
When considering whether competent evidence supports a trial court's finding that a person seeking a domestic violence protective order has suffered emotional distress, upon review of a trial court's findings of fact, an appellate court is strictly limited to determining whether the underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence. Competent evidence, in the form of victim testimony and a detailed history of domestic violence, supports a court's finding that an act of domestic violence occurred. "Substantial emotional distress" is defined as significant mental suffering or distress that may, but does not necessarily, require medical or other professional treatment or counseling. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-277.3A(b)(4) (2018).
Plaintiff Christy King Bunting and defendant Michael Joe Bunting were divorced in 2008 after 10 years of marriage. The parties had two children. For those 10 years, defendant had a history of multiple domestic violence protective orders ("DVPO"). Eventually, Plaintiff was granted sole legal and physical custody of the children, and allowed defendant to have one, two-hour supervised visit per month with the children at a family visitation center. Defendant was not allowed any written, verbal, telephonic, or electronic contact with the minor children plaintiff. Despite this, defendant continued to text plaintiff. In 2017, the trial court entered an ex parte DVPO. Defendant appealed the protection order arguing that the six text messages did not constitute harassment because the text messages, that discussed the children, served a legitimate purpose, there was no evidence that plaintiff suffered from substantial emotional distress, and the trial court's conclusion of law that defendant committed acts of domestic violence was erroneous and not supported by adequate findings of fact.
Did the trial court properly issue the DVPO?
The court held that defendant's text messages to plaintiff supported a domestic violence protective order because, as he had no custody of the parties' children, his messages allegedly concerning the children served no legitimate purpose. The evidence likewise showed that she suffered substantial emotional distress due to the text messages because she testified that his repeated contact caused her to feel terror, to change her housing arrangements, and to alter her daily routine. Lastly, the court held that adequate findings supported the trial court's conclusion that defendant committed acts of domestic violence because, based on detailed evidence, the court made specific findings of his history of domestic violence against the mother and his repeated harassment of her in violation of a court order.
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