New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act

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 What may constitute “harassment” was recently raised in the unpublished Appellate Division decision of A.B. v. L.S.M. decided on May 6, 2011.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.”


Continue Reading Domestic Violence: Bad Haircuts and an Unwanted Hug Can Constitute Harassment

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.  


Continue Reading One Approach to Legal Representation of a Defendant in a Domestic Violence Matter

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.


Continue Reading Trial Judge Says You Didn't Commit Domestic Violence But Get Out – Appellate Division Says Not So Fast

To obtain a Final Restraining Order, a claimant must, among other things, establish that one of the predicate act of domestic violence actually occurred under N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19.  Notably for the purpose of this blog entry, theft is not one of those predicate acts.  The question then begs – can theft be a form of domestic

Do I have to continue living with him during the divorce?  Can I force her to leave?  Can I just move out?  If I move out, can I take the children with me?  These questions arise during the course of almost every divorce proceeding, and the answers are often not what people want to hear.

In New Jersey, the general answer to whether you can "make" the other party leave the home during the divorce is "no," except if that other party commits an act of domestic violence that results in a restraining order.  Other than that, the options are limited.  For instance, there exists what is known amongst New Jersey family lawyers as "Roberts" relief, allowing a court to Order the removal of a spouse without an event of domestic violence, so-named after an older case that many courts choose to no longer even follow in light of current domestic violence laws.  We were recently successful in obtaining one spouse’s removal from the marital residence pursuant to Roberts, but the circumstances there were so severe that such relief was warranted to prevent irreparable harm from happening to the children. 

With such limited options, often the only choice for parties is to continue living together during the divorce.  If the parties are able to get along and co-exist, recognizing that children living in the home will potentially be impacted long-term by what goes on in the home during the proceedings, problems are less likely to arise.  By contrast, however, if the matter is acrimonious, there can be few things worse than having to live together, especially if the matter drags on for months, if not years.  During one matter in which we were involved, it took almost three years before the parties ultimately settled.  During that time, the parties continued to reside in the marital home together with their young children.  By the time the matter was complete, one parent had completely alienated the children against the other parent, reunification therapy was necessary and the parties were completely unable to be near each other, let alone communicate in a rational manner.  While filing a motion to address such circumstances is more than appropriate, there is only so much Court intervention can do when it is not there to oversee the day-to-day occurrences in the marital home.


Continue Reading Living Together During A Divorce – The Right Decision Or The Only Choice?

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.


Continue Reading Domestic Violence Post-Divorce

The protections afforded by New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act are deliberately liberal for the benefit of abuse victims. Those protections, however, have seemingly expanded to an even greater degree under a new published (precedential) decision from the Appellate Division released on January 26, 2011. In S.Z. v. M.C., the Appellate Division ruled that an

“He pops up everywhere I go; I am going to take out a restraining order against him for harassing me;” “she is calling me non-stop; I’m going to take out a restraining order against her.”

I hear these phrases all too often, from clients, from friends, and even from people on the street. They want to take out restraining orders against friends turned enemies, casual encounters turned habitual stalkers, and lovers now scorned and bitter. Often people are dismayed, however, to hear that in New Jersey, you simply cannot take out a restraining order against just anyone. Specifically, the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, enacted by the Legislature in 1991, only allows the issuance of a restraining order where a person, regardless of gender, has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse, or any other person who is a present or former household member. Also included is any person, who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has a child, or with whom the victim anticipates having a child, if one of the parties is pregnant as well as a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship.

With regard to the “dating relationship” requirement, and indeed, generally, the Act has been construed very broadly in accordance with the Legislature’s overarching goal – namely, to protect victims against further acts of domestic violence. For instance, in J.S. v. J.F., A-2552-08, the Appellate Division held that a paid escort is a “date” under the Act. The Court elaborated upon its decision as follows:

"Experience suggests that most claims of a dating relationship turn on what the particular parties would view as a ‘date,’" wrote the Judge. "Accordingly…courts should vigilantly guard against a slavish adherence to any formula that does not consider the parties’ own understanding of their relationship as colored by socio-economic and generational influences."

While the above definition may reasonably lead to the conclusion that the definition of a “dating relationship” under the Act is boundless, recently, the Appellate Division came out with a decision to the contrary. Specifically, in last month’s decision of C.K. v. A.P., A-20-2-9851, the Appellate Division found that a “casual” relationship was not sufficient so as to constitute a “dating relationship” under the Act which would warrant the issuance of a Final Restraining Order. In C.K., the parties had a casual relationship from approximately November or December 2006, to approximately April and July 2006. At trial, C.K. testified she would "hang out" with A.P. and chitchat. A.P. testified along the same lines – i.e., that the two never dated. He stated they only had a friendship that lasted four months. They had no sexual relationship and were not intimate. After almost two years passed from the end of their relationship, in 2008, A.P. made contact with C.K. (the Appellate Division did not state what the contact consisted of), which in turn caused C.K. to take out a Temporary Restraining Order against A.P.


Continue Reading Dating Relationship under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act – A Little More than Friends, Not Enough?

While in the past we have blogged on the topic of what acts constitute domestic violence, a blog about how trial judges approach and analyze whether or not a retaining order is necessary seems appropriate. Recently, in the unpublished decision of L.N. v. B.R.S., the Appellate Division noted that after the Court finds that an act of domestic violence occurred, the Court must take a “stop, look, and listen approach” in determining whether a domestic violence final restraining order should be entered. In this dual-element test, entry of a domestic violence restraining order is not automatic if the plaintiff proves an act of domestic violence occurred. Silver v. Silver, 387 N.J. Super. 112 (App.Div. 2006); Corrente v. Corrente, 281 N.J. Super. 248 (App.Div. 1995). The plaintiff must also prove that issuance of a restraining order is required to protect the plaintiff from future acts or threats of violence.

Assuming that a plaintiff has proven that an act of domestic violence has occurred, what analysis does the Judge take in determining whether or not a restraining order is necessary to protect the plaintiff from further domestic violence? The Courts must look to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act which provides:

 

The Court shall consider but not be limited to the following facts:

 

(1)        The previous history of domestic violence between the plaintiff and defendant, including threats, harassment and physical abuse;

 

(2) The existence of immediate danger to person or property;

 

(3) The financial circumstances of the plaintiff and defendant;

 

(4) The best interests of the victim and child;

 

(5) In determining custody and parenting time the protection of the victim’s safety; and

 

(6) The existence of a verifiable order of protection from another jurisdiction.

 

N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29 (a); See also Silver v. Silver, 387 N.J. Super. 112 (App.Div. 2006).

 

 


Continue Reading The "Stop, Look, and Listen" Approach for Issuance of a Domestic Violence Restraining Order