In 2009, Eric Solotoff did a blog post on the Abuse and Misuse of the Domestic Violence Statute. Recently, I too have seen a rash of reversals in the Appellate Division as to alleged offenses that the trial court has found to constitute domestic violence. It got me thinking; is overuse and misapplication, and
The immortal George Carlin once said, “That’s the whole meaning of life, trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is, just a place for your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”
In the context of Family Law, the topic of personal property is rarely discussed and consistently dismissed by the court and counsel. It is clear that both view personal property as being simply stuff. In fact, it has been assigned multiple euphemisms to it in order to deflate its relative importance. We have all heard the dismissive terms: chachka; accoutrement; trinket; fixture; knick knack; and of course, whatnot- a word specifically designed to describe all the things the item is actually not. In addition, there is often such contempt for personal property that we have created an amalgamation, personalty, simply in hopes of accelerating the process of distributing it by reducing the length of the term, itself.
We have written before on the topics of the use and misuse of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and representing a litigant in a domestic violence matter. Within the past few weeks, a few experiences have brought this topic back to the forefront, and I thought that now was a good time to address the issues, especially in the context of “resolving” such matters. As a family law attorneys, we frequently encounter domestic violence as a component of our practice. Whether it happens in the context of an ongoing divorce, entirely independent of a marital relationship, or something different altogether, each case is certainly different from the next, and each case resides on its own motivations, so to speak.
What I mean by that is, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is a vital piece of legislation designed to protect actual victims of domestic violence. Countless matters come across our desks involving legitimate, truthful victims in need of the law’s immediate protection from an abusive defendant. Some of the most difficult matters involve those where we represent real victims with tragic fears of harm, including those who are immersed in the cycle of violence looking for a way out. Considering the risk to such a victim if a final restraining order is not granted, the import of the litigation is vital.
On the other hand, many cases – typically in the context of an ongoing divorce matter – involve a litigation-minded spouse simply looking to get the proverbial “leg up” over the other spouse in that separate, but related matter. Since the law is liberal in its protection of victims, it is often quite easy to procure a temporary restraining order, where the alleged victim can seemingly state whatever allegation he or she deems appropriate so long as it results in procuring a TRO. There are several well known cases addressing the judiciary’s obligation to look out for those litigants who are trying to use the law to his or her advantage, as such an occurrence is unfortunately all too common.
This post was written by Melissa M. Ruvolo, a new Family Law associate, in our Roseland office, and soon to be an official contributior to this blog.
Our blog frequently features discussions regarding what constitutes domestic violence to warrant the issuance of a Final Restraining Order (FRO). Perhaps the most frequently alleged “predicate act of domestic violence” is harassment under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4. What may constitute “harassment” was recently raised in the unpublished Appellate Division decision of A.B. v. L.S.M. decided on May 6, 2011.
The parties were unmarried but had been living together for almost four years. They had two daughters – a 3-year old and a 22-month old. During an argument, the defendant called the plaintiff a “b-tch” and the plaintiff admitted she may also have cursed and yelled at him. The defendant attempted to leave the home but while doing so, got a flat tire. When he tried to fix it with a car jack, the plaintiff twice tried to remove the jack from under the car and the defendant pushed her shoulders each time. She threw the daughter’s sippy cup at his face and broke his nose. Both parties applied for temporary restraining orders, which were dismissed. The defendant eventually moved out of the home and parenting time was ordered by the Court.
Two months later, the defendant went to the plaintiff’s home and knocked on her bathroom window, pleading to speak with her. The plaintiff refused. On the way home from plaintiff’s house, the defendant sent her an apologetic text message stating that he had no idea how much he had hurt her and would leave her alone.
Several days later, when the defendant went to the plaintiff’s home to pick up the children for parenting time, he asked to speak with her. He told her he “really missed her” and wanted to “hug and kiss her.” She responded that she didn’t want to talk to him or “have him touch her.” Later that evening, the defendant sent a text message to the plaintiff claiming the children forgot a teddy bear and blanket. She offered to bring them to his home and he agreed. When the plaintiff arrived at the defendant’s front door, he told her the children were already asleep, leading her to believe that the entire incident was a ploy to get her there. According to the plaintiff, the defendant grabbed her to prevent her from leaving and she told him not to touch her. The plaintiff’s friend, who was waiting in the car, witnessed the defendant give the plaintiff an unwanted “bear hug.”
