A new domestic violence decision, M.D.C. v. J.A.C., not only confirms that defendants in a domestic violence proceeding are entitled to due process, but also goes a step further by asking the Supreme Court’s Family Practice Committee to determine whether the should require judiciary staff and law enforcement to inform and review with defendants the allegations against him/her, as well as what to expect at a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) hearing.  In the manual’s present form, such explanations are only required for the plaintiff.  This suggested update confirms that each party is entitled to reciprocal due process and to be informed of their rights to present evidence, testimony and witnesses, as well as to seek adjournments if additional time is needed to prepare his/her case.

In M.D.C., the trial court treated the defendant in a particularly egregious manner during an FRO hearing in which it entered an FRO against the defendant.  Although the plaintiff had the opportunity to present her witness, the trial court did not offer the defendant an adjournment when her only witness (her mother) was unavailable on the trial date, nor did the court advise the defendant of his right to seek such adjournment when she explained her witness’ unavailability.  Additionally, while the plaintiff was given the time to present her testimony and even “prompted”by the court to testify about prior acts of domestic violence outside of the four corners of the complaint, the trial court repeatedly disrupted the defendant’s cross-examination of the plaintiff and required the defendant to limit her questions to the domestic violence complaint.  Ultimately, the defendant ended her cross-examination out of frustration.  This is especially material because the FRO was entered in part on credibility determinations that the defendant was precluded from exploring without justification.  Finally, although it seems the plaintiff was able to present her case in the manner desired with assistance from the trial court, the trial court precluded the defendant from introducing photographic and video evidence, which the defendant claimed refuted the plaintiff’s testimony, without making any findings on the record to support this preclusion.

The Appellate Division reviewed the long-standing history of a defendant’s due process rights in New Jersey domestic violence cases and, in part, general litigation, including, without limitation,  (1) a defendant’s due process are violated when he/she is denied the right to cross-examine, which is the “most effective device known to our trial procedure for seeking the truth”; (2) courts should advise pro se litigants of their right to seek an adjournment to call necessary witnesses and the failure to offer and/or grant the adjournment violates due process; (3) the failure to consider evidence without any reason for doing so is also a due process violation; and, (4) while plaintiffs seeking an FRO may amplify their allegations of prior domestic violence history, they must amend the complaint in order to place defendants on notice of such allegations and afford them an opportunity to prepare a defense.

Person with finger on the scales of justice, illustrating concept of divorce

In light of all due process violations in this case, it should come as no surprise that the defendant here is using his soapbox to enhance the rights for all defendants in due process cases.  From a practice standpoint, having interned in the domestic violence courts of Essex County while in law school and then observing such hearings as a law clerk in Union County, and now appearing often in such courts throughout northern New Jersey, it is undeniable that a significant amount of these hearings occur between pro se litigants on one or both sides.   If the plaintiffs are the only party who are advised in advance of their rights and how to conduct themselves at an FRO Hearing, a defendant can argue that the plaintiffs are automatically receiving the upper hand at trial.  Although the domestic violence defendant is not facing a criminal conviction (at least at the FRO Hearing), the defendant’s rights are severely impacted by having an FRO entered, including having their name on a national registry that can impact future employment, support obligations, custody and parenting time determinations, prohibitions from carrying/owning weapons that were legally procured, which can also impact employment, etc.  Criminal defendants are required to be advised of their rights and, perhaps, so too should a domestic violence defendant.

It will be interesting to see if the Manual is in fact updated.  Stay tuned…  Either way, if you are representing yourself, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, make sure to inform the court of any true impediments you may have to begin trial on a date provided, such as calling a witness or procuring evidence, prepare a thorough cross-examination of the other party’s witnesses and insist on your right to explore credibility and all issues raised by that witness on direct, and have your evidence pre-marked and a proffer ready to explain to the court why it should be entered.  This does not guarantee success, but it will help with a fair chance.


Lindsay A. Heller is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Lindsay at 973.548.3318 or lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

When a trial court’s decision is published, we know it’s time to listen.   T.M. v. R.M.W. is a good reminder that definitions modernize with our modernizing society, even when dealing with terms and concepts that we use in our daily practice. In this case, the court opined about two integral parts of a domestic violence matter:

  1. Underlying relationship to qualify for a restraining order; specifically, the definition of “dating relationship”.
  2. Defending against the underlying act alleged in support of the restraining order; specifically, the affirmative defense of consent against assault and harassment allegations.

