The standard for entry of a Final Restraining Order (FRO) under the NJ Prevention of Domestic Violence has been long established by the Courts (and discussed many times on this blog); under the seminal case Silver v. Silver, in order to obtain an FRO, the plaintiff must have a qualifying relationship with the defendant, and also has the burden to establish that:
- The defendant committed one or more of the predicate acts of domestic violence identified in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act; and
- There is a need for the protection of an FRO going forward.
In a recent published (precedential) decision, A.M.C. v. P.B., the Appellate Division addressed the second prong of that test and the misapplication of the facts to the law that led to the trial court denying the plaintiff’s request for a Final Restraining Order. In this case, the plaintiff filed a temporary restraining order alleging that the defendant had committed the predicate acts of harassment, assault, and terroristic threats. At trial, the Court made a factual finding that the predicate act of assault had occurred. More specifically, the Court found that the act of assault that formed the predicate act of violence for the complaint had occurred and that the defendant had assaulted the plaintiff in an attempt to prevent her from fleeing the marital home. Further, the trial Court found that a prior act of assault had occurred three weeks earlier.
Despite making those factual findings, the trial court denied the Final Restraining Order because it found that – in spite of two acts of assault that had occurred within a three week period – the plaintiff did not need the protection of an FRO to prevent the defendant from committing further acts of domestic violence against her. The trial court made this finding based chiefly on 1) the fact that the defendant had not contacted the plaintiff in the 10 days between her having filed the TRO and the Final Restraining Order hearing; 2) the parties’ marriage and, indeed, relationship, was short-term; and 3) the parties did not have children together, which was seen by the court as a mitigating factor because, the judge reasoned, there was less of a likelihood of interaction between the parties since they would not have to go on to co-parent together.
The plaintiff appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Division squarely addressed the question, “Despite finding that a defendant committed one of the predicate acts listed in N.J.S.A.2C:25-19a, when may a court properly refuse to issue restraints?” Hearkening back to the seminal Silver case itself, the Appellate Division answered that question by holding that when the predicate acts involves a violent offense – such as assault – and the Court has found that it occurred, then “the decision to issue an FRO ‘is most often perfunctory and self-evident.'” (quoting Silver at p. 127). The Appellate Division reversed; it found that, in determining that the plaintiff did not need the protection of an FRO going forward, the trial court had “no rational basis” for relying on the length of the marriage, the fact that the parties have no children, and the fact that the defendant had not contacted the plaintiff between when she fled the home and the day of the FRO hearing. And this makes sense: if it has been found that a given defendant has a propensity for physical violence against the plaintiff, this should be more persuasive than any of the facts that the trial court relied upon when it made its decision. Just because a relationship is short-term and there are no children, or the defendant didn’t contact the plaintiff during the ten day period between issuance of a TRO and the FRO hearing, doesn’t lessen the likelihood that the defendant will target the plaintiff with physical violence again.
The takeaway? The Appellate Division has held that, where the court finds that a predicate act of physical violence (for example, assault or sexual assault) has occurred, the fact that the act was violent in nature should be weighted heavily by the trial judge when assessing whether there is a need for the protection of the FRO going forward, and that an FRO should generally be issued in these instances.
Jessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or email@example.com.