L. H.-S. v. N. B.

Decision Date15 December 2021
Docket NumberSC 20596
Citation341 Conn. 483,267 A.3d 178
Parties L. H.-S. v. N. B.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Randi L. Calabrese, with whom, on the brief, was Zachary Mazza, certified legal intern, for the appellant (plaintiff).

A. Ryan McGuigan, for the appellee (defendant).

Robinson, C. J., and McDonald, D'Auria, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js.


In this public interest appeal, authorized pursuant to General Statutes § 52-265a, we are called on to clarify the standard courts must apply to determine whether an applicant for a civil protection order under General Statutes § 46b-16a1 has established the element of fear, which is necessary before such an order may issue. The plaintiff, L. H.-S., claims that the trial court improperly interpreted § 46b-16a as creating a subjective-objective fear standard, rather than a purely objective standard. She also claims that the trial court improperly interpreted the statute as limiting the time period for assessing her subjective fear and requiring proof of the intent of the defendant, N. B. Finally, the plaintiff claims that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in denying her application for a civil protection order by relying on clearly erroneous facts, (2) the trial court improperly excluded testimony regarding the defendant's requests for nude photographs of her, as well as testimony regarding his mental health history, and (3) § 46b-16a violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.2 We disagree with all of these claims and, accordingly, uphold the trial court's denial of the protective order.

The record and the findings set forth in the trial court's memorandum of decision disclose the following facts that are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. In March, 2020, the plaintiff and the defendant attended the same high school and became friends. At that time, the plaintiff was dating the defendant's best friend, J, and all three were part of the same group of friends who socialized together. The plaintiff also befriended the defendant's sister, C. In November, 2020, the plaintiff's mother smelled vaping fumes on the plaintiff and a group of her friends while driving them to a movie theater. The plaintiff's mother reported this incident to the other children's parents, causing the plaintiff's friends to become upset with her for "snitch[ing]" on them. Because of this incident and J's subsequent breakup with the plaintiff, she found herself ostracized from her group of friends. The defendant, however, who had not been part of the vaping incident, remained her friend, despite feeling pressure to pick between the plaintiff and J. Although the defendant and the plaintiff remained friends and continued to communicate, the defendant told the plaintiff that they could not socialize in public any longer.

On March 20, 2021, the plaintiff and C, who was in her bedroom at her house at the time, were talking to each other on FaceTime. As they were talking, the defendant came into C's bedroom and briefly joined the conversation. During this conversation, in response to the plaintiff's and C's teasing him that they were going to come and cheer him on at his upcoming volleyball game, the defendant told the plaintiff that he did not want her to go to the game. The defendant was bothered by the teasing because he thought that, if the plaintiff went to the game, J, who also was a member of the volleyball team, would be upset and that it would put the defendant in a difficult position with his group of friends. The defendant subsequently left C's bedroom and began sending texts to the plaintiff that read, among other things, "I'll shoot you," "[c]an't wait to kill your ass in school," "I got shooters on your ass," and other derogatory and threatening comments. For a portion of the time that the defendant sent these text messages, the plaintiff remained on FaceTime with C, reading the text messages aloud to her and laughing. The plaintiff responded to the texts with a variety of teasing comments along with various emojis and abbreviations that were slang for laughing. The trial court heard testimony from the plaintiff, the defendant and C that the defendant meant the texts as a joke and that the plaintiff knew the texts were intended as a joke. The defendant has not sent any text messages to the plaintiff since March 20, 2021. In fact, the defendant is no longer enrolled in the same high school as the plaintiff.

Four days after the text conversation at issue and after checking her daughter's phone, the plaintiff's mother discovered the defendant's text messages and called the police, who subsequently interviewed both the plaintiff and the defendant. After the police interviewed the defendant, his father voluntarily surrendered nine firearms that had been in their house. The plaintiff then applied for a civil protection order with an attached affidavit in which she averred that the text messages the defendant sent made her fear for her life and that this fear was based in part on her having learned that the defendant's father had guns in their house. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the application over the course of three days. The trial court subsequently issued a memorandum of decision in which it denied the application for a civil protective order on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to establish that she in fact feared for her physical safety. The plaintiff then sought certification to appeal under § 52-265a, which the Chief Justice granted. We will discuss additional facts and procedural history as necessary.