In T.M., the parties sporadically engaged in consensual “rough sex” over the course of eight years, with a three years hiatus.  Their encounters included hair pulling, slapping and choking. The parties did not have any ground rules, either verbally or in writing.

The plaintiff obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) two days after the defendant punched her with a closed fist during a consensual sexual encounter.  The parties continued having intercourse after the incident – for approximately 20 minutes as the plaintiff acknowledged.  What happened next is where their respective sides of the story begin to change.  In the initial complaint, the plaintiff claimed that when she told the defendant not to punch her again, he laughed it off and then punched her again during this encounter.  During testimony, the defendant claimed that they only had the discussion after the intercourse and he agreed to never punch her again before leaving her house, and he anticipated that they would continue with their relationship going forward.

Dating Relationship

Neither party defined their relationship as dating in the traditional sense during their testimony.  Additionally, the parties did not hold themselves out to the public as having a relationship. In fact, the defendant hid these encounters from his girlfriend and the only time that the defendant appeared at the plaintiff’s home uninvited was after the plaintiff told his girlfriend that the defendant cheated on her.

Utilizing the dating relationship factors defined in Andrews v. Rutherford, 363 N.J. Super. 252, 260 (Ch. Div. 2003), which we often take for granted when checking off that box on a restraining order, the court allocated the most weight to the length of their relationship, the intimacy involved and the catchall factor as to the uniqueness of their relationship.  Notably the court found:

For the courts to deny this plaintiff victim status could potentially been seen as morally judging a plaintiff who chooses not to engage in a relationship with ‘traditional’ and ‘observable’ indicia of dating.

Additionally, the court opined that a plaintiff enduring abuse in a secret relationship may be even more vulnerable than in a traditional dating relationship.  Thus, the plaintiff prevails on this prong.

Consent

This aspect of the case turned primarily on credibility to determine whether the plaintiff consented to the alleged punch, especially after both parties acknowledged consent for the slapping, hair pulling and choking that would have otherwise qualified as harassment by offensive touching and assault. Although the parties’ testimony differed about the conversation regarding the punch at the end of their encounter, they both acknowledged that they continued engaging in consensual sexual intercourse thereafter.

The court initially found that the plaintiff was credible, noting her candor about the parties’ relationship. However, the defendant became the more credible party after his testimony successfully disputed the plaintiff’s claims about a prior history of domestic violence, which did not exist,  the parties’ conversation after their sexual encounter that evening, and the second punch alleged in the plaintiff’s initial complaint. The court found the defendant so credible that it even repeated his term for the punch as a “tap on the jaw”, after reviewing the stipulated discharge instructions from the plaintiff’s visit to Urgent Care, pictures of the plaintiff’s face on the day of the incident and two days later, and noting that the plaintiff did not have any visible marks during the trial that occurred ten days after the incident.

Erring on the side of caution, the court determined that the issue of consent was a “close call” and analyzed the second prong of a domestic violence analysis, namely whether a Final Restraining Order is necessary. Again turning to credibility, the court determined that the FRO is not necessary to protect the plaintiff and that an FRO cannot be entered to protect the “general public” despite the plaintiff’s (unsubstantiated) claim that other women should be protected from the defendant.

Take-Away

While the plaintiff did not prevail on obtaining a FRO in this sound decision, she did prevail on making a mark in our legal system that traditional relationships are not the only ones requiring attention and protection.  Perhaps this will lead the way to a victim of domestic violence in a private, non-traditional relationship to come forward with his/her story and seek protection.


