This past week the New Jersey Appellate Division issued an unpublished opinion in the case of V.J.C vs. M.V. (docket no. A-4587-15T3). In this case the defendant appealed from a final restraining order (FRO) entered by the trial court in favor of plaintiff pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35. The defendant claimed that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his request for a short adjournment of the April 14, 2016 hearing until his attorney could arrive at the courthouse. The series of events that led to the defendant being in court that day are as follows. The plaintiff filed a domestic violence complaint against the defendant on March 15, 2016 in which she accused him of choking her during a party at the apartment they shared. A temporary restraining order (TRO) was entered and a hearing was scheduled for March 24, 2017 pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(a) which states that a final hearing on a party’s request for a FRO should be held within ten days after the plaintiff files a complaint.
The next day, the defendant appeared in court without counsel present, and he requested an appeal of the TRO based upon the grounds that he was unable to retrieve his personal belongings from the residence. In response to the defendant’s request, the trial court ordered that the hearing be scheduled for the following day: March 17, 2017. Keep in mind that the defendant had only been served with the TRO on the previous day. Likely in light of the aforementioned facts, the defendant then told the court that he needed more time to hire an attorney. The plaintiff first requested an adjournment “because of a medical issue” and the court granted that request, moving the hearing to March 31 and then rescheduling it again to April 7, 2016 because of the court’s schedule. Defendant’s counsel then requested an adjournment again “because of a prior court commitment” and the judge granted that request as well, scheduling the hearing for April 14, 2016. Just two days prior to the trial date, on April 12, 2016, defendant’s attorney requested yet another adjournment because of other municipal court matters he had scheduled on this date. In my experience, Superior Court judges are not always willing to adjourn matters on their own calendars for municipal court matters. More importantly, this case had had a number of adjournments already, and the trial judge was mindful of the statutory requirement to hold a hearing within ten days of the filing of the domestic violence complaint.
The trial court judge denied counsel’s request for an adjournment but offered the consideration of a “ready hold” so that the matter would be heard at a specific time that day. The defendant’s attorney appeared in municipal court the morning of the hearing but had to advise the trial court that the municipal matter was running late. The trial judge advised the defendant that the case was going to proceed that day even if his attorney did not arrive. Defendant was permitted the opportunity to call his attorney but could only reach the attorney’s office staff. Defendant’s counsel never appeared. He faxed a letter to the judge’s chambers advising that he was tied up in municipal court, and requested another adjournment of the final hearing. He sent a second letter asking that the matter be held until he arrived shortly. The court, however, conducted the hearing without Defendant’s attorney, and entered a final restraining order against the defendant. The trial judge stated in his amplified decision that he did not receive the two letters from counsel until after the hearing was already completed.