Temporary Restraining Order

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

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

On June 28, 2010, the Appellate Division released the unreported (non-precedential) opinion in the case of "O.R. v. H.S."  In this case, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s Order, rendered without a plenary hearing and where there were disputed facts, granting the defendant joint legal custody. 

In this case, the parties were never married. While the plaintiff was pregnant with the parties’ child, she obtained a domestic violence final restraining order against the defendant.  Four years had passed and the parties were now in court dealing with emergent custody and parenting time issues.  The defendant’s attorney requested that joint legal custody be ordered and plaintiff’s attorney objected, contradicting defendant’s account of his support of the child and noting defendant’s history of drug use.  Plaintiff also noted the FRO, her fear of the defendant and that defendant presented no proof regarding his relationship with the child.  Notwithstanding, the Court issued an Order granting the parties joint legal custody and designating the plaintiff the parent of primary residence.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed noting that a decision like this, where there was contradictory information presented, required a plenary (evidentiary) hearing.  The Appellate Division also noted that the parties’ relationship had been strained for year, as noted by the FRO, and that along with the FRO goes a presumption in favor of awarding custody to the non-abusive parent.  In addition, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s fear as well as the defendant’s drug use need to be considered at the hearing. 

This case reminds us of two things.  First, court’s cannot decide major issues without having plenary hearings if there are material facts in dispute.  Second, court’s must be mindful of findings of domestic violence when addressing the issue of custody, including legal custody, considering the statutory presumption of custody favoring the non-abusive parent.  Fundamental to the notion of joint legal custody is the parties’ ability to communicate and cooperate which is why a review of the history of domestic violence is so important.

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, NJSA 2C:25-17 to 35, is the law that governs domestic violence issues in New Jersey, including the issuance of Temporary Restraining Orders (“TROs”) and Final Restraining Orders (“FROs”). The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was enacted to protect victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, some individuals abuse the protections offered by the Domestic Violence Act and use it as a weapon in divorce proceedings. While many times the issuance of an FRO is appropriate, there are other times when it is clear that the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act has been abused.

If a person is a victim of domestic violence, they can obtain a TRO by contacting the local police (at anytime) or going to the county courthouse (during business hours) and explaining the circumstances by which they have been abused. At that time a judge will determine if the facts warrant the issuance of the TRO. If the judge decides that the conduct is sufficient to warrant the TRO, the accused alleged abuser will be served with the TRO, which will order the individual not to contact the victim or anyone else that needs protecting, which may include children, family members, friends, etc. Once the TRO is issued, an FRO hearing is scheduled shortly thereafter.   The FRO hearing is before a Superior Court Judge and will be conducted at the county courthouse. At the FRO hearing, a judge will determine if an FRO is necessary to protect the alleged victim of the domestic violence or if the TRO was incorrectly issued and no FRO is necessary. While the TRO is usually issued ex parte or without any input from the alleged abuser, at the FRO hearing the alleged abuser has the opportunity to testify, call witnesses, present evidence, and most importantly be represented by an attorney.

Continue Reading Due Process vs. Final Restraining Order

The recent act of domestic violence by singer Chris Brown on his very famous girlfriend, Rihanna, has brought new attention to the fact that domestic violence is not a socio-economic problem limited to the lower class.  Unfortunately, I often see the ugly side of relationships and not surprisingly domestic violence is an issue I also deal with.   New Jersey is attempting to help protect victims of domestic violence by protecting  the victims essentially from themselves.

A new law that is pending in the New Jersey Senate would require that if a victim of domestic violence desired to dissolve or modify a final restraining order, a court would be required to make a finding and a record.  Assembly, No. 746, State of New Jersey, 213 Legislature.  Anyone who has been following the Chris Brown/Rihanna saga will tell you that within days of the incident where Chris Brown physically assaulted Rihanna, they were back together as a couple. (They have since split.) Unfortunately this is often the case.  Sometimes, it takes victims of domestic violence years to escape the cycle of abuse.

Continue Reading New Jersey – Is New Domestic Violence Legislation on the Way?

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

When does electronic surveillance of another person constitute a violation of the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act?  That was the question recently tackled by the Appellate Division in its unpublished decision, Kebea v. David.  The unmarried couple at issue was living together when, one evening, they got into a heated argument and Kebea told David to leave the apartment.  Kebea obtained a Temporary Restraining Order after David returned to the apartment and removed a few items he had purchased.  She ultimately voluntarily dismissed the TRO against David, who then purchased a software program by which he could learn about the contents of her emails to determine if she would lie to him about an ex-boyfriend so that he could end the relationship if he felt necessary.

Continue Reading Electronic Surveillance – An Act of Domestic Violence?

What seems to be a hot topic and one ripe for review for the Appellate Division is domestic violence and the entry of final restraining orders. I have posted several other blogs on this topic and yet again, the Appellate Division has issued an unpublished decision in the matter of F.R. v. E.B., decided April 6, 2009, A-4859-07T3.

A.R. and E. B. were married and lived in Philadelphia. According to A.R. she was a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by E.B. on numerous occasions. After one specific incident, A.R. came to NJ with the parties’ child to stay with her mother. She received a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) after she claimed E.B. called and harassed her while at her mother’s threatening to take the parties’ child from her and then showed up outside A.R.’s mother’s home and screamed for her and the child.

E.B. received notice of the final restraining order hearing three days before the scheduled hearing date. A.R. appeared with counsel. E.B. also appeared but argued that he had insufficient time to retain counsel for the hearing. Also, the first time that E.B. heard the allegations contained in the FRO was when the judge read them onto the record at the final hearing.

Continue Reading Due Process and Final Restraining Orders

Recently, the Appellate Division in the unpublished decision of A.V. v. A.V., Docket No. A-2045-07T1, decided February 18, 2008, reversed and remanded the trial court’s denial of defendant-appellant’s motion to dissolve a Final Restraining Order and award of counsel fees.

In this matter, the parties had been married for approximately 5 years. Two children were born during the marriage, although one is now acknowledged not to be the biological child of defendant. The domestic violence matter arose when defendant learned of plaintiff’s extra-marital affairs in the summer of 2005. During a series of arguments regarding plaintiff’s infidelities and defendant’s discovery of them, the intensity of which rose until the parties got into a physical altercation. Defendant then obtained a TRO against plaintiff. Five days later, plaintiff filed a cross complaint and approximately one month later, the matter went to trial for the determination of an FRO.

At trial, the court entered an FRO against defendant. The parties then continued with their divorce proceedings. During the divorce, information came out, which contradicted other information and testimony plaintiff had given during the domestic violence trial. After the FRO was entered, plaintiff retained custody of the minor children, however approximately one year later, DYFS removed the children from plaintiff’s home and placed defendant’s biological child with him. Subsequently, the parties resolved the issue of custody and parenting time.

In November 2007, defendant filed a motion seeking to dissolve the FRO, in which he argued that he and plaintiff were in communication regarding their child and that there had been no problems since the FRO was entered two years ago. Defendant noted that plaintiff did not claim that she was in fear of him or that there was any reason to continue the restraints in the FRO. Plaintiff opposed his application arguing that if the FRO was dismissed, the cycle of violence would continue. She also claimed, without providing any evidentiary support, that defendant intended to jeopardize her immigration status and negatively impact her ability to regain custody of the other child removed by DYFS.
Continue Reading Dissolving a Final Restraining Order