In 2010 the Massachusetts legislature made a significant change in the law when it created harassment prevention orders, restraining orders that plaintiffs can seek to protect themselves against harassing behavior regardless of their relationship to the harasser. (Before 2010, people seeking restraining orders in Massachusetts could receive protection only under an abuse prevention order, available only against abusers who are “family or household members” of the plaintiff seeking the order, a definition which includes anyone with whom the plaintiff has been in a serious dating relationship or with whom she has a child.) Because the harassment prevention law is relatively new, the state courts are still refining when these orders are and are not available. In the cases interpreting the law, it has become clear that the courts are struggling to strike a balance between protecting victims of real harassment from harm and unduly restricting free speech.
In a new decision issued this month in the case of Petriello v. Indresano, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has given courts considering whether to issue harassment prevention orders some important guidance, which should guide those seeking (or defending against) such orders going forward. The plaintiff in the case was an elderly woman’s representative acting under a power of attorney, seeking a restraining order against members of her deceased husband’s family. The plaintiff’s representative testified at the hearing, describing “constant . . . belittling, abuse.” The elderly woman had to go to the hospital due to apparent distress related to this conduct, and an outside investigation substantiated allegations of elder abuse against her. The district court issued a harassment protection order.