We first note that we agree with the Appellate Court that the same standard of review applies in the present case as in cases involving civil restraining orders under General Statutes § 46b-15. See, e.g., C. A. v. G. L. , 201 Conn. App. 734, 738–39, 243 A.3d 807 (2020) ; S. A. v. D. G. , 198 Conn. App. 170, 179, 232 A.3d 1110 (2020) ; Kayla M. v. Greene , 163 Conn. App. 493, 504, 136 A.3d 1 (2016). "Thus, we will not disturb a trial court's orders unless the court has abused its discretion or it is found that it could not reasonably conclude as it did, based on the facts presented.... In determining whether a trial court has abused its broad discretion ... we allow every reasonable presumption in favor of the correctness of its action." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Kayla M. v. Greene , supra, at 504, 136 A.3d 1. "Appellate review of a trial court's findings of fact is governed by the clearly erroneous standard of review.... [Questions] of law [however, are] entitled to plenary review on appeal." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.


The plaintiff's primary claim on appeal challenges the trial court's interpretation of the phrase "causes such person to reasonably fear for his or her physical safety" as clearly and unambiguously creating a subjective-objective standard for establishing fear under § 46b-16a.3 Specifically, as to the fear element under § 46b-16a, the trial court required the plaintiff to establish that she in fact feared for her physical safety, as well as that a reasonable person under the existing circumstances would fear for his or her own physical safety. The plaintiff argues that § 46b-16a is ambiguous with respect to this standard, that legislative history supports applying an objective-only standard, and that any other interpretation would yield an absurd or bizarre result. We are not persuaded.

Our review of this claim, which requires us to construe § 46b-16a, is plenary. See, e.g., 777 Residential, LLC v. Metropolitan District Commission , 336 Conn. 819, 827, 251 A.3d 56 (2020). In construing § 46b-16a, our analysis is guided by General Statutes § 1-2z, and, thus, we begin with the text of § 46b-16a. See id., at 827–29, 251 A.3d 56. Section 46b-16a (a) provides in relevant part that " ‘stalking’ means two or more wilful acts, performed in a threatening, predatory or disturbing manner of: Harassing, following, lying in wait for, surveilling, monitoring or sending unwanted gifts or messages to another person directly, indirectly or through a third person, by any method, device or other means, that causes such person to reasonably fear for his or her physical safety." (Emphasis added.)

Neither party disputes that the phrase "reasonably fear" creates an objective standard. Rather, the plaintiff's claim focuses on the meaning of the word "such," and, in particular, whether it adds a subjective element to the standard. The statute does not define either the term "such" or the phrase "such person." Therefore, we construe the term according to its "commonly approved usage"; General Statutes § 1-1 (a) ; "mindful of any peculiar or technical meaning it may have assumed in the law. We may find evidence of such usage, and technical meaning, in dictionary definitions, as well as by reading the statutory language within the context of the broader legislative scheme.... Additionally, we may look to prior case law defining the term at issue." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) 777 Residential, LLC v. Metropolitan District Commission , supra, 336 Conn. at 831, 251 A.3d 56.

The parties focus on the dictionary definition of the term "such," correctly noting that Black's Law Dictionary defines it as, "[o]f this or that kind ... [t]hat or those; having just been mentioned ...." Black's Law Dictionary (11th Ed. 2019) p. 1732; see also American Heritage College Dictionary (4th Ed. 2007) p. 1378 (defining "such" as "[o]f this kind," "[o]f a kind specified or implied," and "[o]f a degree or quality indicated"). According to the plaintiff, this definition confirms that "such" has two reasonable interpretations and is therefore ambiguous. Specifically, she contends that, under this definition, the phrase "such person" does not necessarily mean that the applicant herself or himself is fearful but may plausibly be interpreted to mean that "someone in the...

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