Archives: restraining Order

In August 2015, the New Jersey Legislature formally amended the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act (N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(a)) to include the predicate act of criminal coercion as a fifteenth form of domestic violence (in addition to: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, and stalking, all of which are as defined under their respective criminal statutes).

By way of background, in order to obtain a restraining order under the NJ Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act, the plaintiff/victim must have a qualifying relationship with the defendant, must prove that one or more of the (now) 15 qualifying “predicate” acts of domestic violence was perpetrated against you, and  must also show that there is a continuing need for protection based on the facts of your case.  The addition of criminal coercion as a predicate act opens an additional avenue by which victims can seek to obtain protection under the Act.

Criminal coercion is defined as a threat made to unlawfully restrict freedom of action, with a purpose to coerce a course of conduct from a victim which defendant has no legal right to require, including 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 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 defendant acts;
  6. Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another person’s legal claim or defense;
  7. Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the defendant but which is calculated to harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.

coercion graphic

A recent opinion penned by Judge Jones, J.L. v. A.C. specifically addressed the first category of criminal coercion.  In that case, Judge Jones found that the defendant had criminally coerced the plaintiff into meeting with him, at which time he brutally beat her, by threatening the safety of her child if she refused to meet with him as he demanded.  As Judge Jones notes in his opinion, the NJ Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act has been criticized for its failure to provide protection to children because the Act only extends protections to victims who are over the age of 18 (except in cases where the relationship between the victim and defendant is a dating relationship).  Thus, Courts have typically denied relief to plaintiffs who try to obtain restraining orders for acts of violence committed against their children, rather than against them personally.

The major takeaway from this decision?  As a parent, it seems that you can definitively obtain protection under this Act where the defendant coerces a course of conduct from you by threatening to inflict bodily injury or commit an offense against your child.  It would also seem that this could extend to threats against anyone else in the plaintiff/victim’s life, including a boyfriend or girlfriend, co-worker, friend, or other family member.  However, there are limits.  Although Judge Jones’s opinion emphasizes that the new predicate act of criminal coercion fills in the gap where there was no way to obtain a restraining order for threats of violence toward a child or third party, it is important to note that there must also be “purpose to coerce a course of conduct” from the plaintiff him/herself.  A threat to harm a child or third party is not enough; that threat must cause the victim to engage in a particular course of conduct.  In J.L. v. A.C., that course of conduct was the act of meeting with the defendant, which the victim would not have done but for the threat to her child.

Additionally, it is vital to remember that the restraining order is still going to be between the plaintiff and the defendant – NOT between the defendant and the third party against whom a threat has been levied.  With that said, the court has always been empowered to issue a final restraining order that includes a victim’s family members as additional protected persons.  As an important practice tip, if you are an attorney or a self-represented party seeking a restraining order based upon criminal coercion that includes a threat to inflict bodily injury or commit an offense against a third party, it is imperative that you seek to include the threatened third party as a protected party on any final restraining order issued by the Court.


 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.

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. 

Continue Reading "RESOLVING" A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE MATTER – A CAREFUL BALANCING 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

At the time of a break-up of a relationship, clearly emotions are high, it is contentious and people often do or say things that they normally would not. Unfortunately, during this time period where many feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster, the tension escalates to the point where one party has filed a Complaint for Domestic Violence as a result of the actions and/or comments of the other party and the Court enters a Final Restraining Order. Once the emotional roller coaster ride stops, does the defendant have the ability to ask that the Restraining Order be dismissed? The answer is yes but the more important inquiry is whether or not such request will be granted. 

In New Jersey, either party to a Domestic Violence Restraining Order may request dismissal of the Restraining Order by way of Motion filed with the Court. The New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act states that “Upon good cause shown, any final restraining order may be dissolved or modified upon application to the Family Part…” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29d. In other words, simply asking for a dismissal– even if you are the plaintiff or the victim– does not automatically warrant a dismissal of the Restraining Order. 

 

If the Defendant files the Motion to dismiss the Restraining Order, there are eleven factors for the Court to consider when determining whether or not “good cause” exists to dismiss a Restraining Order: the victim’s consent; current relationship of the parties; number of contempt convictions; use of drugs or alcohol; whether defendant is violent with others; whether the aggressor attends counseling; age and health of the aggressor; whether the victim is acting in “good faith” when opposing the dismissal; whether there are any other domestic violence restraining orders between the parties in other jurisdictions; and any other relevant considerations relevant to dismissal of the Restraining Order.

 

If the Plaintiff is the party making a request for dismissal, before any dismissal is entered, the Court must discern whether the plaintiff is seeking the dismissal voluntarily, without coercion or duress; if the plaintiff understands the cycle of violence that occurs in the domestic violence setting; and if the plaintiff understands the loss of protection if the Restraining Order is dismissed.

Notably, regardless of whether or not Plaintiff consents to, wants to have and does have communication with a defendant to a Restraining order, unless the Court has dismissed the Restraining Order, it remains in full force and effect.

Continue Reading Can A Domestic Violence Restraining Order Be Dismissed?

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