Lately, it seems as if everywhere I turn I am representing a party in a domestic violence matter, whether in relation to or separate from an ongoing divorce matter. With these recent experiences fresh in my mind, I thought I would take the time to blog about the lawyer’s role in representing a defendant in such matters. While it is easy to sympathize with the victim, oftentimes it is the defendant who is falsely accused or caught up in a situation where the victim is trying to get a "leg up" over the other party in the context of a divorce. On of our prior post entited the The Abuse and Misuse of the Domestic Violence Statute, published almost 2 years ago, is perhaps our most commented on post.
Whether the person is the victim or defendant, each passing moment is critical in the compressed time between the filing of the domestic violence complaint and the final hearing to determine whether a temporary restraining order should be converted to a final (permanent) restraining order. I paraphrase one recent client’s opinion as to his wife obtaining a TRO against him – with one call by her to the police, his entire life began crumbling before his eyes as his family and career had been put at risk.
The usual result after a domestic violence trial where the parties had been living together at the time of the entry of the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) is that a Final Restraining Order (FRO) will be entered and the defendant kept out of the home, or the TRO will be dismissed and the defendant would be free to move in. What usually does not happen, and in the majority of cases cannot happen, is that the trial judge dismissed the TRO but Orders the defendant out of the home anyway. However, that is exactly what the trial judge did in the case of C.R. v. A.R., an unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division opinion released on May 5, 2011. The Appellate Division disagreed that this was proper in this case and reversed.
After the trial, the trial judge dismissed the domestic violence complaint, finding that the evidence did not
demonstrate the occurrence of any acts of domestic violence. However immediately upon explaining why the complaint should be dismissed, the trial judge stated the following:
Now, I am somewhat troubled by what [Abby] indicated on the stand. And I think she, in a way, was conveying a message for all the children, and whether she felt, since she’s the oldest and the adult, that she should be the spokesperson for all the girls. But it’s clear that they don’t want the parents living together.
And I —— I tend to agree with them. I don’t think it would be in the parents’ best interest to be living in the house together, in light of what’s been going on. So, since I do have the matrimonial act case in front of me, I am going to enter civil restraints. And the bottom line is I am going to prohibit [Alan] from resuming to reside in the house. And that’s on a temporary basis and without prejudice, but I think it would be in the best interests of the girls if that happened right now, especially in light of the fact that [Abby’s] going to be leaving shortly, will be out of the country, and I —— assume that she has somewhat been the —— the leader or the caretaker for the girls while this has been going on for the last two months. So, [Alan], I am not going to allow you back in the house to live.
Previously, I have blogged on the issue of domestic violence and the NJ Prevention Of Domestic Violence Act. Our courts have carefully scrutinized this Act and its consequences, even determining whether and under what circumstances the issuance of a final restraining order can violate one’s right to due process. Unfortunately, the issue of domestic violence arises all too often in family courts.
The recently published Appellate Court decision of C.M.F. v. R.G.F. arose from an appeal after the trial court issued a final restraining order against an ex-husband. The act of domestic violence in question was found to be an act of harassment committed against the ex-wife while at their child’s sporting event. The main allegation was that the ex-husband screamed and yelled obscenities and other unpleasantries aimed towards his ex-wife.
These parties had gone through a long and tumultuous divorce. Ironically, in 2007 they agreed to parenting time arrangement for their children. They’d each reside in the marital home on a 50/50 basis, with one party living in the home for 3 1/2 days/week with the children and leaving 1 hour before the other party arrived and then alternating. This system seemed to work and avoided the parties having to see each other for quite some period of time.
In January 2009, after filing motions seeking to each have sole possession of the home with the children, an order was entered granting wife possession. The husband was to continue with the same amount of parenting time but to take place out of the marital home. On the day the order was received, wife text messaged husband to let him know what was ordered and to advise that she’d be taking their children to their basketball game and he could pick them up there. She would also leave the children’s overnight bag on the porch for husband’s retrieval. At some time later that evening, husband appeared at the home and a verbal altercation began between the parties. Wife called the police who seemingly diffused the situation at that time.
The Appellate Division recently presented in an unreported decision an educational primer on the criminal act of “harassment” under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35 (the “Act”), in Curry v. Curry, found here. In ultimately dissolving a Final Restraining Order entered by the trial court, the Appellate Division found that the evidence only established the existence of “domestic contretemps” during the course of a troubled marriage, insufficient to prove that harassment occurred under the Act. In so doing, the Appellate Division thoroughly reviewed the legislative purpose of the Act, how to establish harassment, and how the Act is not designed to protect against the common emotional difficulties that arise between parties during the course of a dissolving marriage.
The factual scenario was relatively common – an argument occurred between a married couple when the husband believed that he had found direct evidence of the wife’s infidelity. The wife obtained a Temporary Restraining Order against the husband and, after a hearing, the trial court entered a Final Restraining Order against him, finding that he committed harassment under the Act.