Final Restraining Orders: A Trial Court Must Make Specific Findings for Domestic Violence Matters
Docket No. A-0730-19
Decided April 19, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Domestic Violence Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division of New Jersey reversed a trial court entry of a Final Restraining Order (FRO) after the trial judge did not believe defendant when he left a prior court hearing because of a medical emergency when he found out his adjournment request was going to be denied.
In S.T.T., Plaintiff and defendant are married and share two children, ages eleven and nine. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking a domestic violence restraining order against defendant. The complaint alleged that on July 29, 2019, defendant committed the predicate acts of harassment, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(b), and assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(a)(1), and that defendant also committed prior acts of domestic violence. The court entered a temporary restraining order (TRO) against defendant.
Immediately prior to the start of trial on plaintiff’s request for an FRO, the court addressed an incident that occurred at a prior court proceeding. The court noted that during the prior proceeding, “[t]here were discussions about [a] potential adjournment of the proceeding.” The court explained that during a “break” in the proceeding, “defendant left due to a medical emergency and the matter was” rescheduled.
The court stated it wanted an “explanation as to what happened to [defendant] medically that necessitated that he leave the courtroom or leave the courthouse last time” the parties were in court. Defendant’s counsel explained defendant suffered from a condition that had been recently diagnosed and defendant “had an episode just outside the courtroom” during the break in the prior proceeding.
Counsel explained defendant brought “medical records [showing] what actually took place.” The court asked if defendant had “some sort of admission record or something that reflects that there was medical treatment received by [him] the last time” he appeared. Defendant’s counsel provided the court with records, which the court found showed defendant was transported by an ambulance and was referred to a hospital for treatment on the day the parties last appeared in court.
The Court then conducted the trial and found defendant committed the predicate act harassment and found the FRO was necessary for protection of plaintiff. In making its credibility determinations, the court included the fact that it is not believe defendant’s explanation as to his reasons to be admitted to the hospital at the prior court date, despite not taking testimony about the same. Defendant appealed.
The Appellate Division remanded for a new trial before a different judge because the trial court considered defendant’s reasoning as to the trip to the hospital at the prior hearing despite not taking testimony. Thus, because the court considered evidence outside the record in making its determination, this warranted a reversal of the FRO and remand for a new trial.
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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