Final Restraining Order

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.

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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If I were to tell you that the victim of domestic violence was put out of the marital home and the abuser was granted temporary custody of the kids, you would say I was crazy.  The Appellate Division would agree and in reported (precedential) decision released on October 19, 2012 in the case of J.D. v. M.A.D.(ironically), reversed such a holding by a Camden County trial court. 

In this case, the defendant’s discovery of the victim’s infidelity lead to an act of domestic violence.  The victim, however, wanted to remain in and work on the marriage.  The defendant wanted "space" and somehow convinced the victim to leave the home and sign a document giving him primary custody of the children.  The parties later reconciled and the victim returned to the house.  However, unable to control his anger over her affair, a number of additional acts of domestic violence occur ed, culminating with the entry of a TRO against the defendant.  At the Final Restraining Order hearing, the judge then entertained argument "as to who should have possession of the marital home and as to who should have
temporary custody of the children."  The trial judge decided that it should be the defendant, finding that the anger only occur ed when the parties were together and as such because the defendant had been the primary caretaker, he was awarded temporary custody and the victim was excluded from the marital home. 

The victim appealed and the Appellate Division reversed, holding:

The trial court’s findings, set forth in the beginning of this opinion regarding the events over the course of the seven months following defendant’s discovery of his wife’s extramarital affair, are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record and we do not disturb them. The facts as found, however, do not overcome the presumption embodied in N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29b(11), governing the court’s award of temporary custody
in a proceeding under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, "that the best interests of the child are served by an award of custody to the non-abusive parent." Moreover, these facts cannot support an order granting exclusive possession of the marital home to the party the court has found to have perpetrated the abuse.

Continue Reading Perpetrator of Domestic Violence Cannot have the victim removed and get temporary custody of the kids, can he?

As family law practitioners who frequently represent parties in domestic violence actions, we are often confronted with clients who, having been the victim of domestic violence, seek to prohibit their spouse’s presence at any location where they will also be present. Until just recently, the law remained silent as to whether a restraining order could provide such broad prohibitions. On January 17, 2012, the legal silence ended by way of the matter of State v. S.K., Docket No. A-1488-10T1, which has been approved for publication and is, therefore, binding law upon the trial courts of our state. As established in S.K., a provision in a domestic violence restraining order that prohibits a defendant from “any other place where plaintiff is located” is not generally not enforceable as The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act does not authorize such non-specific restraints. N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35.

 

In addition to the more ‘common’ relief of barring defendant from plaintiff’s place of residence and employment, the final restraining order in S.K. went one large step further by prohibiting defendant from “any other place where plaintiff is located”. Over five years after the restraining order was entered, defendant attended the soccer game of the parties’ children at a local high school that plaintiff also attended. While plaintiff sat in the bleachers, defendant stood near the bleachers, watching the game. Upon seeing defendant, plaintiff telephoned the police and advised them that defendant was in violation of the final restraining order. At no time did plaintiff accuse defendant of communicating or contacting her in any way. No action was taken by the police at that time.

 

The day following the soccer event, plaintiff filed a “citizen’s complaint” against defendant for violation of the restraining order. In response, the police filed a formal complaint, charging defendant with “disorderly persons contempt” in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9b, as well as “petty disorderly persons harassment”, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4a. Accordingly, defendant was arrested and processed and released from custody. Trial was held six months later, wherein the State offered defendant a plea agreement in exchange for serving no jail time. Defendant agreed to plead guilty to the contempt charge conditioned upon the State dismissing the harassment charge.

 

Finding in favor of plaintiff, the Appellate Court reversed plaintiff’s conviction and remanded to the trial court for dismissal of the complaint filed by the Sate and consideration of an appropriate amendment of the final restraining order to delete the invalid provision.

Continue Reading Enforceability of Domestic Violence Restraints That Prohibit a Defendant from Attending Any Location Where Plaintiff May Also Be Present

Victims of domestic violence often believe that they will be able to obtain a Final Restraining Order against their abuser simply because they were able to obtain the initial Temporary Restraining Order.  Obtaining an FRO, however, can be more difficult than one might think in light of the necessary proofs that must be made in court.  A victim must essentially prove his or her allegations by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not).

While New Jersey’s Rules of Evidence are supposed to strictly apply, the fact that these situations are oftentimes  "he said/she said" versions of events can necessitate some flexibility in order to get the full story on the record.  However, as the Appellate Division recently held in N.V. v. Hartman, there are limitations as to har far a Trial Court may go in relying upon certain forms of evidence. 

