As I have discussed in the past, in my twenty years as a family law attorney handling restraining order cases, harassment issues are the most difficult for both lawyers and New Jersey Family Court judges to handle. When an assault occurs, it is highly likely that the temporary restraining order. However, in a domestic violence trial in which harassment is the allegation, the difference between a N.J. family judge grating a final restraining order versus dismissing the temporary restraining order is tremendously fact sensitive. The very recent case of M.J.P. v. J.P., cemented the high level of deference an appellate court will afford to a trial court’s fact finding.
On January 30, 2014, M.J.P. obtained a temporary restraining order against defendant based on allegations of harassment and stalking. The Temporary Restraining Order, specifically prohibited J.P. from having any contact with M.J.P., being present at her places of employment or residence, and possessing any weapons.
Judge Peter E. Warshaw held a domestic violence hearing involving the parties on February 6 and 12, 2014. Judge Warshaw found that J.P. had committed both harassment and stalking, and therefore committed acts of domestic violence. On February 12, 2014, the judge entered a Final Restraining Order, or FRO, that contained the same restrictions as the Temporary Restraining Order. Additionally, the FRO contained language that carefully defined and limited contact to facilitate transfer of the parties’ child, which was not contained in the TRO. J.P. appealed the FRO.
J.P. and M.J.P. had one son from their marriage. On December 27, 2012, M.J.P. filed for divorce. She remained in the marital home while the divorce action was ongoing. As a result, on January 6, 2014, the parties entered into a consent order. As per the order, M.J.P. was to move out of the home into a separate residence no later than February 1, 2014.
M.J.P. was in the process of moving out of the marital home on January 26, 2014. She contended that while driving out of the neighborhood with her son in the car, J.P. passed her, turned his vehicle around, and began to follow her. Then, at a red light, J.P. got out of his car, approached M.J.P. and tried to open the locked car door. M.J.P contended that she was yelling throughout the entire altercation, and that J.P. pointed his finger at her, knocked on the window and appeared enraged. When M.J.P began to drive away, J.P. started to follow her again.
Both parties contacted the police during the chase. The police pulled over the parties separately and then sent to their respective homes. J.P. admitted that the police officer said that his son would call him that night before going to bed, and that he should just be patient and wait for the call. Nevertheless, J.P. still repeatedly called and texted M.J.P that night. The trial court judge found that J.P.’s need to have things happen how and when he wanted, in addition to his inability to leave plaintiff alone, was indicative of a pattern of behavior that could only be stopped with a TRO.
Moreover, the testimony given at trial revealed a history of incidents where J.P. harassed M.J.P. Even more troubling, the testimony revealed prior acts of physical violence. Still, J.P. maintained that he did possess any intent to harass M.J.P., and claimed he was only concerned about his son, and was uninformed that M.J.P. was moving out that weekend. Judge Warshaw resolved all issues of credibility in favor of the wife at the conclusion of trial, and found that J.P.’s conduct had constituted harassment. His escalating pattern of unwelcomed contact equated to serious annoyance.
Upon review, the Appellate Division stated that findings by a trial judge who heard the testimony are binding on appeal, as long as the findings are supported adequate, substantial, and credible evidence. The need to give deference to factual findings is especially important in family law matters. The New Jersey Supreme Court has stated that Family Part courts have a special expertise in domestic relations, and because of their special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should give deference to family court fact-finding. The Appellate Division will not disturb factual findings unless they are so clearly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the notion of justice. In the case of M.J.P. v. J.P., the Appellate Division found the credibility and factual findings of the trial judge to be well supported by the record.
Domestic violence is a term of art. It describes a pattern of abusive and controlling behavior that injures its victim. According to New Jersey Statute 2C:25-18, domestic violence is a serious crime against society. There are thousands of victims in the State of New Jersey who are beaten, tortured, and even killed in some extreme cases. There is also a correlation between spousal abuse and child abuse. Children, who may not be physically assaulted, suffer deep and long lasting emotional affects from witnessing domestic violence. In passing New Jersey Statute 2C:25-18, the legislature intended to make sure victims of domestic violence had the maximum protection from abuse that the law could provide.
New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act incorporates certain criminal offenses, including harassment, to constitute domestic violence, in the interest of protecting victims and to give family court judges broad discretion in ordering remedies. According to New Jersey Statute 2C:33-4, harassment is defined as when a person: makes a communication anonymously or at inconvenient hours, in an offensive manner or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; strikes, kicks, shoves, or threatens to do so; engages in any other alarming conduct or repeatedly commits acts with the purpose to alarm or seriously annoy the other person; or commits a crime of the fourth degree, acting with ill will, hatred or bias, with a purpose to intimidate based on the other person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Serious annoyance is categorized to mean, “to weary, worry, trouble, or offend.” M.J.P. testified that her ex-husband’s actions were very upsetting and made here afraid for her safety.
J.P. argued that the trial judge erred because there was not enough evidence that he intended to harass his ex-wife. He primarily relied on Corrente v. Corrente to support his argument. In Corrente, the ex-wife had prevailed on a domestic violence complaint at the trial level, even though there was no history of domestic violence between her and her spouse, and she was not in any immediate danger. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed for the same reason.
Appellate Division effectively distinguished the Corrente case from the one at issue. Even though the ex-wife in Corrente, might have felt alarmed, there was no finding that the husband had any intent to harass his ex-wife. Furthermore, the complaint did not allege any history of violence or abuse, nor was there any immediate threat to safety. The case was in actuality a conflict over finances and possession of the marital home. While the husband might have acted in an immature and petty manner, the wife was never harmed or subjected to potential injury. The trial court’s decision trivialized the abuse of true domestic violence victims and misinterpreted the statute designed to protect them. The Appellate Division ultimately found the trial court’s decision as unwarranted and set aside the order.
In the case of M.J.P. v. J.P., there was definite evidence of past violence directed at M.J.P. More importantly, the facts of the case presented enough evidence to demonstrate an intent to harass, in addition to the other requisite elements of harassment. Furthermore, the facts support the trial judge’s finding that a Final Restraining Order was necessary to prevent any future abuse. The Appellate Division affirmed the Final Restraining Order. For more information on this issue, please contact my office today.