Lindsay A. Heller is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Lindsay at 973.548.3318 or lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

Technology is making it easier and easier to satisfy our curiosity about just what the heck the people in our lives are up to.  Are you curious about your husband’s whereabouts?  You could plant a GPS device on his car.  Do you want to know what your wife is saying to the kids?  There are many ways to go about recording those conversations.  Are you dying to know what your spouse is doing on that laptop, tablet, or smartphone of his/hers?  You could install spyware or other programs (I’ve even heard of some of them referred to as “spouseware”) to secretly find out.  Learning about your spouse’s or ex’s comings and goings, who they are living with, or what they are talking to the kids about can all be valuable information when there are custody issues, questions about whether your ex is cohabiting with someone else for purposes of termination or suspension of alimony, and many other legal issues.  It’s certainly tempting…

BUT DON’T DO IT.  At least not without talking to an attorney.  Because even though technology gives you the ability to do this, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it legal.

I am seeing these issues come up more and more in my practice, and while much is unclear about where the boundaries can and should be drawn because of the fact sensitive nature of the use of technology in family law cases, a few things appear clear to me.  Using technology to track your spouse or significant other leaves you open to a claim of stalking under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.  When you use technology to record parties to a conversation without their consent, you may also be subject to criminal and civil liability under Federal and State wiretapping laws – in New Jersey, this is known as the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:156A.  This is not to mention other civil claims such as invasion of privacy.

This is why it is critical that, before you take any step to use technology to surveil your spouse, you speak with an attorney to ensure that you are not doing anything that may subject you to civil or criminal liability, or to discuss alternative options that will allow you to surveil your spouse or family member without taking this risk.  When you are dealing with a criminal charge of stalking, the “But the private investigator I consulted with said it was okay” defense is no defense at all.  While private investigators know all about technology that can be used to surveil your spouse or other family member, they are not always thinking about or even aware of the legal ramifications of their advice.

And, importantly, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and your spouse or other family member learns that they were being spied on, you cannot try to cover your tracks by destroying the evidence – this is known as “spoliation” of evidence and if you do it, you will likely be subject to sanctions and/or adverse inferences drawn by the Court.  In other words, the Court will punish you for destroying evidence, and may assume that you did engage in the illegal use of technology by virtue of the fact that you felt the need to destroy the evidence of your conduct.  Just ask the Plaintiff in the recent case out of New York State, Crocker C. v. Anne R., in which the Plaintiff installed spyware on his wife’s electronic devices to monitor all of her communications and listen in on her conversations with third parties including privileged communications with her attorneys and her psychiatrist.  When the Defendant discovered this, the Plaintiff immediately “wiped” all trace of the spyware from these devices so that it was not possible to determine the extent to which he intercepted her communications.  He was sanctioned and found in contempt.

And if you find yourself on the receiving end of being spied on by your spouse or family member, it is critical to obtain the immediate services of a forensic expert who can examine any device being used to record or surveil you and can take steps to preserve any such device for evidence purposes.

Remember:  In many ways, the legal uses of technology – especially in the context of family law issues – is a bit like the Wild West.  We are still trying to figure out the rules and the exceptions to those rules when it comes to the legal issues that arise in family law disputes, and it is always best to consult with an attorney before taking action.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica 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 jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

The Appellate Division recently issued a published (precedential) decision in the matter of G.M. v. C.V. providing some clarification on procedures that must be followed when a transcript is not available to serve as a record of a prior hearing.

In G.M., a domestic violence restraining order had been entered between the parties in 2004.  Fast forward to 2016, when the Defendant sought to dissolve the restraining order.  According to the Defendant, the existence of the restraining order was making it very difficult for her to find employment and, she argued, it was no longer necessary for the protection of the Plaintiff.  She alleged that the parties, who had children together, had numerous interactions over the years since the entry of the restraining order without incident, had even toured colleges with the child together and entered into a business transaction together.  Simply put, the Defendant claimed that the Plaintiff no longer feared her or had a need for the protections of the restraining order.

Significantly, domestic violence restraining orders cannot easily be dissolved.  Parties cannot simply agree to dissolve them.  Even if both parties tell the Court that they are in agreement, a judge must still hold a hearing to determine if there is “good cause” to modify or dissolve a domestic violence restraining order.  This is because, due to the nature of domestic violence and the dynamic of fear created by the aggressor, “consent” from a victim of domestic violence may not be genuine.  Rather, it may be the result of fear and manipulation or control by the victimizer.

