Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)
314.727.4880

Can You Protect Yourself From a Spurned Suitor That Won’t Let Go?

Last week, I wrote about how Orders of Protection issued under Missouri’s Adult Abuse Act have been used to safeguard one adult from another in relationships that are strictly business or platonic. As an example, I told how Ray Vinson, of American Equity Mortgage and a party to the very contentious Vinson v Vinson divorce mêlée, used the adult abuse statute to have a protective order issued against his wife’s bodyguard and lover, Joe Adams, on the basis that Mr. Adams had stalked and threatened him physically.

 

Mr. Vinson was not the typical victim in that those seeking the law’s protection are mostly current or former spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends, or related family members. Indeed, it is these very personal relationships that the law was designed for. The statute says very specifically that only victims of abuse by “present or former adult family or household members”, a group that the law defines as including current/former romantic interests or lovers, can apply for its protection.

 

However, the statute lists one exception: victims of “stalking” may also apply. To do so, though, the petitioner has to prove that they are target of an “unwanted course of conduct” that would reasonably cause “fear of danger of physical harm”. Since Vinson and Adams had no other prior relationship, it was Adam’s threats to Vinson’s physical safety, as alleged by Vinson, that qualified Vinson for the protective order.

 

I believe the requirement to prove a threat to one’s physical safety by stalking victims is a more difficult burden than that the typical applicant, such as a current/former spouse or lover, faces. In those situations, the spouse/lover needs only show that they were “harassed” by the other adult and that they suffered “substantial emotional distress” as a result. (Of course, actual battery by the stalker or by the spouse/lover would automatically qualify the victim for a protective order, as well as exposing the perpetrator to other criminal and civil penalties as well.)

 

So, why is the narrow targeting of the adult abuse law and the fine distinctions it draws between “stalking” and “harassment” important? It leaves a group of harassment victims, often women, in legal limbo. As strictly interpreted, if you have a relationship with someone, like a business associate or prospective suitor, that never became romantic or intimate, and you want to break it off, you have no recourse under the statute if the other party won’t let go. No matter how many unwanted telephone calls, emails, surprise visits, etc. etc., and no matter how emotionally distressing and disruptive the harassment becomes, you won’t qualify under the adult abuse act because, ironically, you didn’t ever take the relationship to a romantic or intimate level. Unless, he/she gives you a reasonable basis for fearing for your physical safety and you can claim to be a “stalking” victim, you could be out of luck.

 

But, there could be a glimmer of hope in a little publicized opinion issued in October 2003 by the Eastern District of Missouri Court of Appeals. It upheld an order of protection issued against the chairman of an ambulance company on behalf of one of its female employees. The relationship between the two was strictly business and the Court found, formally, that the employee was a victim of “stalking”. However, in doing so, it seemed to merge the definitions of “stalking” and harassment”, writing that “stalking” includes repeatedly harassing another adult and citing the victim’s “emotional distress” as well as her fear for her physical safety as the basis for its decision to uphold the order. Whether lower courts follow the drift of the language in this decision remains to be seen.