Women and Justice: Jurisdiction

Domestic Case Law

Women's Medical Center of Providence, Inc. v. Roberts United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island (1982)

Abortion and reproductive health rights, Gender discrimination

This case struck down provisions of the Rhode Island “Informed Consent for Abortion” Act for failure to demonstrate a compelling state interest to justify its interference with women’s rights to abortion including: (i) a provision that required women be informed of “all medical risks” associated with the abortion procedure, including “psychological risks to the fetus,” as such a provision was unconstitutionally vague; (ii) a provision requiring a woman seeking abortion to give written consent to the procedure at least 24 hours prior to her scheduled operation, as such a provision imposed a legally significant burden on a woman’s fundamental right to terminate her pregnancy, and the state did not demonstrate a compelling state interest necessitating such waiting period. However, the Court upheld a provision requiring that an abortion patient be informed of the “nature of her abortion,” i.e., that the abortion will irreversibly terminate her pregnancy.

Constitutional Right to Life Committee v. Cannon Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1976)

Abortion and reproductive health rights

A non-profit corporation filed a claim protesting the validity of a regulation requiring specified facilities, procedures, and personnel whenever a pregnancy is terminated within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island, arguing that the regulations failed to consider the life of the unborn child. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island held that the regulation did not improperly disregard the life of the unborn child because, as a matter of constitutional law, the only interest that a state may assert in regulating abortion procedures prior to the time of a child’s viability is during the second trimester when the state may regulate abortion procedure to the extent that the regulation reasonably relates to the preservation and protection of maternal health.

State v. Ware Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1980)

Statutory rape or defilement

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island rejected the argument that the state’s criminal statute outlawing carnal knowledge of a girl under 16 years of age violated equal protection of the law, even though it created a classification based on sex by designating females as the only possible victims and subjecting only males to conviction under the statute. In rejecting the defendant’s argument, the court applied the rule that sex-based classifications that served important governmental objectives and were substantially related to the achievement of those objectives were not unconstitutional. The court cited the fact that the classification was substantially related to the important state’s interest in protecting female children “from the severe physical and psychological consequences of engaging in coitus before attaining the age of consent in the statute.” Therefore, the classification based on sex did not violate the constitution’s equal protection law.

Hamel v. Hamel Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1981)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

Petitioners, husband, and wife filed cross-petitions for legal separation rather than an absolute divorce where the matrimonial bonds are completely broken. The Family Court dismissed both petitions because the husband’s stated reason for seeking legal separation was “irreconcilable differences.” The text of the statute ordaining legal separation seemed to require that it be an interim measure pending the reconciliation of the parties. Legal separation because of irreconcilable differences therefore, on its face, seemed to be an inconsistent proposition. The issue on appeal was whether irreconcilable differences could be grounds for a merely legal separation rather than an absolute divorce. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island ruled that based on the history of legal separation and legislative intent, a party can seek legal separation based on irreconcilable differences without needing to show that there is a possibility of reconciliation. Statutory text that seemed to contradict this ruling by requiring a show of a possibility for reconciliation was precatory but not mandatory.

McMaugh v. State Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1992)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

A woman and her husband were convicted of murder, and the woman appealed her conviction, arguing that her husband’s severe abuse prevented her from fairly defending herself at trial. Evidence of the abuse was discovered one year after the completion of trial, when the woman and her husband were placed in separate prisons. In reviewing the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island assessed whether the trial court considered if the additional evidence was newly discovered, material, and outcome determinative, and then whether such evidence, if appropriately before the court, warranted post-conviction relief. Upon hearing the newly discovered evidence, the court found that the pattern of extreme physical and mental abuse by her husband prevented the woman from assisting her attorney in presenting a reasonable defense at trial—rather, the evidence supported that the woman was suffering from battered women’s syndrome, which caused her, contrary to her own interests, to support her husband’s story at trial. Moreover, the evidence was and could only have been discovered after the wife was in prison and more removed from the husband’s domination and influence. The court found that this evidence warranted post-conviction relief, vacating the case and remanding it to the lower court for a new trial.

Sammataro v. Sammataro Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1993)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

The General Master of Family Court granted custody of a child to the defendant because the plaintiff received public assistance. The issue on appeal was whether receiving public assistance was a legitimate criterion for the denial of child custody. In reversing the Family Court’s ruling for the defendant, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island reiterated the rule that any custody determinations must be based on the best interests of the child and delineated a non-exclusive test to determine the best interest of the child. The factors include, but are not limited to: (i) the wishes of the child’s parent or parents regarding the child’s custody; (ii) the reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding and experience to express a preference; (iii) the interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parent or parents, the child’s siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest; (iv) the child’s adjustment to the child’s home, school and community; (v) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved; (vi) the stability of the child’s home environment; (vii) the moral fitness of the child’s parents; and (viii) the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent.