N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(d) requires that modifications or dissolutions of a domestic violence restraining order can only be granted by a judge who is the same judge who entered the restraining order, or “has available a complete record of the hearing or hearings on which the order was based.”  The “complete record” includes the transcript of the final restraining order hearing, which allows the Court to be familiar with the full history of domestic violence and best evaluate the victim’s continued fear of the perpetrator.

Unfortunately, in G.M., the transcript was unavailable because the audio recording of the final restraining order hearing was blank.  To do nothing would deprive the defendant of her right to due process – the court cannot just sit by and refuse to hear the issue as a result of the unavailability of a transcript.  Therefore, the Appellate Division took this opportunity to establish procedures for addressing the issue of the absence of a transcript in these hearings:

  • When the transcript is available, but simply has not been provided by the moving party, this is a fatal omission and will result in the denial of the application to modify or dissolve the restraining order.
  • If the moving party has documentation from the judiciary showing that the final restraining order hearing cannot be transcribed in whole or in part, the court must determine if this problem was caused by the moving party.  The Court must also determine if the transcript is totally unavailable, or if it can be recovered.
    • If there is no audio recording to transcribe or it has been corrupted, and the moving party was not the cause of this malfunction, the court must then determine if the moving party can produce evidence to establish a prima facie case that a change of circumstances exists to modify or dissolve the restraining order in the absence of a transcript.  The Court must also determine if the judge who entered the restraining order entered a detailed statement of reasons, which would allow the Court to determine if the record is complete.
    • If the Court cannot assess whether to deny the application or whether, based on the record before it, it is satisfied that there is prima facie evidence of a change in circumstances that may warrant modification or dissolution of a restraining order, then the Court must reconstruct the record of the FRO hearing, with the goal of producing a record that “provides reasonable assurances of accuracy and completeness.”

Once the record is reconstructed or there is deemed sufficient information from the available record to determine whether a change of circumstances exists warranting modification or dissolution of the restraining order, the Court can move forward with a determination as to whether good cause exists to do so.

While this case dealt strictly with the issue of domestic violence restraining orders, one can imagine other scenarios in which these procedures can be adapted where transcripts of prior proceedings are unavailable, but necessary to educate a judge about testimony given during earlier but related proceedings.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica 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 jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

The word “harassment” is one of those terms I hear all the time as a family law attorney.  I have had complaints from clients that their spouse made a mess of the house just to “harass” them.  Or, I have had adversaries who intentionally misconstrue every single dispute between our clients as “harassment.”  It is just one of those hot-button words that everyone likes to use so much, that there are times when I wonder whether it has lost all meaning with judges and other family lawyers.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “harassment” as follows:

  1.  a: Exhaust; fatigue; b: 1) to annoy persistently; 2) to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.
  2. to worry and impede by repeated raids.

And maybe making a mess around the house in order to drive your wife crazy or picking fights about what to feed the children, who last filled the car up with gas, or who is responsible for paying the nanny this week is harassment as Merriam-Webster defines it.

But when we start bandying about this word to one another before the Court and in the context of family law litigation, there is a legal definition that applies and that we should all be mindful of before labeling what is simply domestic contretemps as legally actionable harassment.

A person commits the criminal act of Harassment when:

[. . .] 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.

N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.

Thus, to be legally actionable, the “harassment” must meet the above criteria. In the recent matter of State v. Burkert, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed subpart (c) of this definition of harassment. The Court in Burkert found that – where the alleged harassment is based on purely expressive activity – a liberal reading of subpart (c) may run afoul of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which guarantees protection of speech even if it is offensive in nature.

In Burkert, the “purely expressive activity” had to do with the Defendant super-imposing some very, uh, colorful, language on a photograph of his co-worker’s wife and circulating it at work.  There was no question this act was committed “with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy” Burkert’s co-worker.  At the same time, to find Burkert guilty of harassment for engaging in this speech would run afoul of his First Amendment Protections.  No matter how offensive speech may be, it is generally protected barring a risk to one’s reasonable expectation of privacy or safety.

