While most couples enter into a divorce hoping to complete the process as amicably as possible, that is not always the case. Whether due to disagreements over money, accusations of cheating or other offensive conduct, or battles over custody, a Wisconsin divorce can quickly turn ugly. Name-calling and fights over possessions are one thing, but when a spouse’s actions go from that to verbal or physical harassment, it may be time to get a court involved.
In Zernia v. Zernia, Sharon Zernia did just that. After experiencing harassment from her ex-husband, she sought an injunction to stop any further harassing behavior. Sharon and John Zernia divorced in 2011, and the process was a very contentious one. Several years later, in 2015, John approached the Pastor at the church that Sharon and her family attended, and he had several meetings with the Pastor to alert him to immoral conduct in which he believed Sharon had engaged, including stealing items from his home and being a “sadly mentally ill” mother. John also printed and distributed 110 flyers at Sharon’s church that also made these allegations about Sharon. After Sharon learned of the flyers, she petitioned the court for an injunction against John to keep him from coming near her and from further harassing her.
At the injunction hearing, John argued that he did not intend to hurt Sharon but was merely acting in accordance with his Catholic beliefs, which required him to alert the church to Sharon’s allegedly immoral behavior. Sharon testified that she was alarmed by John’s behavior and was worried for her safety. The lower court found that while John’s efforts to reach out to Sharon’s Pastor were not harassing, the flyers that he left on cars were. Since there was no legitimate purpose to the flyers, the court granted Sharon an injunction against John. John appealed.
On appeal, John argued his actions in placing 110 flyers on cars constituted only one actual act and were not a course of conduct under the harassment statute. He also argued that there was not sufficient evidence of his intent to harm Sharon. Under Wisconsin law, a court may grant a harassment injunction if the court finds that an individual engaged in harassment with the intent to harass or intimidate. Harassment further requires engaging in a course of conduct rather than one isolated act.
First, the Court of Appeals rejected John’s argument that placing 110 flyers on cars was not a course of conduct but an isolated act. It found that each time John placed an additional flyer on a different car, he engaged in a different act of harassment, and this was sufficient under the statute to create a course of conduct. Second, the Court found that John had acted with an intent to harass and that the lower court was correct in concluding that John’s religious beliefs did not insulate his harassing behavior. While the Court acknowledged that John has a right to free speech and religion, it found that this does not allow him to freely harass other individuals. Given that the evidence supported the conclusion that John had intended to harm Sharon, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s finding.
Although conflicts and anger can arise in any divorce, lines must be drawn in order to ensure your own protection. If you feel that your spouse or ex-spouse is crossing those lines by engaging in conduct that is verbally, emotionally, or physically harassing, you may want to consider getting an injunction.
If you are considering divorce or are recently divorced and are concerned about possible harassing behavior by your former spouse, you should discuss options for seeking protection with an experienced Milwaukee divorce attorney as soon as possible. To speak with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.