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Paulson v. Rankart

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

July 11, 2018

Michael Paulson, Appellant,
v.
Sarah Rankart, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Gulf County. John L. Fishel, II, Judge.

          Shannon L. Novey, Christin F. Gonzalez, and Jerome M. Novey of Novey Law, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Sarah Rankart, pro se, Appellee.

          RAY, J.

         Michael Paulson raises two independent grounds for reversal of the stalking injunction entered against him. First, he contends the trial court erred in issuing the injunction because the petitioner, Sarah Rankart, failed to demonstrate that an incident of harassment occurred within six months of the petition. We disagree on this point because the plain language of the statute does not require such a showing. However, we agree with Mr. Paulson's second argument that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the injunction.

         Facts

         Mr. Paulson and Ms. Rankart are neighbors in the small town of Port St. Joe. Ms. Rankart lives in a community of "cottages" adjacent to Mr. Paulson's home of thirty years. Ms. Rankart moved into her cottage in 2013.

         The testimony at the evidentiary hearing on the petition reflects a rocky relationship between the neighbors from the start. According to Ms. Rankart, she first met Mr. Paulson when he came to her cottage one evening and yelled at her to turn off her outdoor street-facing light. She turned off the light that evening but soon after turned it back on for security. After a few months with the light on, Mr. Paulson came back to her home and asked her "in a very rude tone" to build something around the light so it would not shine towards his home. Months later, she started receiving notices at her home from various authorities based on complaints by Mr. Paulson. She wondered each day whether she would come home to "a dog complaint or a light complaint." She explained that she was "just tired of this man getting to call the police on [her] just because of anything he wants to do."

         Ms. Rankart additionally claimed that Mr. Paulson would stare at her while she sunbathed on her deck, which made her very uncomfortable. He would watch her from his "tiny side deck" even though he had a "huge deck" with a beautiful view of the ocean. She also observed Mr. Paulson looking at utility meters on her street's boardwalk on three occasions and she did not "want him creeping around the meters." Ms. Rankart was scared that Mr. Paulson would be so angry and drunk one day that he would shoot one of her dogs. She suffers from general anxiety disorders and depression, and he "amplifies [her] anxiety." She explained, "that's what horrible neighbors do, you know, sometimes you just have to deal with it."

         According to Mr. Paulson, he never met Ms. Rankart before, did not know her, and did not want to know her. He admitted that he complained to code enforcement about her outdoor lights and complained to animal control and law enforcement about her barking dogs but explained that his complaints were focused on issues of noise and light pollution and were not directed towards Ms. Rankart or any specific person.

         The trial court concluded that Ms. Rankart's complaints about Mr. Paulson's calls and reports to authorities were insufficient under the law to support the entry of a stalking injunction. The court also rejected Mr. Paulson's argument that Ms. Rankart was required to establish that one of the incidents of harassment occurred within six months of the petition to satisfy her burden of proof. However, the court found that Ms. Rankart's unrebutted testimony concerning Mr. Paulson looking at her utility meters and watching her sunbathe was sufficient for the issuance of an injunction for protection against stalking. The court issued a judgment of injunction to be in effect for one year.[1]

         Analysis

         Section 784.0485, Florida Statutes (2016), provides for an injunction for protection against stalking. Stalking occurs when a person "willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person." § 784.048(2), Fla. Stat. (2016). To "harass" means "to engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose." § 784.048(1)(a), Fla. Stat. A "course of conduct" is "a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, which evidences a continuity of purpose." § 784.048(1)(b), Fla. Stat. In determining whether an incident causes "substantial emotional distress," ...


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