In order to reconcile First Amendment Protections with subpart (c) of the statute, then, the Court held the following:

Therefore, for constitutional reasons, we will construe the terms ‘any other course of alarming conduct’ and ‘acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy’ as repeated communications directed at a person that reasonably put that person in fear for his safety or security or that intolerably interfere with that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

While State v. Burkert is a criminal case, it is important for all family law practitioners and any individual considering obtaining a domestic violence restraining order based on harassment to take heed of Burkert.  In cases where a restraining order is sought based on allegations of harassment, the plaintiff must prove that harassment has occurred as defined by the above statute.  Therefore, the Court’s narrow construing of subpart (a) of the statute is critically important to those seeking the protections of a domestic violence restraining order based on harassment.

Practically speaking, then, what does this ruling change?  Well, it ensures that speech alone cannot be the basis of a harassment crime or of a domestic violence alone.  For example, if your spouse called you by an expletive instead of by your name 100 times in a 48 hour period, it might fit the Merriam-Webster definition of harassment, but it won’t fit the new definition of harassment under subpart (c), unless combined with harassing conduct and / or speech that reasonably makes you fearful for your life, or intolerably interferes with your reasonable expectation of privacy.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica 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 jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

Notice and opportunity to be heard is one of the most fundamental tenants of due process in this country. Every litigant, no matter how small the case, has the right to have his or her “day in court.” As we learn in the recent Appellate Division decision of T.M.S. v. W.C.P., that applies equally to a plaintiff – the party bringing the action – and to a defendant – the party defending against the action.

Some background as to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, may be helpful to understand the trial court’s error in this case.

Under the PDVA, a Court may enter a restraining order pursuant to a complaint to protect a victim of domestic violence. Following a hearing, the court will issue a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) if it finds that the victim was subjected to domestic violence by someone with whom the victim has a domestic relationship. The victim must prove that an act of domestic violence occurred and that a restraining order is necessary to protect the victim from immediate danger or future acts of domestic violence.

Although restraining orders may be termed “final” that does not mean that they can never be vacated. Under the PDVA, a court may vacate an FRO upon good cause shown. N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(d).

The case of Carfagno v. Carfagno, 288 N.J. Super. 424 (Ch. Div. 1995) establishes eleven factors a court must weigh to determine if a defendant established the requisite good cause to vacate an FRO:

(1) whether the victim consented to lift the restraining order;

(2) whether the victim fears the defendant;

(3) the nature of the relationship between the parties today;

(4) the number of times that the defendant has been convicted of contempt for violating the order;

(5) whether the defendant has a continuing involvement with drug or alcohol abuse;

(6) whether the defendant has been involved in other violent acts with other persons;

(7) whether the defendant has engaged in counseling;

(8) the age and health of the defendant;

(9) whether the victim is acting in good faith when opposing the defendant’s request;

(10) whether another jurisdiction has entered a restraining order protecting the victim from the defendant; and

(11) other factors deemed relevant by the court.

In T.M.S., a final restraining order was entered against the defendant on November 29, 2006. In 2008, the defendant moved, unsuccessfully, to vacate the FRO pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(d) and Carfagno. Subsequently, defendant filed a second Carfagno application to dismiss the FRO. The plaintiff did not appear for the hearing. After determining plaintiff had been properly served with notice of the hearing, the court granted the defendant’s unopposed application.

The Court made the following findings in support of its conclusion:

  • Plaintiff did not consent to the FRO’s dissolution because she was not present.
  • The facts proved defendant never violated the FRO because the parties had no reason to interact; specifically, because they did not have children and both were in committed relationships.
  • Defendant’s prior insobriety partially contributed to the domestic violence incident, and he had been sober for nearly eight years and even chaired his sobriety group.
  • Defendant attended domestic violence counseling.
  • Although physically Defendant was a “big guy,” defendant had health problems that reduced his strength.
  • As to plaintiff’s good faith, the court noted she did not appear in court, and there were no additional orders in other jurisdictions against defendant.

With the FRO vacated, defendant moved for relief from the weapons forfeiture, which requires a defendant to surrender his or her weapons upon the entry of the restraining order. At the initial weapons forfeiture hearing, a question arose for the first time as to whether plaintiff was properly notified of the dismissal of the FRO.