Jacques v. State Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1995)

Sexual violence and rape

The defendant appealed a 12-year prison sentence, arguing that his sentence was excessive given that there was no evidence he used violent force or penile penetration. However, the court held that the defendant failed to show the sentence imposed on him by the trial court was excessive or that any serious disparity existed between his sentence and any other sentence imposed for similar convictions, citing the fact that the Supreme Court found he violated Rhode Island’s sexual assault statute even though he did not commit penile penetration or use violent force (“the type of penetration is unimportant under the sexual-assault statute . . . The fact that only digital penetration occurred does not lessen [the victim’s] fear and humiliation.”).

Rhode Island Depositors Economic Protection Corp. v. Brown Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1995)

Gender discrimination

In this case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court set out the standard of scrutiny with which to view the constitutionality of laws that discriminate based on gender: “If an act employs a gender-based classification, it is subject to a middle-tier scrutiny in which the classification must be substantially related to the achievement of the statutory objective.”

Dupre v. Dupre Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2004)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

In this case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that a parent seeking to relocate out of the country with children in his or her custody need not make a showing that his or her reasons for relocation are “compelling.” Rather, the court cited the “time-honored axiom that the primary consideration and paramount concern in all matters relating to custody is the best interests of the child.” In determining the child’s best interests, requiring a parent to demonstrate that the reason for moving was compelling would overly burden a parent’s ability to relocate for legitimate reasons. Accordingly, the court held that the family court had incorrectly applied a “compelling reason” test in denying a mother’s motion to relocate with her children, failing to consider the children’s best interests.

DeCamp v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2005)

Employment discrimination

A female employee sued her employer and supervisor for sex discrimination in violation of the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act. In deciding the case, the court set out a three-step approach for determining liability. First, the employee must establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination. In a gender discrimination analysis based upon a termination, the establishment of a prima facie case requires the plaintiff to show that: “(1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was performing her job at a level that rules out the possibility that she was fired for inadequate job performance; (3) she suffered an adverse job action by her employer; and (4) her employer sought a replacement for her with roughly equivalent qualifications.” Once this “not especially onerous” burden has been met, the employer must offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Finally, the employee is required to convince the judge or jury that that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason proffered by the employer is merely a pretext for her termination.

State v. Urena Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2006)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

The defendant appealed a conviction of manslaughter after stabbing her boyfriend to death, arguing that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did not act in self-defense based on evidence that she suffered from battered women’s syndrome. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island clarified the burden of proof in establishing battered women’s syndrome as a defense, stating that the “defendant [is] required to prove the existence of [battered women’s syndrome] as an affirmative defense by a fair preponderance of the evidence.” Accordingly, the lower court correctly instructed the jury that the burden of proof was on the defendant, not the state, to show that she was suffering from the effects of battered women’s syndrome, and the conviction at the lower court was upheld.

State v. Rivera Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2010)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

A bus driver was convicted of sexually assaulting three developmentally disabled women, two of whom were passengers on the defendant’s bus route. On appeal, the defendant challenged his conviction on several grounds, one of which was that the trial court erred in precluding him from questioning the victim’s mother about a previous incident that suggested the victim was promiscuous. The court held that the defendant was not entitled to question the victim’s mother about the incident, because the defendant did not notify the trial justice beforehand of his intention to probe into the victim’s conduct or otherwise seek a hearing with the court about the admissibility of such evidence.

State v. Enos (2011)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

Charges were filed against a young woman’s ex-boyfriend for domestic violence after he grabbed her at a restaurant and repeatedly kicked her and hit her over the head with a drinking glass. The defendant was convicted in the lower court of domestic assault with a dangerous weapon. On appeal, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence that the couple was in a domestic relationship, which was a prerequisite finding for his conviction. The Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state domestic violence statute does not require a specific demonstration of three statutory factors (length and nature of relationship and frequency of the interaction between the parties) to prove the existence of a substantive dating relationship, nor are courts limited to considering only these three factors. Rather, the fact that the victim testified that (i) the couple dated for six months, (ii) the two had an intimate relationship during the defendant’s arrest, and (iii) the defendant referred to the victim as his girlfriend was evidence that the defendant and the victim were in a substantive dating relationship as required to support a domestic assault conviction. The Court also rejected the defendant’s arguments regarding the trial judge’s decision not to declare a mistrial and upheld his conviction.

