Paying for another's companionship can be a form of "dating" that triggers statutory protections against domestic violence, an appeals court ruled in a case of first impression in New Jersey.
The state's Appellate Division on Thursday upheld an Essex County judge's final restraining order against a men's club patron who made terroristic threats against a dancer to whom he regularly advanced funds.
Despite the man's claims that the relationship was purely "professional," the appeals court found no support for the argument that a socializing with a paid escort does not amount to a "dating relationship" under the state's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.
The Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, says a judge can enter a final restraining order for "any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship," but "dating relationship" has been left for the courts to define on a case-by-case basis.
"Considering the Act's intended broad scope, we reject the contention that a relationship which includes a payment of consideration for the other's time precludes the finding of a dating relationship," Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote in J.S. v. J.F., A-2552-08.
"Experience suggests that most claims of a dating relationship turn on what the particular parties would view as a 'date,'" wrote Fisher, joined by Judges Francine Axelrad and Marianne Espinosa. "Accordingly, ... courts should vigilantly guard against a slavish adherence to any formula that does not consider the parties' own understanding of their relationship as colored by socio-economic and generational influences."
Plaintiff J.S. and defendant J.F. went out together on several occasions and he even took her to his parents' house one year for Thanksgiving. However, when she began to see another man, J.F. allegedly began sending her text messages threatening physical violence and warnings that he would seek to have her deported to her native country, Brazil.
J.S. filed a domestic violence complaint and obtained a temporary restraining order. Eight days later, Essex County Superior Court Judge Michelle Hollar-Gregory conducted a hearing, at which J.S. appeared pro se and J.F. was represented by counsel.
J.S. testified that she and J.F. were in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, though most of their "dates" were at the various clubs where she danced.
J.F.'s attorney attempted to show, during direct examination, that J.S. was nothing more than a paid escort, but the defendant's testimony was inconsistent, the appeals court noted. "[D]espite his attempts to disparage plaintiff by asserting their relationship was 'professional,' defendant testified that his tendering of money to plaintiff was meant 'to help her out financially' and not necessarily in exchange for her time," Fisher said.
When Hollar-Gregory asked J.F. whether the payments occurred "during the time you were dating," he "responded in the affirmative without qualification," Fisher added.
The appeals court found that Hollar-Gregory was "entitled to find from this testimony that the parties had a dating relationship that ended shortly before defendant's harassing and threatening communications that formed the basis for this domestic violence action."
The appeals court declined to follow in lockstep the one N.J. precedent that deals with defining a dating relationship. In Andrews v. Rutherford, 363 N.J. Super. 252 (Ch. Div. 2003), Burlington County Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan said judges should consider.
Whether there a minimal social interpersonal bonding of the parties over and above a mere casual fraternization.
• How long the alleged dating activities continue prior to the acts of domestic violence alleged.
• The nature and frequency of the parties' interactions.
• The parties' ongoing expectations with respect to the relationship.
• Whether the parties demonstrated an affirmation of their relationship before others by statement or conduct.
• Any other reasons unique to the case that support or detract from a finding that a "dating relationship" existed.
Fisher said that while those guidelines are helpful, the principles underlying the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act "would not be served by a cramped interpretation of what constitutes a dating relationship."
J.S.'s attorney, Newark solo Stelio Papadopoulo, says only that "the Appellate Division reached the correct decision in this case."
J.F.'s attorney, Jennifer Marshall, of Jack Venturi's firm in New Brunswick, N.J. says the ruling opens the door to a much wider number of relationships in which the domestic violence act can come into play. She says there has been no decision on whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.