On the last day of the hearing, on December 15, 2015, the court, who had heard the initial Carfagno application, reversed its initial determination plaintiff was validly served with defendant’s dismissal application, and vacated the December 8, 2014 dismissal order, reinstating the FRO. As a result, the weapons forfeiture matter was dismissed. The Court determined that an old address on file for the plaintiff was used and it was questionable as to whether she still remained resident there.

While this case certainly calls into question the plaintiff’s notice and opportunity to be heard on the Carfagno hearing vacating the FRO, the Court focused on the Court’s violations of the defendant’s due process here. On appeal, defendant argued the PDVA does not permit a court to reinstate an FRO on its own motion. He asserted, although a trial court may revisit an interlocutory order, it could not sua sponte review a final order.

The Appellate Division agreed with the defendant and reinstated the dismissal. In doing so, the Appellate Division focused primarily on the fact that, by sua sponte reinstating the FRO in the ancillary weapons forfeiture matter, the court overlooked fundamental due process principles. If plaintiff challenged the order dismissing the FRO, she was required to file a motion for relief in the domestic violence matter, so defendant could be heard and there, address the issue of service.

The Court concluded that requiring plaintiff to reopen a dismissed TRO or FRO must be made in the underlying domestic violence matter, not an ancillary matter, and further requiring such requests to be made by formal application equally will (a) protect domestic violence victims by providing them with formal notice where there is an application to vacate the orders of protection, and, (b) assure due process for defendants.

In a footnote of the case, the Appellate Division also suggested the Conference of Family Presiding Judges consider promulgating formal operational guidance requiring plaintiffs to periodically update their address with the Family Division. We will let you know if this occurs.

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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

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.”

44694685 - domestic violence abuse or aggression within marriage against partner wife or children

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.

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Eric SolotoffEric 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 esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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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:

  1. The defendant committed one or more of the predicate acts of domestic violence identified in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act; and
  2. 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.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica 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 jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

I previously blogged on economic abuse as a form of domestic violence in a post titled Financial Abuse: The Invisible Wounds of Domestic Violence. Although occurring in approximately 98% of all domestic violence situations according to National Network to End Domestic Violence, economic abuse is not what most people think about when they hear the term “domestic violence”.

Recently, the unpublished decision of C.G. v. E.G. addressed interference with employment as a harassing and coercive form of domestic violence. In this matter, the defendant intentionally attempted to obstruct and interfere with plaintiff’s new employment by calling her place of work without her consent, bothering her employer as well as her employer’s wife, and embarrassing plaintiff by alleging that she and her employer were having an affair.

Judge Jones defined economic harassment as “including purposeful acts which a defendant perpetrates while intending that such acts either (a) impair or obstruct a plaintiff’s actual or prospective job or job-related duties, or (b) threaten to do so with the purpose of controlling [someone], and/or pressuring or intimidating [someone] into submitting to [their] demands or wishes.” Judge Jones went on to describe this behavior as “fear-inducing to a victim of physical abuse” and that “there are arguable few threats more potentially harassing and coercive than threatening one’s livelihood or employment.”

20143619 - illustration depicting a sign with a victim concept

So what encompasses purposefully interfering with another’s employment?

(1)        Directly threatening to contact the victim’s place of employment and attempting to get the victim fired, either by making false allegations, or improperly publicizing private, personal and embarrassing information about the victim;

(2)        Actually contacting the place of employment and following through with actions designed to damage the victim’s status, and stability at his/her job; and

(3)        Repeatedly appearing uninvited at the victim’s place of employment and causing a disturbance, or otherwise acting in a manner which is disrespectful of, and/or embarrassing to, the victim, and disruptive to the victim’s job responsibilities and performance, and/or standard business operations.

The abusers underlying behavior, while an obvious form of harassment, is often times done as a way to corner the victim into either interacting with the aggressor or submitting to certain demands. Often times the victim, in order to avoid embarrassment gives in to the aggressor’s behaviors to their detriment.

Such interference with employment may constitute both harassment and coercion. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reported that between 35% and 65% of victims of domestic violence are harassed at work by their abusers.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized the right to be left alone in State v. Hoffmann, 149 N.J. 564, 585-85 (1997). Thus, “a person has a basic right to be left alone by an estranged or former spouse or dating partner at his or her place of employment.”