State v. Bruneau Rhode Island Supreme Court (2003)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

Defendant appealed a conviction of violating a no-contact order, resulting in imprisonment for thirty months. The defendant’s ex-wife had obtained a protective order, which the defendant violated. Specifically, the defendant called his ex-wife to arrange to visit their daughter. Suspecting that he was drunk, she asked that he call the next day, but the defendant arrived ten to fifteen minutes later and was let into the house from the ex-wife’s roommate’s daughter. The ex-wife did not see the defendant in the house but heard his voice, and called the police. The defendant contested his conviction on the basis that his violation took place after the temporary restraining order expired. However, because a permanent order was in place at that time, directed towards the same conduct as the temporary order, this argument could not stand. The defendant then argued that he did not have actual notice of the order because it was mailed to him and was not personally served. The court rejected this argument also and found that service by mail was proper. The court affirmed the conviction.

Scuncio Chevrolet, Inc. v. Salandra Rhode Island Superior Court (1988)

Employment discrimination, Gender discrimination

Plaintiff worked for the defendant and sold cars. Following termination of her employment, she filed a complaint with the Humans Rights Commission. The Commission found she was entitled to back pay, fringe benefits, interest, and that the defendant was to cease and desist its unlawful employment practices. In response to defendant’s appeal, the court found that the plaintiff’s testimony that she was never confronted for unsatisfactory work performance, and she neither received formal evaluations, nor written or oral warnings was credible. Notwithstanding her positive performance, the plaintiff was terminated. The defendant argued that she was “laid-off,” and that the Commission failed to take into account that the defendant did not hire a male replacement for the plaintiff’s position. However, the defendant did hire a male employee a day before it fired the plaintiff. The court found that the Commission was entitled to reject the defendant’s testimony and find that it was clear that the plaintiff was replaced by a male employee. Thus, the Commission’s finding of liability was affirmed.


Criminal Offenses: Child Pornography Prohibited

Statutory rape or defilement

This statute prohibits production, reproduction, distribution, transfer and knowing possession of child pornography through any medium, device or format.

Criminal Offenses: First Degree Sexual Assault

Sexual violence and rape

A person is guilty of first degree sexual assault if he or she engages in sexual penetration with another person, and the accused: not being the spouse, knows or has reason to know that the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated; or the accused uses force, coercion, stealth, or surprise; or engages in medical treatment or examination for sexual purposes.

Criminal Offenses: First Degree Child Molestation Sexual Assault

Statutory rape or defilement

A person is guilty of first-degree child molestation sexual assault if he or she engages in sexual penetration with a person 14 years of age or under.

Domestic Relations: Domestic Abuse Prevention (General Laws of Rhode Island)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

The definition of domestic abuse in Rhode Island includes (i) attempting to cause or causing physical harm, (ii) placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm, (iii) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat of force, or duress, and (iv) stalking or cyberstalking when the perpetrator and victim are present or former family members, including stepparent and dating relationships.

Criminal Offenses: Stalking (General Laws of Rhode Island)


This statute makes it illegal to harass or to knowingly and repeatedly follow another person with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. Under the statute, stalking is a felony, punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years, by a fine of not more than $10,000, or both.

Labor and Labor Relations: Wage Discrimination Based on Sex (General Laws of Rhode Island)

Employment discrimination, Gender discrimination

To prevent wage discrimination, Rhode Island’s equal pay law provides that no employer shall discriminate between the sexes in the payment of wages. However, merit-based variations in pay including, but not limited to, those based on skill, experience, and number of hours worked are not prohibited. Any attempt to contract around the equal pay law will be void.

Cavanaugh v. Cavanaugh (2014)

Domestic and intimate partner violence, Sexual harassment, Stalking

An man appealed his restraining order, which prevented him from contacting his ex-wife, arguing that the lower court did not properly establish a finding of domestic abuse despite his ex-wife’s testimony that he repeatedly used vulgar and threatening language towards her, at times placing her in fear of physical harm. The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the restraining order and underlying finding of domestic abuse, citing the definition of domestic abuse in Title 15, Chapter 15 of the General Laws of Rhode Island: “Among the acts specified in . . . the statute as constituting ‘domestic abuse’ is ‘stalking,’ [which means] ‘harassing another person.’” Because the court found that the ex-husband was “harassing” (and thus “stalking”) his ex-wife, the ex-husband’s conduct fell within the plain meaning of the statute defining domestic abuse. This case is important because it provides that the “unambiguous language” of Rhode Island’s domestic abuse statute does not require a finding of actual physical harm or threats of physical harm as a predicate for domestic abuse—other harassing language is enough.