The case involved a same-sex domestic violence dispute where N.V. alleged that Hartman had harassed her within the terms of New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.  In implementing a FRO against Hartman, the Trial Court relied in large part upon phone calls that Hartman made to N.V., finding that parts of the calls were threatening to N.V.’s safety based on the tone and language of the calls themselves. 

In reversing the Trial Court, the Appellate Division found that certain calls upon which the Trial Court relied were not made part of the Court record because a transcript of the calls was not entered as evidence, a verbatim record was not made of the calls played in Court, and the tape containing the calls was not marked into evidence as a Court exhibit and retained by the Court.  The Appellate Division, as a result, could not determine what recordings were acctually relied upon or played for the trial judge.  A new trial was Ordered as a result.

Relying on experienced counsel can help a litigant navigate through rules of evidence that can be tricky and technical.  Otherwise, key pieces of evidence upon which you want to rely at a FRO hearing may be inadmissible or improperly used in making your case. 

A typical question that I hear at most initial consultations (and I suspect most other divorce attorneys hear the same question) , is "how do I get my spouse out of the house?"  The typical answer is that unless there is a new act of domestic violence, you cannot usually have a spouse removed from the house while the case is pending.

While in a perfect world, attorneys are not telling their client’s to get restraining orders that are not legitimate, that seems naive.  Similarly, I am sure that badly motivated litigants, when hearing that a restraining order is necessary to get rid of their spouse, will do whatever it takes to get that restraining order, including provoking altercations and/or fabricating an incident.  I have, unfortunately seen or heard of this many times.  In fact, I often advise people to have a recorder with them at all times to protect themselves from a set-up.  In a recent case, the wife told the husband that she would no anything she could to get him out of the house.  I have unfortunately heard this a lot.  Aside from the obvious reason to get rid of a spouse, the other reason is that with the entry of a final restraining order comes a rebuttable presumption that the victim should get custody of the children.  Also, there is the practical advantage of gaining possession of the home and temporary custody of the children by virtue of a restraining order. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Domestic violence, real domestic violence is a blight on our society and is in no way acceptable.  That is not what I am talking about.  I am talking about, at best, what the Appellate Division has called "domestic contretemps" (i.e. your garden variety argument) and at worst the set-up noted above. 

Continue Reading The Abuse and Misuse of the Domestic Violence Statute

In a recent unpublished decision from the Appellate Division, McAteer v. Guzenski, Docket No. A-1540-07T3, decided January 21, 2009, the Court held that N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(b)(16) dictates that when an individual is found to have committed an act of domestic violence, a court may also issue an order prohibiting that individual from possessing any other weapon.

When domestic violence arises in a situation that is protected under the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act, (i.e. marriage, dating relationship, living together, etc.) individuals will disclose what weapons he/she believes or knows the aggressor to have in their possession.  Thereafter, when the Temporary Restraining Orders (“TRO”)  is served, a person’s weapons are seized by the police department.  More often than not, when the Final Restraining Orders (“FRO”) is entered, a judge will include a provision prohibiting the aggressor from retaining possession of those weapons listed.   If the TRO is  turned into an FRO , thus making the restraints permanent, the sheriff’s department or local police authority will retain possession of these items.  At some point, they may even be auctioned for sale.

In this recent unpublished decision, the parties dated for approximately three weeks.  At the end of these three weeks, plaintiff advised defendant that she wanted to end the relationship.  Unsatisfied with her notification, defendant began engaging in acts which the trial court found to be harassment and which raised to the level that required the entry of an FRO.  These acts included telephoning the plaintiff’s grandmother and threatening to call DYFS on plaintiff (consequently DYFS appeared the next day, however it was never proven that defendant did in fact make the call), calling and text messaging plaintiff at inconvenient hours, calling plaintiff names, and posting a message about plaintiff on his MySpace web page.  After a trial in this matter, where both parties were represented by counsel and the court heard testimony not only of the parties but of their witnesses as well, it was determined that defendant did in fact commit an act of domestic violence and that his actions warranted the protections of an FRO.  Inclusive in the issuance of the FRO, the court advised defendant that he was prohibited from possessing firearms and other weapons and that because there was a finding of domestic violence, there was an automatic prohibition against owning any firearms or other weapons.  The weapons involved in this case included martial arts weapons, i.e. a large sword, throwing spikes and stars, a crossbow, staffs, a spear, many knives and nunchucks.

