New Jersey Court Further Expands Definition of Household Member to Exercise Jurisdiction Under Domestic Violence Statute

I previously blogged about the ever expanding definition of “household member” as it relates to  who canfist-blow-power-wrestling-163431-300x200 meet the definition to be considered a “victim” under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act” (PVDA) in order to obtain a restraining order.   New Jersey courts have continued to expand the circumstances in which the PDVA can be utilized.

In a recently published decision from the Honorable Gregory L. Acquaviva, J.S.C. in Monmouth County in the matter of  S.C. v. J.D., the family court addressed the definition of a “household member” in the context of a modern, blended family.  In this case case, the parties were half-siblings who did not reside together, but who spent regular time together as part of their blended family.

The Prevention of Domestic Violence requires that certain relationships exists before the statute can apply to them.    Relevant here, “victim of domestic violence” is defined as: “any person who is 18 years of age or older . . . who has been subjected to domestic violence by . . . any other person who is a present household member or was at any time a household member.” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d). The PVDA does not define “household.”

Prior to the 2015 amendments, a “victim of domestic violence” included “any . . . person who is a present or former household member.” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d) (subsequently amended). In Jutchenko v. Jutchenko, 283 N.J. Super. 17 (App. Div. 1995), the Appellate Division reversed the entry of a final restraining order between middle-aged brothers who had not lived together in two decades. In 2012, the Appellate Division revisited  the definition of a “household member” in N.G. v. J.P., 426 N.J. Super. 398, 411 (App. Div.  2012). There, the court noted that “in the nearly two decades since Jutchenko was decided, its rationale has been eroded.” According to the court, the analysis shifted from the amount of time that elapsed since the parties resided together to an evaluation of whether the current conflict arose from a prior domestic relationship. In N.G., the sibling parties stopped residing together in 1960. From 1991 to 2010, there was no contact between the estranged siblings. However, despite the lengthy time apart and “sporadic episodes of intense strife” among them, because the defendant’s behavior was “a direct outgrowth of the parties’ earlier household relationship,” the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s finding of jurisdiction to apply the PDVA. Id. at 411-12.

A third, relevant pre-amendment case is Storch v. Sauerhoff, 334 N.J. Super. 226 (Ch.Div. 2000), where the family court held that an adult stepdaughter who lived on the same block as her stepmother, but who had not lived under her stepmother’s roof for more than twenty years, was a “former household member.” In holding that “step” relationships may satisfy the “household member” requirement under the PDVA, the court rejected a literal reading of the PDVA, instead applying a common-sense interpretation that recognized familial, emotional, and financial ties.

The courts have exerted “household member” jurisdiction in various circumstances, including over:

(1) a temporary, seven-month, unrelated tenant, id.

(2) a roommate of three months, Bryant v. Burnett, 264 N.J. Super. 222 (App. Div. 1993);

(3) a cohabitant, Desiato v. Abbott, 261 N.J. Super. 30 (Ch. Div. 1992);

(4) a de facto family member, who lived in the same complex, was the father of the plaintiff’s grandchild, and had unlimited access to the home, South v. North, 304 N.J. Super. 104 (Ch. Div. 1997);

(5) a boarder in a rooming house, S.P. v. Newark Police Dep’t, 428 N.J. Super. 210 (App. Div. 2012) (parties shared bathroom and kitchen, with communal appliances); and

(6) a college suite mate, Hamilton v. Ali, 350 N.J. Super. 479 (Ch. Div. 2001).

In order to determine what the  term “household” means in terms of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, Judge Acquaviva in S.C. v. J.D. also drew upon the interpretations of same from insurance policy cases, in which courts have found that “residence under a single roof is not a touchstone, and the meaning of ‘household’ inherently must vary depending on the circumstances.” A “substantially integrated family relationship” is a “household,” even where the household members are not continually under the same roof.  The trial court found that “this flexible approach to defining “household” should similarly be implemented as a baseline in the PDVA context as “[p]ublic policy concerns demand that the term ‘household member’ be defined even more expansively in domestic violence cases than in insurance . . . .”

The trial court found that the facts of S.C. v. J.D. demonstrated a substantially integrated, modern, blended family, in which the defendant resided at his own mother’s home, but spent meaningful, regular periods of time at his father’s home, which was the home of his half-sibling. That time included: regular bi-monthly weekend, overnight parenting time; extended and more frequent overnight parenting time during the summer; and extended vacation and regular camping trips. In modern parlance, his father was the parent of alternate residence and exerted meaningful, regular parenting time at his home – with the Plaintiff uniformly present.

In view of the facts of S.C. v. J.D., the family court explained that pursuant to the PDVA that, for purposes of the jurisdictional “household member” requirement, includes:

“a child whose parents are separated during youth but who spends meaningful, regular periods of time at a parent of alternate residence’s home such that he or she is substantially integrated into that ‘household’  may simultaneously have two households creating jurisdiction vis-à-vis a victimized half-sibling who resided solely with the shared parent. ‘Household member’ as used in the PDVA’s definition of ‘victim of domestic violence’ must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the ever-changing dynamics of modern families. See N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d). To restrict a child whose parents are separated to only one household despite meaningful, regular time in a second household would untenably alter the statutory construct, discriminate against members of blended families, and unduly restrict the broadly designed, legislatively crafted protections afforded victims of domestic violence.”

The application of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Statute is capable of interpretation.  If you are a victim of domestic violence or are accused of domestic violence, the office of James P. Yudes, A Professional Corporation is here to guide you.