In a narrow ruling addressing attorney fees in a repeat domestic violence case, the Florida Supreme Court split 4-3 in favor of fees, but dissenters worried about wider implications for victims.
The majority focused on sanctions for filing frivolous claims in a case where a woman was accused of perjuring herself on a request for a protective injunction for domestic violence before dropping the request.
The trial court denied Sean Hall’s request for fees, and mid-level appellate courts that addressed the question split 2-1 on fees.
In dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente predicted “a chilling effect” on victims seeking stay-away orders “that are critical to their safety and well-being.” She said the majority’s decision “may now be used to intimidate” victims “out of fear that the petitioner’s claims may be deemed frivolous.”
The decision comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement emboldening victims of sexual harassment to report their experiences, often after years of silence.
Justice C. Alan Lawson wrote for the majority, and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston concurred. They concluded the law does not prohibit fees.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Peggy Quince agreed with Pariente. She concluded the “result could never have been intended by the Legislature,” and she urged lawmakers to clarify their position.
Lopez’s attorney, Michael Yokan of Jacksonville, said he raised the question of negative fallout from an authorization of legal fees during arguments, and Pariente addressed his concern.
He also noted the Legislature passed a bill in 2017 barring fees in domestic violence cases, and he expects state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez to pursue a parallel bill to extend the fee ban to repeat domestic violence and stalking cases like Lopez’s.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said: “Let’s face it, today’s decision will mainly impact women who are victims of domestic violence — and the protection for women is now weakened. Not only will they need to muster the courage to defy a bully and seek a protective order, but the practical effect of today’s decision is that a woman could face responsibility for attorney fees if her request for a protective order is denied.”
With the Legislature in session now, he said, “They can fix it.”
Yokan noted the merits of Lopez’s request were not addressed, and he denied her complaint was frivolous.
Hall was represented by Earl M. Johnson Jr. in Jacksonville, who had no immediate response to the decision.