Court Must Make Specific Findings for Domestic Violence Matters for A Final Restraining Order (FRO).
Docket No. A-0156-20
Decided June 8, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Domestic Violence Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division of New Jersey affirmed a trial court denial of a Final Restraining Order (FRO) after the trial judge found plaintiff had not proved harassment after defendant entered her home to use the bathroom when plaintiff had a civil order giving her sole possession of the home.
In S.G., the parties were married in August 1996 and they have three children, who are now adults. Both parties are veterinarians and, until 2017, they operated a veterinary hospital together. In July 2017, defendant assaulted plaintiff and plaintiff obtained a TRO. Following a trial in May 2018, the family court denied plaintiff’s application for an FRO. By that time, plaintiff had commenced a divorce action against defendant. On May 8, 2018, the same family judge who tried the 2018 FRO application entered an order in the divorce action allowing plaintiff “to maintain sole possession” of the marital home and the veterinary business.
Over two years later, on August 9, 2020, defendant came to the former marital home to help one of his daughters move to Ohio to attend veterinary school. Defendant testified that while en route to the home, he developed a strong need to go to the bathroom. Accordingly, when he arrived at the home, he approached the front door, called for his daughter and when she did not answer, entered, and went into the bathroom.
Plaintiff testified that she heard defendant enter the home, became frightened, and “retreated” to a separate part of the house. The daughter then went to the bathroom door to ask if defendant was there, and defendant responded that it was his “fing house” and he could use the bathroom. Shortly thereafter, defendant exited the home without having any contact or communication with plaintiff. Later, as planned, defendant drove to Ohio in a separate car from his daughter.
Plaintiff was granted a TRO and an FRO trial was held. After the hearing, the judge denied entry of an FRO and dismissed the TRO, finding (1) defendant had gone to the home to help move his daughter to Ohio; (2) defendant entered the home to use the bathroom; (3) while in the home, defendant had no direct contact or communication with plaintiff; and (4) defendant left the home and drove away. This act did not constitute the predicate act of harassment nor did plaintiff prove that a restraining order was necessary for her protection.
Plaintiff appealed but the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal, deferring to the judge’s findings and finding that the legal conclusions were adequately supported by the record.
The key takeaway in this case is a trial Court must make specific findings for domestic violence matters. First, they must make findings as to the statutory factors of each of the predicate acts alleged by the plaintiff. The Judge must also make explicit credibility findings when there are disputed facts. The judge must also rely on sufficient facts from the record to support legal conclusions as to grant or deny an FRO.
Remember, restraining order cases are all about credibility. Once credibility is determined, it is fairly simple to determine whether an FRO will be granted. Make sure you hire an experienced attorney for your domestic violence matter to bolster your credibility and get you the desired result.
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