Victims of abuse have many reasons for not reporting prior acts of domestic violence – either to friends, family, co-workers, etc. or the police. Logically, the failure to report does not negate the fact that the abuse happened. One would think that judges hearing domestic violence, more so than most people, would not that given the domestic violence training that they receive, as well as their training in the law.
Yet this is exactly what happened in the trial court as noted in the unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division decision in the matter of I.E.A. v. M.A., released on December 16, 2020. In this case, the Appellate Division reversed the denial of an FRO (Final Restraining Order), because among other reasons, the trial judge found significant that prior abuse was not previously reported or that she thought that the defendant was joking was certain incidents started (before escalating.) While I will not get into the weeds regarding the facts of the case, the Appellate Division gave us all some solid reminders regarding these issues. As to the disclosure issue, the Appellate Division noted:
We are not aware of any precedent requiring the victim of domestic violence to have disclosed the abuse to another in order to establish a predicate act of domestic violence under the Act. Nor do we agree that a failure to disclose before seeking judicial relief casts doubt on the credibility of a claim of abuse. There are a number of reasons why a victim of domestic violence might be
reluctant to disclose the abuser’s behavior. Some of those reasons may well be applicable here. For example, cultural and religious norms may strongly discourage the disclosure of marital affairs. The record suggests the parties’ close ties to the Sudanese Muslim community and culture may have influenced plaintiff not to disclose defendant’s abuse. In addition, where the party alleging
abuse is a new arrival to the country and dependent on the abuser for support and shelter, disclosure may be a difficult and risky proposition.
As to the fact that the trial court gave less weight/credibility to the plaintiff because she initially thought defendant was joking before an incident escalated, the Appellate Division wisely held:
We also disagree with the proposition that plaintiff’s testimony was undermined because on two occasions she thought defendant was joking when he initiated what she alleged turned into abusive behavior. The complaint does not allege defendant engaged in an uninterrupted campaign of physical abuse. It is not uncommon for a couple to have periods of relatively amicable relations between incidents of domestic violence. A domestic abuser’s calm demeanor may suddenly turn violent. Plaintiff’s testimony suggested that she and defendant sometimes engaged in playful physical interactions, stating that one incident of domestic abuse started when she tapped defendant on his behind. A victim of domestic violence need not prove that she was in constant fear to
establish the predicate acts necessary for issuance of an FRO.
Also, without making proper fact findings, or for that matter, there being any credible evidence in the record to support that plaintiff’s complaint was filed for immigration purposes, the trial court implied that that was the case in denying the FRO. A concerned Appellate Division panel held:
We are also troubled by the trial court’s reference to the timing of the filing of the complaint with relation to plaintiff’s immigration status. Although the court made no specific findings, it is difficult to avoid the implication in the court’s opinion that plaintiff may have filed a meritless complaint in order to remain in the country. The record, however, contains no evidence establishing
the impact, if any, the filing of a domestic violence complaint has on the status of someone, like plaintiff, who has overstayed her visa. Without a more developed record on the subject, it was error for the court to imply that plaintiff’s FRO application was unfounded and motivated by immigration concerns.
Courts need to be careful in breathing things to why a party did or did not report prior acts of violence or in their motivation for filing the domestic violence complaint, particularly if their is evidence of actual abuse in the record.
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 Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.