On December 5, 2016, an extremely interesting reported (precedential) opinion was released by the Appellate Division in the matter of J.S. v. D.S. The opinion was remarkable for two reasons, one procedural and one substantive. On the procedural side, what was interesting was that the Appellate Division proceeded to decide the case even though the matter was settled and the parties sought to have the appeal dismissed because the Court determined that “the interests of justice require a disposition of the appeal’s merits.”
The substantively interesting part of the opinion was the holding that parties cannot consent to the entry of a domestic violence Final Restraining Order (“FRO”). Rather, because of the far reaching implications of an FRO, a trial court must make the requisite finding that an act of domestic violence has occurred.
In this case, after the entry of a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”), at the date of the FRO hearing, the parties reached an agreement which called for defendant’s consent to an FRO in exchange for plaintiff’s consent to defendant’s exclusive possession of the marital home pending further order in the matrimonial proceedings. Rather than question the plaintiff about the act of domestic violence or the defendant to see if there was agreement that the act had occurred, but rather only asked the usual questions regarding the voluntariness of the agreement. Satisfied that the agreement was voluntary, an FRO was entered. The defendant then filed a timely appeal asserting that the FRO was void ab initio (i.e. from the outset) because the judge mistakenly issued the FRO without taking testimony about the allegations, without finding an act of domestic violence occurred, and without determining plaintiff required protection from defendant.
Apparently, while the appeal was pending, the same or similar agreement to continue the FRO was reached again and the parties tried to dismiss the appeal but the Appellate Division would not allow it finding:
… In light of the strong public policies underlying the Act, we choose to exercise our discretion to consider the appeal on its merits. We have an obligation to ensure the FRO was legitimately entered and should not permit its wrongful perpetuation simply because it may have become a useful chip in the settlement of the parties’ matrimonial disputes.
Having rejected the parties’ request that we dismiss the appeal and having resolved to consider the merits of this appeal, we agree with what defendant previously argued: the FRO can no longer stand. A domestic violence final restraining order may not be entered by consent or without a factual foundation. See Franklin v. Sloskey, 385 N.J. Super. 534, 540-41 (App. Div. 2006). Because the trial judge mistakenly failed to elicit a factual foundation, failed to find domestic violence occurred, and failed to determine whether plaintiff required protection as a result of defendant’s conduct, we vacate the FRO.
The matter was then remanded for an FRO hearing.
Interestingly, in a footnote, the Appellate Division provided a road map, as it were, for parties that want to consent to an FRO, when it stated:
We do not mean to suggest every domestic violence action must be tried to a conclusion or that a defendant may not accede to relief sought by a plaintiff. Nothing prevents a defendant from declining to defend against such an action or from acknowledging under oath the commission of an act of domestic violence. The consequences, however, are too serious to permit entry of an FRO merely by consent. Before entering an FRO, a court must ensure there exists an adequate factual foundation and that the defendant understands the consequences of the decision not to contest the matter. A court must also find that the FRO is necessary “to protect the plaintiff from an immediate danger or to prevent further abuse.” Silver v. Silver, 387 N.J. Super. 112, 127 (App. Div. 2006). (Emphasis added).
The take away from this case is that FROs are serious matters and that care must be taken if they are going to be used as bargaining chips to settle issues on either an interim or final basis.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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