Under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, a “victim” of domestic violence is entitled to entry of a Final Restraining Order. N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29. The Act defines “victim of domestic violence” as including “any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship”. However, what is the definition of “dating relationship” and does a “dating relationship” exist if the relationship is formed by the exchange of monetary benefits?
In the recently published decision of J.S. v. J.F. (App.Div. December 10, 2009), while the Appellate Division found that a “dating relationship” existed based upon the factual circumstances of the case, the Appellate Division did discuss the definition of a “dating relationship” and the impact on a Domestic Violence Complaint, or lack thereof, of a monetary benefit received as a result of a relationship.
Defendant in the J.S. matter argued that the Plaintiff did not qualify as a victim of domestic violence because Defendant paid for Plaintiff’s company. Defendant asserted that his relationship with Plaintiff, who worked as a dancer at a local club, was “professional” and that he paid Plaintiff to be his escort. Plaintiff asserted that she had a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with Defendant, that she had been to his home, met his parents, and spent time together including weekends. During trial, Plaintiff presented text messages from Defendant threatening her and her boyfriend and disparaging her.
The Appellate Division noted that decisional law defining the scope of a dating relationship is limited to one trial Court opinion, Andrews v. Rutherford, a case wherein the trial court established six factors in evaluating whether a dating relationship exists. Those factors include: (1) whether there is a minimal social interpersonal bonding of the parties over and above a mere casual fraternization; (2) the length of the alleged dating activities; (3) the nature and frequency of the parties interactions; (4) the parties ongoing expectations with respect to the relationship; (5) whether the parties demonstrated an affirmation of their relationship before others; and (6) if there are any facts unique to the case that support or detract from a dating relationship. The Appellate Division noted that it was neither approving or disapproving the Andrewsdecision or the factors set forth in the decision nor did the Appellate Division determine whether all those factors have relevance in defining a “dating relationship”. The Appellate Division further noted that there may be factors not addressed by the Andrewsdecision that warrant consideration. However, the Appellate Division did agree with the Andrews decision insofar as the facts of a given case should be liberally construed in favor of finding a dating relationship because the Domestic Violence Act itself is to be liberally construed in favor of the legislative intent to eradicate domestic violence.
The Appellate Division in J.S. v. J.F. rejected the Defendant’s contention that a relationship which includes a payment of consideration for the other’s time precludes the finding of a dating relationship. The Appellate Division emphasized that “the act that a person receives a monetary benefit from engaging in a relationship does not automatically disqualify that person from the Act’s benefits”.
As an aside, and without even considering the issue of a monetary benefit to Plaintiff, the Appellate Division found that sufficient proof was presented by the Plaintiff that the parties had a dating relationship including spending time together and the fact that Plaintiff met Defendant’s parents at Thanksgiving.
Clearly, from this Appellate Division decision and because of the broad application of the Act and the broad definition of a “dating relationship”, disqualifying an alleged victim from the protections of the Domestic Violence Act may be difficult. If a Defendant intends to attack Plaintiff’s Complaint based upon the non-existence of a “dating relationship” or lack thereof, Defendant must carefully weigh the facts regarding the relationship and objectively weigh the credibility or proof to substantiate such facts prior to asserting the argument at trial. A Defendant attacking Plaintiff’s Domestic Violence Complaint based upon this issue runs the risk that the Court will not only broadly construe the definition of a “dating relationship” but also runs the risk of compromising his or her own credibility. Raising the issue and alleging that Plaintiff was his paid escort in the J.S. v. J.F. matter certainly did not help his credibility especially in light of his harassing, threatening and disparaging text messages to Plaintiff.