Does “Friends with Benefits” equal “Dating Relationship”?

Mar 19, 2024 | Domestic Violence & Abuse

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M.A. v. B.F. (2024)

99 Cal.App.5th 559

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

February 5, 2024, Opinion Filed

 

Substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the parties were not in a dating relationship characterized as “friends with benefits,” where their association was neither frequent nor intimate. Over the course of 19 months, the parties saw one another in person a total of 8 times, including the first 3 interactions in a 6-to-7-week period that involved romantic or sexual activities.

The case arose from a tort claim for domestic violence. This required the plaintiff to establish, among other things, that the plaintiff and defendant were in a qualifying relationship. Included among the relationships that may qualify is a dating relationship.

Under the DVPA (Domestic Violence Prevention Act, Family Code section 6200 et seq.), a dating relationship consists of “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affection or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations,” as set forth in Family Code section 6210.

Plaintiff referred to defendant as her “special friend” and “friend with benefits.” He was not a boyfriend. At trial, she also contended that they were in a dating relationship. Over 19 months, they saw each other only eight times. The initial six-to-seven-week period involved kissing and sexual (The Court of Appeals said that this initial period, viewed in isolation, could constitute a dating relationship; but this was not plaintiff’s theory.) Then, there was a three-month hiatus in the relationship. The parties sent each other messages between their in-person meetings. The parties’ relationship resumed, followed by another hiatus of 11 months. Then they saw each other two more times, one of which involved the alleged domestic violence incident. The relationship never involved a social outing, gifting, going out to eat, attending birthdays or holidays, cooking for each other, or going to a movie. The plaintiff attended a boxing match in which the defendant participated.

Following a bench trial, the trial court found that plaintiff did not establish that being “friends with benefits” was a dating relationship and entered judgment for defendant. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the finding was affirmed. The Court of Appeals applied the substantial evidence standard of review, though the dissent argued the proper standard of review was de novo because the facts were undisputed since defendant did not testify at the trial.

For plaintiff to establish she was in a dating relationship with defendant, she was required to prove they had “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affection or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations, as set forth in Family Code section 6210.

The Court of Appeals used the dictionary to interpret the words “frequent” and “intimate” as used in Family Code section 6210. “Frequent” means “common, usual, happening at short intervals, or often repeated or occurring.” “Intimate” means “marked by (1) very close physical, mental, or social association, connection, or contact, (2) a warmly personal attitude, especially one developing through a long or close association by friendliness, unreserved communication, mutual appreciation and interest, or (3) very close personal relationships, befitting a relationship of love, warm or ardent liking, deep friendship, or mutual cherishing.” Because frequency and intimacy are essential elements of a “dating relationship,” under Family Code section 6210, the Court of Appeal concluded that substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the parties’ interactions were neither frequent nor intimate. The parties’ own characterization that there is or is not a dating relationship was not determinative.

The Court of Appeal went on to acknowledge that the finding in this opinion does not mean another trier of fact could not find that parties in a “friends with benefits” relationship were in a dating relationship for purposes of the domestic violence statutes. Given social changes, it is virtually impossible to define a bright-line test for identifying whether a relationship is, or is not, a dating relationship under Family Code section 6210.

This decision provides an example of substantial evidence supporting a determination of no dating relationship. Looking forward, determinations as to whether there is a “dating relationship” will remain factually intensive.

 

 

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