This post was written by Melissa M. Ruvolo, a new Family Law associate, in our Roseland office, and soon to be an official contributior to this blog.

Our blog frequently features discussions regarding what constitutes domestic violence to warrant the issuance of a Final Restraining Order (FRO). Perhaps the most frequently alleged “predicate act of domestic violence” is harassment under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4. What may constitute “harassment” was recently raised in the unpublished Appellate Division decision of A.B. v. L.S.M. decided on May 6, 2011.

The parties were unmarried but had been living together for almost four years. They had two daughters – a 3-year old and a 22-month old. During an argument, the defendant called the plaintiff a “b-tch” and the plaintiff admitted she may also have cursed and yelled at him. The defendant attempted to leave the home but while doing so, got a flat tire. When he tried to fix it with a car jack, the plaintiff twice tried to remove the jack from under the car and the defendant pushed her shoulders each time. She threw the daughter’s sippy cup at his face and broke his nose. Both parties applied for temporary restraining orders, which were dismissed. The defendant eventually moved out of the home and parenting time was ordered by the Court.

Two months later, the defendant went to the plaintiff’s home and knocked on her bathroom window, pleading to speak with her. The plaintiff refused. On the way home from plaintiff’s house, the defendant sent her an apologetic text message stating that he had no idea how much he had hurt her and would leave her alone.

Several days later, when the defendant went to the plaintiff’s home to pick up the children for parenting time, he asked to speak with her. He told her he “really missed her” and wanted to “hug and kiss her.” She responded that she didn’t want to talk to him or “have him touch her.” Later that evening, the defendant sent a text message to the plaintiff claiming the children forgot a teddy bear and blanket. She offered to bring them to his home and he agreed. When the plaintiff arrived at the defendant’s front door, he told her the children were already asleep, leading her to believe that the entire incident was a ploy to get her there. According to the plaintiff, the defendant grabbed her to prevent her from leaving and she told him not to touch her. The plaintiff’s friend, who was waiting in the car, witnessed the defendant give the plaintiff an unwanted “bear hug.”

On another occasion, the plaintiff went to pick up the children from the defendant’s home only to find that he cut the 3-year-old’s hair from halfway down her back to her shoulders and gave her bangs. He also cut the 22-month old’s hair “straight across the front and when it was wet it wasn’t straight.” The plaintiff was angry and thought this was done to harass her. The defendant claimed it was part of a “beauty makeover” and one of the daughters asked for a haircut.

Several days before obtaining the temporary restraining order, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant again cut an inch from only one side of the 3-year old’s hair. The defendant denied this. The plaintiff also stated that when she was leaving with the daughter, the defendant told the daughter he didn’t know when he would see her again because “mommy was being mean . . . and keeping her away from him.” He said this even though he had regular court-ordered parenting time with the children on a weekly basis.

The Appellate Division panel upheld the trial court’s decision that the defendant’s actions towards the plaintiff constituted harassment under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) because he engaged in a “course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed with purpose alarm or seriously annoy the [plaintiff].” The panel noted that the plaintiff repeatedly told the defendant she wanted to be left alone. Even so, the defendant called her a “mean mommy” in front of the children and gave the daughters “haircuts that, at best were amateurish, and at worst, ‘ruined’ their hair knowing that plaintiff would be upset.”

The defendant’s behavior, particularly in the presence of the children, was certainly inappropriate. However, did it truly warrant a FRO? A FRO carries serious consequences. The abuser cannot own a firearm and will be listed in the domestic violence registry, which is available to law enforcement agencies and Family Court domestic violence personnel. The violation of a FRO constitutes a criminal offense, which results in mandatory arrest and in some cases, jail time. In certain circumstances, one with an FRO can lose his/her job, especially those jobs that require the carrying of firearms or other weapons. One’s application for future employment or license certification could even be tarnished when the applicants responds “yes” to the question “have you ever been arrested?”

Perhaps the more appropriate result would have been to reconsider the defendant’s parenting time given his inappropriate actions in front of the children. On the other hand, maybe the court got it right and prevented the situation from escalating beyond control. Either way, this case teaches us that the broken-hearted must be conscious of the consequences of their untamed emotions.