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Is angrily swearing at your spouse domestic violence? Under a recent California law, it could be.
In September 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed several bills intended to enhance protections for survivors of abuse. One of them, which was enacted in part because of an increase in isolation-related domestic violence amid the pandemic, allows a party to request a restraining order in response to not only things like assault, battery, destruction of property and harassment but also if someone is destroying “the mental or emotional calm of the other party.”
The new standard, which became effective Jan. 1, 2021, also adds to the family law code “coercive control,” which is behavior that “unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” That includes, but isn’t limited to, isolating someone from family and friends; depriving them of basic necessities; controlling their movement, communications or finances; and using threats or intimidation to compel their conduct.
Sen. Susan Rubio, who introduced the bill, wrote in an Aug. 27, 2020, op-ed: “My bill expands protections for survivors by allowing them to describe their abuser’s coercive control, which includes psychologically damaging and abusive behavior, as supporting evidence in family court hearings and criminal trials. It reflects the reality of domestic violence.”
One group taking issue with the new standard, however, is Hollywood divorce lawyers. To be clear, the attorneys THR spoke with agree that nonphysical abuse and coercive control are very real problems. Within the confines of Hollywood divorces, though, they feel the broad language of the well-intentioned standard allows it to be misused in a post-#MeToo environment where public allegations against high-profile figures spread like wildfire.
“Clearly there’s a reason we have domestic violence statutes. They’re intended to protect people who have been truly victimized,” says Kristina Royce, one of Hollywood’s go-to divorce attorneys. “With the #MeToo movement being as vigilant as it is, people are getting fired or demoted even if there are allegations with no support. And because the [new] standard is so low, it’s an opportunity for people to use domestic violence as leverage. It is a perfect storm.”
Though not a direct result of the #MeToo reckoning, the heightened concerns about optics that followed it and this recent redefining of domestic violence are making negotiations tougher for divorce lawyers in contentious splits involving famous spouses.
Royce says she’s already seen it weaponized in custody battles. California generally favors a 50-50 split, but a domestic violence claim could help the alleged victim secure sole custody. One of Royce’s clients, a director, was threatened with a false claim, she says. “The #MeToo movement put him on a heightened alert,” says Royce. “He doesn’t want to fight it because it would be publicized. Even though it’s all false, he feels he has to succumb.”
To Daniel Jaffe — who represented Nicole Brown Simpson in her divorce from O.J. at a time when “the police and courts really weren’t enforcing domestic violence cases against celebrities” — the new standard seems like an overcorrection. “One of my clients was found to have committed domestic violence by shouting obscenities at her spouse because it disturbed his peace,” he says. “All it does is crowd up the courthouse.”
And domestic violence restraining orders are tracked by the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.
“If you get a CLETS order it goes on the police blotter, and it’s a pain for celebrities,” says Jaffe. “It’s a really big deal. It could definitely interfere with your career.”
Adds family law attorney Kimia Klein, “A domestic violence filing is a matter of public record. The scary thing is not only could it affect you civilly through the family law courts, but it could also affect you criminally. The DA could investigate you. You do see people use that as leverage, not just for custody, but also to gain an upper hand in spousal support.”
Judy Poller, a New York-based attorney who reps A-listers, has seen a similar trend there. In 2020, the state specifically added domestic violence as a factor for the courts to consider in determining the distribution of marital property.
“The hard thing with all of this is there are really good reasons to have these factors,” says Poller. “It’s a balancing act of what’s real and what’s self-serving. The issue of domestic violence is often used as leverage, or extortion, because the consequences of the information getting out can be really devastating in an employment situation.”
Poller says she currently has a case where her client’s soon-to-be ex-wife has made unfounded claims about bad behavior, knowing that it would impact his ability to find work as studios and networks remain highly sensitive to public allegations. “The anxiety it puts in the person is awful,” she says. “People will agree to numbers and custody arrangements because of the fear.”
Threatening an ex-spouse’s professional reputation can backfire with regard to spousal support, however. “Not only are you taking this nuclear and you’re never going to have a good co-parenting relationship with your spouse, but if you hurt their career, how are you going to get support?” asks Royce.
Adds Poller, “Why would anybody take the risk of cutting off their income stream? You’re killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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