Is It Harassment To Contact My Employer Under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act?

Most people don’t realize that in New Jersey domestic violence protection is not solely for married couples, but extends to cover couples dating relationship.  Sadly, when things go south in the relationship, people may allow their emotions to override rational and logical thought.  As a restraining order lawyer here in New Jersey, my associate attorneys and I have handled many cases in which the “jilted” individual in the marriage or dating relationship contacts the other’s employer as a means of harassment with the hope of getting them into trouble at work or, even worse, terminated.  Obviously, this is all out of spite and an individual’s lack of an ability to control their emotions.  In J.D. v. C.C., C.C. appealed the entry of final restraining order issued under authority of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, New Jersey Statute 2C:25-17 to -35. The basis of the final restraining order was predicated on the finding that C.C. committed the predicate act of harassment under New Jersey Statute 2C:33-4(a).  In this lawyer’s opinion, the defendant here had the intent to harass and the trial court as well as the New Jersey Appellate Division was both correct in their decision in this case.  Following is a close look.   

J.D. and C.C. dated for about two years. When they started dating both were already married to other people. Nevertheless, the two still carried on with a romantic relationship. J.D. was the only witness at the hearing and appeared self-represented. In May 2014, J.D. ended their relationship because C.C. rejected his desire of getting married. She told J.D. that she could not marry him because she did not want to terminate her current marriage. However, after J.D. told her he no longer wished to be in a relationship with her, she persisted in trying to save the relationship and have it continue.

C.C. went to J.D.’s house the next day and went from room to room. Ultimately she ended up in J.D.’s room and is alleged to have pushed him down on the bed. Eventually C.C. left. According to J.D. she was not invited to his home and was trespassing. There was also an unexpected encounter between the two in a supermarket parking lot a few days later. J.D. told her that he did not wish to speak to her and she left without any issue. However, about one week after C.C. came to J.D.’s house unannounced and uninvited, just past midnight. J.D. did not allow her to enter this time around. He informed her that another woman was with him in the house and he did not want her to be part of a confrontation. She thought that this alone was the reason why he did not let her in. She sent J.D text messages after leaving. She expressed her anger that she was with another woman. She wrote that she was going to “screw him” and also send an email to his employer. An email was later sent by C.C. to J.D.’s employer. In it she stated that J.D. would routinely operate the company car while under the influence.

J.D. argued that this incident, along with many text messages sent by C.C. constituted “attacks and tirades” that were motivated by his decision to end the relationship. He contended that all of the same made him “afraid.” After argument by C.C.’s attorney and the conclusion of the hearing, the judge put forth his findings on the record. He held that there was not enough evidence to prove the predicate offenses of criminal trespass and assault. However, the judge did hold that there was sufficient proof to establish the predicate offense of harassment. The judge’s findings were based on the email C.C. sent to J.D.’s employer. The court found that the couple was in   an intense domestic relationship for two years. The judge viewed C.C.’s intent in sending the email was to affect J.D.’s career. Her purpose was retaliation which consequently caused annoyance or alarm. The judge noted that a person does not necessarily have to be to be fearful for there to be a need for an entry of a final restraining order. Another purpose of a final restraining is to prevent future acts of domestic violence. While the judge did note that the relationship was unfortunate because both parties had significant others, there was the open question about how much alcohol was involved in the past and how it could increase the possibility of future harassment. Based on the testimony, the judge stated that there was no question in his mind that if a final restraining order was not put into place, C.C. would definitely commit another act of domestic violence. C.C. appealed.

On appeal C.C. argued the court incorrectly issued a final restraining order against her because: it did not make adequate findings of fact that she committed a predicate act of domestic violence; and it did not expressly articulate that a restraining order was “necessary.” The Appellate Division did not find any merit to either of her arguments. In domestic violence matters an appellate review of a trial court’s findings of fact and the legal conclusions based on the findings are given considerable deference. An appeals court will not disturb a trial judge’s factual findings and legal conclusions unless they are so clearly unsupported or inconsistent with the competent relevant, and reasonably credible evidence that they offend the interest of justice. Harassment is listed as an offense recognized as a form of domestic violence. To be guilty of harassment, a person must: make or cause a series of communications anonymously, at extremely inconvenient hours, in offensive language, or in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or engage in alarming conduct or repeatedly commit acts intended to alarm or annoy.

The Appellate Division noted that New Jersey courts have struggled with the level of proof needed to support a domestic violence restraining order based on harassment. All offensive or annoying behavior does not constitute harassment. Many times, one person’s categorization of another’s actions as harassing could be vague and conclusory, which makes it difficult for a trial judge to distinguish the line between domestic violence and ordinary quarrels. A person must prove that the other acted with a purpose to harass. A person acts with purpose when he or she acts with a conscious objective to engage in that conduct or to cause such a result. In other words, there must be proof that a person’s objective and intent was to harass, or annoy, torment, wear out, or exhaust. Simply knowing that someone may be annoyed is insufficient to prove purpose to harass.

Direct proof of intent is often very difficult to come by. Therefore, purpose, may and is often inferred from what is said and done, the surrounding circumstances, and prior conduct and statements. The role of the Appellate Division is to determine whether the trial judge’s inferences were rational and based on evidence in the record.  The job of the trial judge is to consider the entire relationship between the couple and set forth their findings of fact accordingly.

After the New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed the record of the hearing and considered the trial judge’s findings, it agreed that the email C.C. sent to J.D.’s employer showed a clear purpose to harass. Furthermore, the final restraining order was needed to prevent future harm. The necessity of a final restraining order is limited to protection form physical harm. Because harassment is one of many enumerated predicate acts of domestic violence, the need to prevent future harassment will suffice. There was a history of dissonance between the parties involved. In light of that history and the nature of the rash email the Appellate Division found no reason to change the trial court’s conclusions that the final restraining order was necessary. 

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