Defendant testified that he never threatened to hurt or harm the plaintiff and that he only used these weapons when practicing marital arts.  Nonetheless, the court ordered a prohibition against defendant carrying or owning these weapons as a result of the entry of the FRO.

Continue Reading Return of Weapons When a Final Restraining Order Is Entered

The administrative office of the courts recently announced that law enforcement officials will have access to information on final restraining orders (FRO’s) nationwide.  This access will provide an added layer of security for domestic violence victims who have left the state either temporarily or permanently.

How will this work? The courts are going to be working with the NJ State Police and the Criminal Justice Information Unit, in the division of law and public safety.  They will work together to transmit the FRO information into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

The National Crime Information database file exists to help police authorities and criminal agencies locate missing persons, apprehend fugitives, return stolen property and protect law enforcement personnel who may encounter these individuals.

Once all the FRO information from NJ is entered into the database, the information will be accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide.  Through this project, domestic violence victims who travel or move to another state have the added assurance that the FRO issued in New Jersey will remain permanently in effect and enforceable nationwide.

Can an act of domestic violence by one parent against the other constitute sufficient “changed circumstance” to warrant a Court’s re-examination of an existing custodial arrangement? New Jersey law requires that a party seeking to modify a custody arrangement first establish the existence of such “changed circumstance” that affect the welfare of the child involved. Only after proving this threshold burden will a Court engage in a “best interest” of the child analysis to determine a custody award. The best interest analysis is based on the 14 factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.

 

Affirming a trial court’s order awarding primary residential custody of the parties’ nine-year old daughter to the plaintiff father, the Appellate Division in Chen v. Chen recently concluded that the mother’s act of driving over the father’s foot and dragging him for a few feet as he held onto the car in the presence of the daughter constituted a sufficient “changed circumstance” to trigger a “best interest” analysis. The father had filed a complaint after the incident under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”), N.J.S.A. 2C:15 to -35, resulting in the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order wherein custody of the child was temporarily transferred to the father. A Final Restraining Order was subsequently entered maintaining the custody arrangement pending a full custody evaluation and hearing that ultimately resulted in the father’s designation as the primary residential custodian. 

 

In its affirmance, the Appellate Division rejected for three reasons the mother’s argument that the act of domestic violence could not constitute changed circumstances because the child was not physically subjected to the violence. First, the Court generally surmised that, “It seems obvious to us that domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor inherently implicates the child’s health, safety and welfare.” Next, the Court relied on the terms of the PDVA, which presumes that “the best interests of the child are served by an award of custody to the non-abusive parent” when determining temporary custody following an act of violence. Third, it rationalized that, because N.J.S.A. 9:2-4 deems this an act of domestic violence is a “critical factor” in determining custody, it, by correlation, also suffices to establish changed circumstances.  

 

The Appellate Division also affirmed the trial court’s best interest analysis based on proof of the mother’s domestic violence; her use of a wooden spoon to punish the child; her inflexible adherence to the parenting schedule; her failure to timely inform the father that she had relocated to New Jersey; and the child’s improved developmental growth and resolution of behavioral problems that manifested themselves while she was with her mother. Notably, the Court also rejected the mother’s charge of cultural bias stemming from the trial court’s conclusion that the values instilled by the father would continue to aid in the child’s development in a “twenty-first century United States,” since the trial court’s analysis was deemed proper and objective under 9:2-4.

 

Parents should keep their hostilities towards each other in check, as the Appellate Divisions’ opinion suggests that any act of domestic violence towards the other in front of the child will likely fulfill the changed circumstances threshold should a party seek to modify a custody arrangement. Parties should also be careful to abide by the terms of the PSA regarding custody, as the trial court (although not addressed by the Appellate Division) noted that even the mother’s failure to notify the father of her relocation to New Jersey with the child pursuant to the terms of the PSA also constituted changed circumstances justifying a best interest analysis.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  People should not forget that upon the entry of a final restraining order, there is a legal presumption that the victim should get custody.  Like all presumptions, this is rebuttable.  This presumption does not extend to civil restraints (i.e. a Consent Order in the matrimonial matter that is similar to a restraining order but is not under the domestic violence docket and not punishable by criminal contempt if violated).  That said, if there are true custody issues and a domestic violence matter arises, one must think long and hard about whether to settle the matter and enter into civil restraints.  – Eric S. Solotoff