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Appellate Division Upholds Trial Court’s Issuance of Final Restraining Order on Grounds of Harassment

On November 8, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued the unpublished opinion in the domestic violence case of J.R. v. C.R. (A-4936-15) affirming the issuance of a final restraining order (FRO) entered against J.R. who was in a dating relationship with C.R. Here, C.R. obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the grounds of harassment and assault based upon an alleged predicate act of domestic violence that occurred on February 29, 2016.  The parties testified that although they had broken off their relationship several times, they were involved in a long-term dating relationship.

New Jersey courts have ultimately taken a liberal view on what constitutes a “dating relationship”. In the case of Tribuzio v. Roder, 356 N.J. Super. 590 (App. Div. 2003), which involved a three year gap in the dating relationship, the Court held that: “The ultimate issue is whether, in light of these facts, the victim was, at the time of the precipitating event, subjected to potential abusive and controlling behavior related to and arising out of the past domestic relationship. If so, the victim is in need of and entitled to the special protection provided by the act.” Id. at 597. Perhaps no other case illustrates the court’s trend towards looking at a “dating relationship” liberally than in the case of J.S. v. J.F., 410 N.J. Super. 611 (App. Div. 2009), wherein the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the victim did not fall under the protections of the Act because she was a paid escort. The court reasoned, “[T]he fact that a person receives a monetary benefit from engaging in a relationship does not automatically disqualify that person from the Act’s benefits.” Id. The court went on to state: “…the facts should be liberally construed in favor of finding a dating relationship, because the Act itself is to be liberally construed in favor of the legislative intent to eradicate domestic violence. Stated another way, the Act embodies a strong public policy against domestic violence. . . . These principles would not be served by a cramped interpretation of what constitutes a dating relationship.” Id.

At trial, the victim testified that her boyfriend phoned her at least fifty times and sent her more than fifty text messages on February 29. She did not respond.  The defendant drove to her work, and when she walked into the parking lot the defendant assaulted her, began yelling at her, grabbed her and forcibly dragged her to the car. The defendant testified that he was just picking her up from work and that it was the plaintiff who was the aggressor. He said that she punched and kicked him. He alleged that she kicked his car and tore off the side view mirror. Both parties testified that there was a history of physical altercations. The boyfriend did not file a domestic violence complaint after the incident.  file0001931487912-290x300

After several days of testimony, the trial court issued a decision on June 6, 2016 and found that the victim had satisfied her proofs as to the predicate act of harassment but not assault. The trial court’s reasoning in denying the claim of assault was twofold.  First, he found neither parties’ accounting of the events in the parking lot as credible. Secondly, the trial court reasoned “you both can’t cause an assault when you both engage freely into the fight.” It is unknown whether the court’s reasoning would have been different if the domestic violence complaint did not contain a claim for harassment. The boyfriend also lived across the street from the victim and continued to harass her on social media after the entry of the TRO. The court factored this evidence in when issuing the FRO that was appealed by the defendant on the grounds that the victim did not prove the predicate act of harassment.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division cited the legal standard that finding of a predicate act of domestic violence does not “automatically mandate[]” the entry of an FRO, as the second prong of the two-step analysis outlined in Silver v. Silver, 387 N.J. Super. 112, (App. Div. 2006) must also be met, “whether the court should enter a restraining order that provides protection for the victim.” Id. at 126-127.

Here, the trial judge stated after reviewing the phone records: “fifty calls . . . on a single day sort of screams harassment when someone’s at work.” The trial court “found there was no purpose to the continuous calls made to plaintiff’s cell phone and workplace other than to harass her.” The Appellate Division found that the record fully presented “fully supports the trial judge’s factual findings as to the predicate act of harassment.” The Appellate Division went on to state in that trial court’s decision was based on adequate and substantial evidence to allow for a conclusion that FRO was necessary in this case.  The trial court did note that the plaintiff was more credible than the defendant.  A question that court surely pondered was that if defendant was assaulted like he claimed, why did he not file a domestic violence complaint himself?  It is imperative for victims of domestic violence to immediately seek out the protections afforded under the law. Do not wait until it is too late to get help.