I have written about the requirements of obtaining a domestic violence final restraining order (“FRO”) under the New Jersey Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act (“the Act”) previously on this blog. One of the three main criteria the Court must look at when determining whether to grant a final restraining order in such cases is the nature of the relationship between the parties. In most cases, this is the easiest call for the judge. The parties may be married, or they may have a child in common, or they might live together, or there is some other clear indicia that a qualifying relationship exists.
In a new published (precedential) decision, C.C. v. J.A.H., the Appellate Division examined one type of qualifying relationship under the Act, namely the “dating relationship.” The Appellate Division found that, in an age when dating has arguably become application and text message driven – as opposed to the very traditional act of actually going out on a date – the term “dating relationship” needs an update.
The facts of C.C. show the dire need for such an update. In C.C., the parties met at a gym where the Plaintiff was an employee, and the Defendant a member. They interacted flirtatiously, and eventually exchanged phone numbers. This led to a proliferation of text messages between the parties – approximately 1100 text messages over a period of one month. The Appellate Division described the text messages as being “exchanged at all hours of the day and night” and as “sexually explicit and suggestive in nature.” The Appellate Division also found that the Defendant “declar[ed] his romantic interest in [the Plaintiff]” during the course of these text messages. During this period, the parties continued to interact with one another in person (described as “flirtatious” interaction by the Plaintiff), but both sides agreed that they never went out on a date in the traditional manner. It was this point that the Defendant emphasized, arguing that because they never went on a date, they were not in a dating relationship. Accordingly, the Defendant argued, the Plaintiff could not obtain an FRO under the Act.
In assessing the Defendant’s argument, the trial judge referred to the case Andrews v. Rutherford, 363 N.J. Super. 252, 260 (Ch. Div. 2003), which identified several facts that the Court should look into when determining whether a relationship qualifies as a “dating relationship” under the Act. These are:
- Was there a minimal social interpersonal bonding of the parties over and above a mere casual fraternization?
- How long did the alleged dating activities continue prior to the acts of domestic violence alleged?
- What were the nature and frequency of the parties’ interactions?
- What were the parties’ ongoing expectations with respect to the relationship, either individually or jointly?
- Did the parties demonstrate an affirmation of their relationship before others by statement or conduct?
- Are there any other reasons unique to the case that support or detract from a finding that a “dating relationship” exists?
When addressing these factors, and accounting for the State’s strong public policy against domestic violence, the Court concluded that the relationship between the parties was in fact a “dating relationship” as contemplated by the Act. It appears to me that the critical points that swayed the Court were the sheer volume of the communications, as well as the nature of the content of the communication:
[T]he absence of what might be viewed as traditional dating activities and affirmations does not render insignificant the proliferate and exceedingly intimate communications between the parties that underscored their relationship. Indeed, it is the nature and proliferation of those communications that constituted the parties’ “dating activities” and transformed theirs into a “dating relationship.”
Interestingly, the Court also seemed to characterize the question of whether one is engaged in a “dating relationship” under the Act as a subjective rather than an objective one. Put another way, while the interactions between these parties may not bear any semblance to “dating” in the eyes of someone perhaps older and with a more traditional view of what it means to date somebody, for the Plaintiff (who was 22 years old), these interactions were part of a normal 21st century dating life.
This view is carried through by the Court in the manner in which it distinguished the case S.K. v. J.H., 426 N.J. Super. 230 (App. Div. 2012), wherein the Court declined to find that the parties were engaged in a “dating relationship” where it was determined that they went out on one single date and had no other interactions. The Defendant argued that his relationship to the Plaintiff was even more attenuated because they had not even been out on one single date. The Court dismissed this argument out of hand, finding that even though they had not been on a single traditional date, they had engaged in “prolific” “dating activities” by virtue of their text message communication and flirtatious interactions at the gym.
While the law is perhaps notorious for being behind the times, technologically speaking, this decision represents an appropriate understanding of what it means to be in a dating relationship in this day and age and goes a long way to protecting victims of domestic violence who may not have been on any traditional dates, but nevertheless were involved in a dating relationship. It will be interesting to see how this develops, especially given the relatively recent addition of “cyber bullying” to the statute as a qualifying predicate act of domestic violence.