Tuesday, December 28, 2010
C.A. Upholds Injunction in Threat Against Commissioner
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal yesterday affirmed a ruling that bars an Iraq War veteran with post-trumatic stress disorder from coming within 50 yards of a court commissioner who ruled against him in family law matters.
Div. One, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Sandra Margulies, upheld the injunction that bars Norman Valdez Jr. from coming near Commissioner Vincent Lechowick or the jurist’s home or place of business.
The panel rejected the defendant’s denials of having made a credible threat, and his argument that an injunction was unnecessary because he was seeking treatment for PTSD and had not threatened or otherwise harassed Lechowick in the 18 months between his arrest on a criminal threats charge and the issuance of the order.
Lechowick, a retired Mendocino Superior Court judge who became a commissioner in Lake County, heard several motions regarding Valdez and his child support obligations. After the Court of Appeal, in March 2008, affirmed the commissioner’s denial of a motion to reduce the payments, Lechowick told his wife he intended to kill the bench officer.
Lisa Valdez , a nurse, called the National Veterans Suicide Hotline, based in New York, and said she was afraid that losing the appeal had exacerbated her husband’s PTSD and asked if the operator could help. Her husband came on the line and told the operator he was “ready to kill a judge.”
The operator called the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, which then called the Valdez home. The dispatcher verified that it was Valdez she was speaking to, and he told her he was not suicidal but that he intended to “kill the judge” whom he identified by name, because he had been “screwed over again” by the appellate court.
He added that it would “be slow and painful with him,” but he told the dispatcher he was not “wanting to do that today.” He then gave the phone to his wife, who said she was unsure what her husband was going to do.
A sheriff’s deputy appeared on the scene. According to his subsequent testimony, Valdez said several times he intended to kill the commissioner, and the deputy arrested him, believing the threat to be serious. The threats, the deputy added, continued after Valdez was told he was under arrest for criminal death threats.
The criminal case resulted in the issuance of a protective order. In addition, the Administrative Office of the Courts petitioned in August 2009 for an injunction under the Workplace Violence Safety Act.
The act is a companion to the Code of Civil Procedure’s provisions permitting an individual to use simplified and expedited processes to seek an injunction against harassment or violence. It permits the employer of a threatened individual to seek the same types of injunctive relief in order to protect the employee from violence at work or for reasons that are work-related.
After hearing testimony from Lechowick—who said he had delayed seeking a civil injunction because he thought the criminal proceedings would resolve the problem, but that they had proceeded too slowly—and reviewing transcripts and tapes of both the hotline and Sheriff’s Department calls, Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil, sitting on assignment, granted the injunction, which keeps the defendant 50 yards from the commissioner, and from the courthouse other than when necessary to attend hearings.
Margulies, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the injunction was supported by substantial evidence, rejecting the argument that a single act could not support an injunction under the statute.
She acknowledged that the original anti-harassment law, Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 527.6, required proof of a “pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts.” But the law has since been amended to permit an injunction based on a single statement, if it would place a reasonable person in fear for his or her safety, the jurist noted, and the workplace act permits an employer to obtain an injunction whenever such a threat is made against an employee.
The law, she emphasized, does not require a specific statement that the defendant intends to carry out the threat at the workplace. It is sufficient that the threat arises out of the threatened person’s work, that the contact leading to the threat occurred at the victim’s workplace, and that the defendant would have access to the victim at work in the absence of the injunction, Margulies explained.
That there had been no recent problems did not preclude the issuance of the order, the jurist went on to explain, because it could be inferred Valdez was still angry at the time of the hearing.
“Lechowick testified Valdez was trying to stare him down at the hearing. When Valdez was asked at the hearing whether he might become even angrier at Lechowick if he was found guilty on the criminal charges, Valdez at first refused to answer the question, citing the Fifth Amendment. When the court ordered him to respond, Valdez said, ‘I don’t plan to. I’ve tried to move on, and as soon as everything is over I’m leaving this state.’ When coupled with the fact Valdez never apologized to Lechowick for the harm caused by the threat itself, and never made an unambiguous statement disavowing his threat, the trial court could properly infer that Valdez was still angry at Lechowick and blamed him for the legal jeopardy in which he found himself. Although Lechowick was no longer making decisions affecting Valdez or his former wife after May 2008, there remains a very real possibility Valdez will hold Lechowick responsible if he loses his criminal case or suffers other setbacks in his life. Valdez’s treatment for PTSD, while positive, does not in itself compel the denial of an injunction. There was no competent evidence before the court that the impulsive rage his wife Lisa attributed to that condition has been substantially alleviated by the treatment he is receiving.”
The case is Administrative Office of the Courts v. Valdez, A127094.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company