At what point is it possible to terminate a permanent abuse prevention order issued pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws chapter 209A? What qualifies as a significant change of circumstances for termination? The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently addressed these questions in a case titled L.L. v. M.M. The case involved a married couple dating back a couple of decades. In 2000, an emergency ex parte restraining order was issued against the defendant. The order required him to surrender his firearms to local police and not to abuse the plaintiff. It instructed him not to contact her directly or indirectly. Further, it instructed him to stay one hundred yards away from her and her children.

Background:

At the time the restraining order was granted, the couple had been married for about two and a half years. The plaintiff testified that her husband had been physically and sexually abusive and had threatened to kill her if she divorced him. On the particular date detailed in the plaintiff’s affidavit, the defendant came to the plaintiff’s house. He became argumentative, refused to leave, and hit the plaintiff in the face with a dozen roses. As the defendant finally began to leave, the plaintiff threw the roses at his car, then went back inside her home. The defendant then aimed his vehicle at the plaintiff’s eleven-year-old daughter and tried to run her over. Neighborhood children and adults witnessed this incident.

The court extended the initial ex parte restraining order for a year, then extended it again. In 2002, the court made the order permanent.

Change of circumstances?

Fast forward to 2016. The defendant filed a motion seeking to terminate the restraining order because of a change of circumstances. In support, the defendant claimed that he had moved to Nevada, had no contact with the plaintiff for more than fourteen years, and had been married to a different woman since 2010. The defendant also claimed that his current wife was from the Philippines and had dual citizenship. Whenever they traveled overseas—which was frequently—U.S. Customs and Border officials stopped and questioned him at length. Furthermore, the defendant claimed that he worked as a commercial truck driver. His company did much of its business on federal government and prison worksites. As a result of the restraining order, neither the defendant nor his company could work on certain sites.

At the hearing, the plaintiff testified that she continued to fear for her life. She stated that she didn’t know what the defendant would do next. Further, she testified that he previously violated the restraining order numerous times. The plaintiff added: “that piece of paper is the only thing that keeps me from looking over my shoulder 24/7; and it has for 14 years, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Decision:

The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion to terminate the restraining order, and the defendant appealed. The Appeals Court upheld the trial court’s decision. The Court noted that in order to terminate the order, the defendant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that, as a result of a significant change in circumstances, it is no longer equitable for the order to continue, because the protected party no longer has a reasonable fear of imminent serious physical harm.

“To prove that he had truly ‘moved on with his life,’ the defendant in this case needed to demonstrate not only that he has moved on to another relationship but that he has ‘moved on’ from his history of domestic abuse and retaliation,” the Court noted. “In the present case, while the defendant did submit criminal record information from both Massachusetts and NCIC, there is no affidavit from local police, and no affidavit or testimony from his current wife.  On this record, it is impossible to say whether the defendant has resolved his problems with domestic abuse or merely become more adept at hiding them.” Because the defendant failed to prove this, the Court refused to terminate the restraining order.

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