The Court concluded in C.G. v. E.G. that by phoning “plaintiff’s place of employment against plaintiff’s wishes, with the purpose and tactic of causing her harm as expressed and desired in his text message, and/or otherwise wearing plaintiff down into submission”, defendant “knew or should have known that he was improperly encroaching on Plaintiff’s new employment, while potentially subjecting her to public embarrassment in front of her employer and co-workers” and that these actions constitute harassment.

Additionally, defendant’s actions constitute a new form of domestic violence, coercion. In August 2015, the New Jersey Legislature amended the Domestic Violence Act to include “coercion”.

Coercion is defined as “threats made to unlawfully restrict another’s freedom of action to engage or refrain from engaging in conduct by threatening to:

(1)        Inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other offense;

(2)        Accuse anyone of an offense;

(3)        Expose any secret which would tend to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to impair his credit or business repute;

(4)        Take or withhold action as an official, or cause an official to take or withhold action;

(5)        Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action, except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the restriction compelled is demanded in the course of negotiation for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor acts;

(6)        Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another’s legal claim or defense; or

(7)        Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to substantially harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.

Interference with one’s employment can be considered both harassment and coercion, the latter expanding the prior definition of domestic violence to give victims more alternatives for protection against their abusers.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact your local law enforcement and/or the confidential and anonymous National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-572-7233.

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided some important clarification with regard to the issue of firearm forfeiture in the wake of an arrest and firearm seizure pursuant to the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (NJPDVA), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to 35.  In In the Matter of the Application of New Jersey for the Forfeiture of Personal Weapons and Firearms Identification Card Belonging to F.M., the Supreme Court squarely addressed the following important question:  Under what circumstances can a personal firearm and firearms purchaser identification card seized pursuant to the NJPDVA be forfeited pursuant to the firearms forfeiture statute N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5)?

The Facts & Evidence

The firearm owner at the center of this case – “F.M.” – was involved in a Domestic Violence proceeding in March 2010, wherein he was named defendant.  As a result of the domestic violence incident, F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card were confiscated by the police.  In addition to the domestic violence proceedings, F.M. was charged with simple assault.  Notably, F.M. himself worked as a police officer and, therefore, had not only a personal weapon but also a service weapon.  At a hearing to determine whether a Final Restraining Order should be entered against F.M. for the protection of his wife, the Court decided against the entry of same and dismissed the case against F.M.

Although one might think that, upon dismissal of an FRO, any weapons seized in connection with the restraining order are automatically returned to the defendant, this is not always the case.  The State may move to forfeit a personal weapon and identification card under N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) even if the domestic violence case under which the weapons were initially seized is dismissed.  This is precisely what the State did in the instant case.  Reserving on the State’s motion, the trial court judge noted that the court would issue a decision on the final disposition of F.M.’s personal and service weapons after he completed a batterer-intervention program and attended individual counseling.  F.M. did so, and subsequently filed a motion seeking the return of his personal weapon, the weapon at issue in this matter.

The State opposed F.M.’s motion, arguing that the return of F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare.  To make out its case, the State relied upon the testimony of F.M.’s wife, who testified as to F.M’s history of violence against her, as well as the arresting office who responded to the March 2010 incident and confiscated F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card.  Interestingly, the State also relied upon the testimony of two licensed psychologists who had previously performed Fitness for Duty (FFD) evaluations on F.M., and had interviewed F.M.’s wife in connection with same.  Although their evaluations were directly applicable to the issue of F.M.’s service weapons, their testimony was permitted to address the issue of forfeiture of his personal weapon as well.  One of the psychologists had concluded that F.M. was not fit for full duty and recommended that he be disarmed because he was a “danger [] to himself or others.”  The other psychologist concluded that, although he couldn’t be classified as having a personality disorder, F.M. exhibited elements of various personality disorders that negatively impacted his ability to effectively serve as a police officer; he concluded that F.M. suffered from “a nearly paranoid sense that everyone was out to get him, poor impulse control, poor anger control, and poor judgment.”  He also stated that he believed the public would be endangered if F.M. continued to serve as an armed police officer and that F.M was not fit for duty.

