One of the main questions often arising in a potential domestic violence scenario is whether the victim is protected by the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. Courts have broadly interpreted the Act’s terms to protect victims within the Act’s legislative purpose.
For instance, a "victim of domestic violence" under the Act must be a person 18 years of age or older who has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse or any other person who is a "present or former household member." What does "former household member" actually mean? Courts have concluded that while more than a casual dating relationship is required, the parties need not actually reside together.
In Jutchenko v. Jutchenko, 283 N.J. Super. 17 (App. Div. 1995), a reported (precedential) decision from the Appellate Division, the Appellate Division found that where parties had lived in different residences for 20 years and the alleged victim was not in a "more susceptible position for abusive and controlling behavior" based on their relationship, the Act did not apply. In so holding, the Appellate Division noted that the Act is directed at "violence that occurs in a family or family-like setting."
Relatedly, the Act also covers any person subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a "dating relationship." Similarly to "household member" the term "dating relationship" has been broadly interpreted by courts to effectively protect the victim within the confines of the Act. Factors established by one court to determine whether a dating relationship exists include:
(1) Was there a minimal social interpersonal bonding of the parties over and above a mere casual fraternization?
(2) How long did the alleged dating activities continue prior to the acts of domestic violence alleged?
(3) What were the nature and frequency of the parties’ interactions?
(4) What were the parties’ ongoing expectations with respect to the relationship, either individually or jointly?
(5) Did the parties demonstrate an affirmation of their relationship before others by statement or conduct?
(6) Are there any other reasons unique to the case that support or detract from a finding that a "dating relationship" exists?
These considerations do not necessarily provide a definitive conclusion to whether a dating relationship exists, but they may certainly be relevant to such a finding. This conclusion, however, may prove inconsistent with that found by the Appellate Division in Jutchenko. For instance, the Appellate Division recently affirmed a trial court’s finding in the unreported (not precedential) decision, Jensen v. Baratta, that a dating relationship existed primarily within the confines of the 6th factor above – unique reasons. There, the parties had met at a five-day real estate course – 5 years prior to the incident leading to the temporary restraining order. During the course, the parties were allegedly attracted to each other and had several lunches together. There was no sexual relationship between them and most contact between them was in the presence of others. It was several years later with no contact between the parties that the police found the defendant near the plaintiff’s home, with a gun, $10,000 in cash and a notebook with the phrase "real estate girl" written on a page. The police also determined that the defendant had entered the plaintiff’s backyard. The Appellate Division affirmed the finding of a dating relationship under these fatal attraction-type circumstances, agreeing that the Act was designed to protect even those in "somewhat of a dating relationship where one person becomes obsessed with the other.
Notably, while Jutchenko and Jensen provide for logically opposite results, Jutchenko is a reported (precedential) opinion from the Appellate Division while Jensen is not.