Offenses Pertaining to Schools (Title 16, Chapter 38, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Gender discrimination, LGBTIQ

Discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited in all public colleges, community colleges, universities, and all other public institutions of higher learning in the state that are operated by the board of governors for higher education. This prohibition applies to employment, recruitment, and hiring practices, employment benefits, admissions, curricular programs, extracurricular activities including athletics, counseling, financial aid including athletic grants-in-aid, student medical, hospital, and accident or life insurance benefits, facilities, housing, rules and regulations, research, and all other school functions and activities. Notwithstanding these prohibitions, schools may do the following: (i) maintain separate but comparable restrooms, dressing, and shower facilities for males and females, including reasonable use of staff of the same sex as the users of these facilities; (ii) provide separate teams for contact sports or for sports where selection for teams is based on competitive skills, provided that equal athletic opportunities which effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of both sexes are made available; (iii) maintain separate housing for men and women, provided that housing for students of both sexes is as a whole both proportionate in quantity to the number of students of that sex that apply for housing and comparable in quality and cost to the student; and (iv) permit the establishment and operation of university based social fraternities and sororities.

Rhode Island Fair Housing Practices Act (Title 34, Chapter 37, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Gender discrimination, LGBTIQ, Property and inheritance rights

The Rhode Island Fair Housing Practices Act prohibits housing practices that discriminate based on gender identity or expression, which is defined to include a person’s actual or perceived gender, as well as a person’s gender identity, gender-related self-image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression; whether or not that gender identity, gender-related self-image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression is different from that traditionally associated with the person's sex at birth.

Minor Electronically Disseminating Indecent Material to Another Person - "Sexting" Prohibited (Title 11, Chapter 9, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Statutory rape or defilement

Rhode Island law prohibits minors from knowingly and voluntarily and without threat or coercion using a computer or telecommunication device to transmit an indecent visual depiction of himself or herself to another person. Minors who transmit indecent images of themselves will not be subject to sex offender registration.

Duty to Report Sexual Assault (Title 11, Chapter 37, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

Under Rhode Island’s statute criminalizing sexual assault, anyone other than the victim with knowledge or reason to know that a first-degree sexual assault or attempted first-degree sexual assault is taking place or has taken place shall immediately notify the police. Anyone who knowingly violates this statute is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for no more than one year, a $500 fine, or both (§ 11-37-3.3.).

Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking (Chapter 11, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement, Trafficking in persons

This law makes it a felony to knowingly engage in, or benefit from, knowing participation in recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining by any means another person, intending or knowing that the person will be subjected to forced labor in order to commit a commercial sexual activity. The statute also mandates the creation and composition of a council on human trafficking to provide victims services, analyze human trafficking in Rhode Island, conduct a public awareness campaign, coordinate training on human trafficking prevention and victim services for state and local employees. It creates an affirmative defense to prostitution charges for victims of human trafficking, enumerates aggravating factors, and outlines criminal procedure details.

Sexual Assault - Prior sexual conduct of the complainant - Admissibility of Evidence (Title 11, Chapter 37, General Laws of Rhode Island)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

If a defendant who is charged with sexual assault intends to introduce evidence at trial that the victim has engaged in sexual activities with other persons, he or she must give prior notice to the court of the intention to introduce such evidence. The notice must be given orally and out of the hearing of any other spectators or jurors. Upon receiving such notice, the court must order the defendant to make a specific offer of the proof that he or she intends to introduce, and the court will rule on the admissibility of the evidence before it can be offered at trial. The purpose of this “rape shield” statute is to encourage victims to report crimes without fear of inviting unnecessary probing into the victim’s sexual history.

Domestic Violence Prevention Act (Chapter 29 of the General Laws of Rhode Island) (1956)

Domestic and intimate partner violence, Sexual violence and rape

The Domestic Violence Prevention Act was originally enacted in 1956 to recognize the importance of domestic violence as a serious crime against society and to establish an official response to domestic violence cases that stresses the enforcement of laws to protect victims and communicate that violent behavior is not excused or tolerated. In passing the Act, the legislature specifically provided that its intent was that the Act can be enforced without regard to whether the persons involved are or were married, cohabitating, or involved in a relationship. Accordingly, the act defines victims to include “spouses, former spouses, adult persons related by blood or marriage, adult persons who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past three years, and persons who have a child in common regardless of whether they have been married or have lived together, or persons who are, or have been, in a substantive dating or engagement relationship within the past one year which shall be determined by the court's consideration of the following factors: (1) the length of time of the relationship; (2) the type of the relationship; and (3) the frequency of the interaction between the parties.”