The Path to the N.J. Supreme Court

Largely because there were no findings of clinical mental illness or personality disorder – but rather only elements of same, or what the trial court judge called “subclinical personality styles and tendencies” – the trial judge ordered the return of the personal weapon and identification card.  Interestingly, the Court rejected the psychologists’ conclusions as to the credibility of F.M.’s wife, because the judge him or herself had had more “exposure” to the altercations between F.M. and his wife as the Family Part Judge handling their domestic violence proceedings. The Family Part judge also seems to have concluded that F.M.’s wife had played a part in instigating the dispute that led to the seizure of the weapon, and that there was no prior instance during which F.M. had actually used a gun to harm anyone.  The Appellate Division largely agreed with the Family Part judge’s analysis and findings, noting that deference is accorded to Family Part judges given their intimate involvement with the facts of family part cases.  The State then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law.

The N.J. Supreme Court Decision

The N.J. Supreme Court agreed with the State as to its contention that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law and, in according the Family Part deference, the Appellate Division had erred.  In making its decision, the Court looked to the applicable statute which describes who may obtain a personal firearm and identification card, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), which states:

No person of good character and good repute in the community in which he lives, and who is not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in this section or other sections of this chapter, shall be denied a permit to purchase a handgun or a firearms purchaser identification card, except as hereinafter set forth.

The statute goes on to list 10 “disqualifiers” for purchase of a personal weapon and issuance of a firearms purchaser identification card, including:

(1)  To any person who has been convicted of any crime, or a disorderly persons offense involving an act of domestic violence as defined in section 3 of P.L. 1991, c.261 (C.2C:25-19), whether or not armed with or possessing a weapon at the time of such offense; [. . .](5) To any person where the issuance would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare; [. . .].

Relying on prior decisions, the Court noted that, in order to forfeit a weapon under subpart five (5) of the statute, the State only had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower evidentiary standard equating to “more likely than not”) that an individual’s possession of a firearm would be against the public health, safety, or welfare.  The purpose of the low evidentiary standard is, perhaps obviously, “to prevent firearms from coming into the hands of persons likely to pose a danger to the public.”

Contrary to the holding in the lower courts, the Supreme Court found that the  testimony of F.M.’s wife, the responding officer, and the psychologists – despite their lack of finding a clinical mental illness or personality disorder – suggested that F.M.’s possession of a firearm would indeed more likely than not pose a danger to the public.

Takeaways for the Family Law Practitioner

Those of us who practice family law are well versed in the precedential law that says that the Appellate Division and Supreme Court accord great deference to Family Part Judges.  In this case, however, the Supreme Court reminded us that, although such deference is given to Family Part judges as to the facts of a case, a judge’s legal determinations are of course not immune to review by the higher courts.  A Family Part judge may have a greater “feel” for the case given its familiarity with the parties and issues, but – and perhaps this is stating the obvious – that doesn’t mean their application of the law to the facts must be given deference on appeal.  In this case, the Family Part overlooked the plain language of the statute and appropriate evidentiary standard, and instead made its own justifications for returning the personal weapon and identification card to the defendant.

For those involved in domestic violence matters, this case also serves as a reminder that weapons forfeiture under that statute is black-and-white when an FRO is entered.  If a final restraining order is entered, under subpart (1) of N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), the defendant’s firearm and identification card will be forfeited, something that must be taken into consideration if you are representing a defendant who is a licensed firearm owner.

And yet, if the domestic violence case is dismissed, the issue becomes more gray.  Even if the domestic violence matter that led to the initial confiscation of a firearm and ID card is dismissed against a firearm-owning defendant, the case discussed here makes clear that weapons can still be forfeited if there is credible testimony showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant may be a danger to the public.  Notably, the outcome here also shows that, even if a plaintiff’s testimony in his or her domestic violence matter is insufficient to sustain the entry of a restraining order under the NJPDVA, his or her testimony may be used to prove that the defendant’s firearm and identification card should be forfeited on other grounds.

Whether you represent the party pursuing a restraining order or defending against one, this is important knowledge to have when dealing with a firearm-owning client or adverse party in a domestic violence matter.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica 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 jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.