What is "Reasonable Fear" in a Pennsylvania PFA Case?

Posted by Joseph Lento | Jan 09, 2017 | 0 Comments

Alleged abuse against another person can come in various forms: domestic violence; spousal abuse, or child abuse for example.  The most common reason why a final Protection from Abuse order is issued against an accused person is that the victim of alleged abuse, most commonly the plaintiff him or herself, sufficiently demonstrated to Family Court that he or she suffered "abuse" by being "placed in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily harm."  This language is taken directly from the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act; codified by statute at 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6101.  In Pennsylvania, Protection from Abuse cases are commonly referred to as "PFA" cases.

The Protection from Abuse Act in Pennsylvania is the law that governs how domestic violence cases are initiated, addressed, and adjudicated.  The Act governs domestic violence cases throughout Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester County.  Although each Pennsylvania county often has variations in how domestic violence cases proceed, accomplished through "Local" Rules of Pennsylvania Civil Procedure enacted by individual counties, these "Local" Rules must conform with the overarching Protection from Abuse Act. 

Because the most common basis for a final PFA to be entered against a defendant, whether facing a PFA case in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester County, an examination of what is "reasonable fear" will help an accused person best defend against domestic violence allegations.

What is Considered to be "Placing Another in Reasonable Fear of Imminent Bodily Harm" in Pennsylvania?

It is well understood by Pennsylvania PFA attorneys that the Pennsylvania PFA Act specifically defines "abuse," under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6102, as "placing another in reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury."  Because Pennsylvania statutory "law" often only affords a narrow explanation of what the actual law entails, a related consideration is order.

Although PFA trials take place in the applicable Pennsylvania county's Family Court, a division within the county's "Court of Common Pleas," Pennsylvania "appellate" courts, namely, the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts, are the courts largely responsible for interpreting the particular provisions of Pennsylvania statutory law, in this case, the Pennsylvania PFA Act, and how the law relates to specific factual scenarios that come before the trial court; which, in PFA cases, is the applicable Pennsylvania county's Court of Common Pleas.  Since the PFA Act was enacted, Pennsylvania appellate court decisions have interpreted and defined what specifically will be considered to be "placing another in reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm."  Because of the structure of Pennsylvania's judicial system, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania will most often be the appellate court that addresses PFA appeals, and a selection of Superior Court PFA appeal cases follows:

Can Phone Calls be Considered "Abuse" in a PFA Case in Pennsylvania?

It is possible for a person to be placed in reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury based upon phone calls made by the PFA defendant, when the calls are coupled with the alleged abuser's past history of violence.  Hood-O'Hara v. Wills, 873 A.2d 757 (Pa.Super 2005).

Is Physical Violence Required for a Final PFA Order to be Issued Against a Defendant in a PFA Case in Pennsylvania?

In one case where the issuance of a final Protection from Abuse order was appealed, the trial court initially found that abuse occurred, as 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6102(a)(2(, when the husband placed the wife in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.  The husband contended that the finding of abuse based on a reasonable fear of serious bodily injury requires more than "screaming" and "wall punching" and that there must be physical contact with the victim. 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed with the husband' argument, and declared that the latest amendment of Section 6102(a)(2) of the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act provides that the victim's fear of serious bodily injury must simply be reasonable and does not call for actual physical violence.  The Court added that while physical contact may occur, it is not a prerequisite for a finding of abuse under Section 6102(a)(2) of the Act.  Fonner v. Fonner, 731 A.2d 160 (Pa.Super. 1999).

If There Is No Bodily Injury or Other Physical Abuse, Can a PFA Be Issued in Pennsylvania?

The Pennsylvania Superior Court closely examined the living arrangements of the plaintiff and defendant in the following PFA appeal to determine if a PFA can be granted if the plaintiff does not claim bodily injury or other physical abuse. 

In this case, the husband and wife owned a duplex at 293-295 Pine Street and had lived together in the 293 Pine Street side, while renting out the 295 Pine Street side.  When the husband and wife separated, the wife took her daughter and moved to an apartment.  When the tenant at 295 Pine Street moved out, the wife, through her attorney, informed the husband of her intention to move into the 295 Pine Street portion of the duplex. 

A door in the basement connected the two sides of the duplex.  The wife had three eye hooks installed on her side of the basement door to keep the husband from entering where she was living.  At about 2 AM on a date in question, the husband entered the wife's kitchen, gaining entrance through the basement door.  At the PFA trial, the wife also testified to other incidents that had taken place between her and her husband, during which she was threatened or intimidated.  The trial court entered a final protection order, recognizing that a protection order may be entered where the victim, in this case, the wife, reasonably fears serious bodily injury.  The husband raised the question on appeal that where there is no bodily injury or other physical abuse, can a trial court enter a PFA order based on the grounds that the other party experienced a subjective fear of some unspecified risk.

Pennsylvania law holds that when a claim is presented of appeal that the evidence was not sufficient to support a Protection from Abuse order, the appellate court will review the evidence in the light most favorable to the petitioner and, granting that person the benefit of all reasonable inferences, determine whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the trial court's conclusion by a preponderance of the evidence.  This will be the case if the PFA trial took place in Philadelphia, Norristown, Media, Doylestown, West Chester, or anywhere in Pennsylvania.

In this case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that in the context of a PFA case, the court's objective is to determine whether the victim of the alleged abuse is in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury, which is exactly the conclusion arrived at by the trial court.  The trial court explained that it believed that anyone would be in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury "upon finding an unexpected guest in the home" at 2 AM.  Where the evidence believed by the PFA trial court was sufficient to establish that, due to the husband's actions, the wife was in reasonable fear of bodily harm, the trial court's order was correct, and was  therefore affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  Raker v. Raker, 847 A.2d 720 (Pa.Super. 2004).

Southeast Pennsylvania PFA Attorney | Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, & Chester County

Protection from Abuse cases in Pennsylvania often are decided based on what is considered to be "reasonable fear," and the stakes are high in PFA cases for both plaintiffs and defendants, and at times, children when involved in such matters.  The proper legal reasoning, in addition to the arguments made to the court, can make all the difference in the world in a domestic violence case; namely, the court's decision whether to issue a PFA order, or to deny such a request

Plaintiffs of course seeking protection need to make sure that everything that can be done to obtain a final PFA is done so that they or their loved ones can be protected from potential future abuse.  Defendants, however, at times arguably have more to lose.  Defendants facing allegations of domestic violence, spousal abuse, or child abuse must make sure that their interests are protected because when a PFA is issued against a defendant, the consequences can be severe and long-term.  These consequences can affect not only a defendant's employment and professional and academic goals, but also their child custody rights and their basic constitutional rights; where they call home and their right to own or possess a firearm, among others.  In addition, if a Protection from Abuse order is granted against a defendant, violating a PFA can result in additional consequences yet, including criminal charges and the prospect of jail time. 

Knowing the law is only half the battle; getting your position heard and recognized in PFA court is also critical to success.  Ultimately, a Pennsylvania PFA attorney experienced with PFA practice and procedure in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester County can help protect an accused person's interests and defend his or her rights.  Contact our Family Law Team today to learn how we can help.

About the Author

Joseph Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a veteran of one of the nation's busiest family courts with nearly 20 years' experience passionately helping families. By day, he worked in the trenches of family court, and at night, he studied the law. He helped countless families while working at family court, and he went on to become an attorney, dedicating his law practice to continuing the work he started years earlier. Mr. Lento's experience both behind the scenes and on the front lines allows him to understand a client's family law matter from all angles, and allows him to find and employ the most effective strategies to get favorable outcomes for any client. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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