How about a substantive date?

Posted on January 14th, 2007, by Dmitry Lev

How about a substantive date?

How about not. In Massachusetts, a 209A domestic abuse restraining orders can be issued only when the alleged abuser is a “family or household member.” Interestingly enough, that short definition also includes those who “are or have been in a substantive dating or engagement relationship,” whether or not they are actual household members. What exactly is a substantive dating relationship was explored recently by the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion on the matter of Sullivan v. Watkins, 05-P-1552 (November 15, 2006).

The court set out some rather concrete factors for determining whether a relationship is, in fact, a substantial one. Whether the justices of the court apply this reasoning to their personal lives will for now remain a judicial secret. Meanwhile the factors are: 1) the length of time of the relationship; 2) the type of relationship; 3) the frequency of interaction between the parties, and 4) if the relationship has been terminated by either person, the length of time that elapsed since the termination. Further, judicial guidelines encourage judges to give the term “substantive dating relationship” a broad meaning in order to achieve the statute’s purpose.

As the story is told, Plaintiff Shawna Sullivan was seeking a 209A Restraining Order against one Paul Watkins. On the record, Sullivan stated that the two “went out here and there” and had “gone out to eat plenty of times.” Well, the meals must not have been particularly memorable, because Sullivan could not recall a single restaurant or occasion for their dates when asked. Apparently Sullivan’s allegations of fear of imminent physical harm did not include any evidence of Watkins ever having threatened her, neither physically nor verbally. Her affidavit in support of the ex-parte order was based solely on seeing Watkins’ truck driving by her house. According to the Court, “if anything, this record reveals a few casual dates.”

Bottom line: the 209A order was vacated by the Court of Appeals. What remains are two frightening thoughts. First, that Sullivan actually thought she could get a restraining order based on what pretty much amounted to nothing. Second, that Sullivan was right – she did get the order just as she sought. It was initially issued out of Malden District Court by, coincidentally, Judge Sullivan. (I presume that Plaintiff Shawna Sullivan and Judge Mark Sullivan are not related. If, by chance, they were, the judge should have immediately recused himself from the case.) The positive thought is that, once again, the recourse was a successful appeal, and kudos to Watkins for pursuing this matter all the way. Kudos also goes to the Court of Appeals: while their definition of substantive dating is a bit dry, they got this particular case just right.