Harassment under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act can take on many forms, one of which, under a given set of facts and circumstances, can involve an individual placing a victim in fear of losing her job. Recently we handled a matter where the defendant was contacting the victim’s employer and threatening to tell the employer very private details about the victim’s personal life. Whether the victim would have actually lost her job was one thing, since, more importantly, she had a reasonable fear based on the defendant’s harassment that it would occur.
The facts in J.J. v. J.M. were relatively similar (as each case carries its own details and nuances), as the Appellate Division affirmed in this unpublished (not precedential) case that the defendant’s actions in placing his former girlfriend in fear of losing her job constituted harassment meriting issuance of a Final Restraining Order.
As we have blogged several times before, harassment is defined by New Jersey law as:
Harassment is defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4, which provides in pertinent part:
Except as provided in subsection e., a person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he:
a. Makes, or causes to be made, a communication or communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours, or in offensively coarse language, or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm;
b. Subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so; or
c. Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with
purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.
A purpose to harass can be inferred from the evidence presented at the final hearing. “Annoyance” under subsection (a) means to “disturb, irritate or bother,” while “serious annoyance” under subsection (c) means to “weary, worry, trouble or offend.”
In J.J., the victim alleged that the defendant, a former boyfriend and parent of her child, drove by her place of employment, backed into a street, waited for her to walk from one building to another, then pulled out and drove by slowly. The victim testified that she thought nothing of this occurrence until a few days later, at which point she was working at her place of employment when the defendant arrived there to allegedly serve her with "paperwork" claiming that the victim had given out privileged medical information about the defendant’s wife. As she was being informed of the defendant’s arrival, she overheard the defendant yelling "in the background and making a scene." When the victim went to see what was going on, the defendant fled from the scene.
The following day, the office administrator at the victim’s place of employment asked her what had happened, and admonished her to "keep [her] private business private." The defendant also apparently had an "unpleasant" telephone conversation with the office administrator, leading the administrator to inform the victim that she did not "take being threatened lightly by lawsuits or anything."
With the defendant’s entirely different version of events, which is very typical in domestic violence matters, the court’s decision came down to credibility (including a consideration of the defendant’s demeanor), finding that neither defendant nor his witness were credible. As a result, the court found the defendant’s actions were designed with an intent to annoy and alarm the victim, and that the victim needed protection in the form of a final restraining order to prevent further occurrences.
In affirming the trial court’s decision on appeal, the Appellate Division noted that the trial court properly addressed questions of credibility in resolving issues of fact. In so doing, the Court noted how domestic violence situations often present circumstances where the defendant may engage in what could otherwise be deemed an innocent act as a way to "mask" the underlying misconduct. Here, the defendant’s version of events involved him arriving at the victim’s place of business with a legitimate health-related purpose.
Thus, while the trial court’s findings against defendant required it to take inferences based on the evidence presented, the Appellate Division affirmed the finding that defendant had engaged in an act of harassment under subsection (a) because his conduct had "no rhyme or reason", thereby causing the victim’s embarrassment and annoyance, as well as possibly placing her job at risk. It also found that the defendant engaged in a course of conduct under subsection (c) because his conduct took place over several days.
Considering the divergent versions of events presented by each party, it seems that this matter really did, in fact, come down to each party’s credibility and that of their witnesses. Since great deference is afforded to such findings, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.