PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Kristi DiCenzo estimates she went to court hundreds of times, because her abuser kept making baseless claims.
“Every time I went into court, I physically would get ill. I would feel nauseous, I would shake,” she said. “Because you’re defending yourself, and here is that person and their lawyer saying, ‘You’re wrong, it never happened.'”
She said her ex-partner was engaging in what’s known as abusive litigation, which is when an abuser files untrue claims in order to trap a victim in court litigation.
DiCenzo said her ex was trying to get a piece of her Navy veterans’ benefits, which she said he was not even eligible for.
“That was the worst litigation,” she said. “Even the judge at the time said, ‘This has been so many years, over 10 years.’”
DiCenzo said those legal fees became so expensive, she had to eventually let go of her attorney.
“I couldn’t maintain those legal fees because they’re in the thousands,” she said. “I’m a single mother and I work over 60 hours a week.”
The RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director, Lucy Rios, said before a new law was passed in June, abusive litigation was not recognized by the court.
“This means that a victim could have had a restraining order against this abusive party but they would still have to appear in court,” said Rios.
Abusive litigation is most commonly seen in family court, according to Rios, where an abuser may use the courts to repeatedly file custody claims to continually bring in a victim.
Rios said this form of post-separation abuse can put the victim’s safety at risk, because the survivor is required to go to a location at a time and a place, when they may be trying to cut all ties with their former partner. The abuser could then confront them at court, or even follow the victim home.
Rios said the new law gives survivors the chance to say they are experiencing abusive litigation.
“We know that there are protections in place for injury, for bodily harm, for threats made to their life. That’s what our laws currently cover,” said Rios. “But there wasn’t any in the books to support survivors and having the courts recognize this non-physical form of abuse that is just as damaging.”
And when a judge considers if a person is facing abusive litigation, Rios said the abuser might have to pay.
“The judge not only will be able to stop that person filing these claims, but also maybe award some restitution to the survivor,” said Rios.
She added those funds might be awarded to cover attorney fees as well as childcare, transportation, or time off from work.
DiCenzo has not been to court in a year. She hopes the new law will deter other abusers from filing false claims.
“This actually has a cash value,” she said. “It’s more people looking at, ‘Oh, I may be fined. There may be added court costs. That’s money coming out of my pocket.’ So, they’ll think twice before going into court.”
Rhode Island is only the second state in the country to implement a law against abusive litigation, modeling the bill after a law in Washington state.
While the bill passed both the Rhode Island House and Senate with a unanimous vote, the ACLU of Rhode Island had some concerns with the law. The group said it went too far in blocking people from accessing the courts, but Rios said the law won’t do that.
“It’s really taking that power and limiting it so that it could no longer continue to harass and harm the victim of domestic violence,” she said.
Despite some changes to the law before it passed, ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said the organization is still concerned about the legislation, saying in part, “The bill allows a petition to be filed without any evidence that the person has engaged in any abusive litigation to begin with.”
The RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence said so far no one has used the new protection, but DiCenzo hopes it will help other survivors.
“I would like to see [survivors] actually use it,” said DiCenzo. “I would also like to see the judges say, ‘We’re not backing down.'”
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering similar legislation.