All’s fair in love and war? Not quite – especially in the age of social media. According to The Economist, the internet overtook other common meeting places for seeking romance (e.g., college, church, workplace, and even bars) as early as 2010. People are meeting and dating differently in the Cyber Age, and the law continues to adjust to the changes. State laws – old and new – apply to those seeking what some say is “all you need.”
On the criminal side, there are cyberstalking laws that prevent willful, repeated harassment of persons not wanting to explore a romantic relationship. There are also laws that prevent using private documentation of the particulars of relationships as a means of revenge once the relationship is over.
On the civil side, there are at least two areas of the law to keep in mind when pursuing romantic interests in the Internet Era. First, there are matchmaking laws. Matchmaking is an age-old profession according to Fiddler on the Roof. In 1989, the Legislature enacted consumer protection laws applicable to dating services. In 2017, the Legislature amended the dating services laws to cover online dating services.
Consumers of dating services have the right to cancel an online dating service contract until midnight of the third business day after the day on which the consumer signs the agreement. If the contract does not comply with the statutorily-mandated form and content provisions, the consumer may cancel at any time.
Online dating services must also: (1) reference or link to dating safety awareness information, including at a minimum a list or description of safety measures reasonably aimed at increasing awareness of safer dating practices; and (2) provide a means to report issues or concerns relating to the behavior of other users of the online dating service arising from their use of the service.
Non-compliant contracts are void and unenforceable. Compliance is non-waivable. If the consumer suffers injury as a result of non-compliance, treble damages and prevailing party attorneys’ fees are available.
For those taking the DIY approach to matchmaking, awareness of the Civil Harassment Statute and Domestic Violence Prevention Act is a must. Civil harassment in the romantic pursuit context is essentially a course of conduct directed at another person that seriously annoys that person and serves no legitimate purpose. Stalking, making harassing telephone calls, unwanted e-mailing, texting, and social media posts and messages could all be civil harassment as defined by the statute. And it doesn’t take much for behavior to be found seriously annoying.
Temporary restraining orders and injunctions are available under the Civil Harassment Statute, and attorneys’ fees are available to the prevailing party. Violation of the Civil Harassment Statute requires more proof than in the usual civil case, but not so much that you would need Atticus Finch on the defense team.
If you’re already in a dating relationship or a cohabitant with someone, you are subject to the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”). The DVPA provides essentially the same remedies as the Civil Harassment Statute. “Abuse” under the DVPA includes harassment through electronic means. But all it really takes is destroying the mental or emotional calm of the other party to subject you to a DVPA order. That’s not much, especially for the drama crowd. And critically, the burden of proof is the lowest possible in DVPA proceedings.
Whether civil harassment or domestic violence, an order against you grants you automatic admission into the California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (“CLETS”) – an exclusive social media platform that provides far fewer networking opportunities than LinkedIn.
This Valentine’s Day, remember to be careful in your pursuits of the heart and to recognize the risks attached to your actions. E-behavior or otherwise, conduct you might consider innocuous could carry serious consequences. In love and the law, every rose has its thorn.
Questions? Concerns? The love doctors are in at Bradley, Gmelich & Wellerstein LLP.