N.G. v. J.P., A-3247-10T3; Appellate Division; opinion by Baxter, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication June 18, 2012. Before Judges Baxter, Nugent and Carchman. On appeal from the Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FV-07-321-11. DDS No. 20-2-6661 [34 pp.]
Defendant J.P. appeals from the issuance of a final restraining order against him under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35.
Defendant and plaintiff N.G. are siblings who have not resided together since 1960. J.P. harbors a deep resentment of N.G. and their mother, B.P. The record describes confrontations between J.P. and N.G. in the 1960s when he allegedly hit her over the head with a baseball bat, in 1989, when he confronted her in a school parking lot, and in 1991, when he encountered her at a local pizzeria.
As a result of those incidents, N.G. obtained an order for preliminary restraints barring J.P. from contacting or disparaging her and from conducting any sort of public protest adjacent to her residence. In 1991, a judge entered a FRO prohibiting J.P. from coming within four blocks of the residences of B.P. and N.G.. The FRO was vacated in 1993 as to B.P. only.
In February 2010, J.P. began picketing in front of N.G.’s residence. On 29 occasions he marched back and forth repeatedly saying “F— you G——–,” “Burn in hell,” and “I hope you rot in hell.” He often made an obscene gesture in which he raised each of his middle fingers.
As a result, N.G. filed a domestic-violence complaint against him. The judge ruled that J.P. had committed the predicate acts of stalking and harassment and issued the FRO barring him from contacting N.G. and from entering any portion of Millburn Township. J.P. responded that he would not comply with the court’s order. N.G. was awarded attorney fees.
Held: The harassment of plaintiff by defendant over the intervening decades although sporadic conferred jurisdiction on the Family Part to issue the FRO since the present incidents arose directly from the parties’ acrimonious family relationship and their status as former household members.
Defendant’s conduct constituted harassment and stalking. The award of attorney fees to plaintiff is affirmed, as such fees are expressly available under the act and the judge correctly applied the factors in Rule 4:42-9(b). However, because the FRO failed to give sufficient consideration to J.P.’s legitimate need to attend church and visit his physician in Millburn, the matter is remanded so that the judge may set precise conditions respecting those activities.
J.P. claims that the court lacked jurisdiction to issue the FRO and that the judge committed reversible error when he refused to dismiss N.G.’s complaint. The panel says the act defines a victim of domestic violence to include, “any person … who has been subjected to domestic violence by … any … person who is a present or former household member.” The panel applies the six-factor test for determining whether jurisdiction exists based on the parties’ status set forth in Coleman v. Romano, 388 N.J. Super. 342 (Ch. Div. 2006).
As to the first factor, the nature and duration of the prior relationship between the parties, the panel agrees with the trial judge’s finding that although N.G. and J.P. have been estranged for decades, his attempt to re-establish contact with her springs from the antagonism he harbored toward her while they were members of the same household. The long duration of the parties’ relationship, albeit composed of sporadic episodes of intense strife, supports the conclusion that this factor was satisfied.
As to the second factor, whether the past domestic relationship provides a special opportunity for abuse and controlling behavior, the panel says J.P.’s testimony concerning the motivation for his behavior makes it clear that if N.G. were not his sister, he would not have behaved toward her as he did. Her testimony supports the conclusion that events during her childhood made her fearful of his conduct and threats in adulthood. Thus, the second factor weighs in favor of jurisdiction under the act.
The panel says that while the parties have not lived together for more than 50 years, the third factor, the amount of time that has elapsed since the parties last lived together, is only one factor to be considered in determining the availability of the act’s protection.
The fourth factor is the nature and extent of any contact between the parties between the time they ceased living together and when the plaintiff seeks protection under the act. The panel says that although J.P.’s conduct in 1989 and 1991 is distant in time both from when the parties stopped living together and from when N.G. sought protection under the act, the incidents were of such severity as to weigh in favor of jurisdiction.
As to the fifth factor, the nature of the precipitating incident, the panel says that case law has held that when the precipitating incident relates to the prior domestic relationship, jurisdiction under the act is appropriate. Because J.P.’s behavior in 2010 was motivated exclusively by what he perceived as B.P.’s and N.G.’s unjust treatment of him, and his conduct was persistent and threatening, the nature of the precipitating incident weighs in favor of jurisdiction.
Finally, the panel says the sixth factor, the likelihood of ongoing contact or a continuing relationship, weighs in favor of jurisdiction since defendant’s testimony provides ample evidence that his behavior will not cease.
Because all of the Coleman factors, with the possible exception of the third, weigh in favor of jurisdiction, the panel affirms the denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss.
As to defendant’s argument that the FRO was oppressively and impermissibly broad, the panel notes that remedies under the act are liberally construed for the protection and safety of victims and the public at large. Noting J.P.’s defiant attitude and his vow to disobey the FRO, it says extraordinary measures are necessary for N.G.’s protection.
Therefore, the panel affirms the ban on defendant entering Millburn. However, it remands to give J.P. a fuller opportunity to describe his church attendance and any visits to his doctors in Millburn. If he fails to do so, his right to seek such relief will be deemed waived.
As to defendant’s claim that the judge erred by finding his conduct constituted harassment and stalking, the panel reviews the statutory definition of stalking and concludes that the trial court correctly found that J.P. committed the predicate offense of stalking where he maintained a visual and physical proximity to N.G., his conduct was repeated 29 times, he threatened N.G. by offensive hand gestures and shouting curses at her, and he caused emotional distress.
Similarly, the panel reviews the definition of harassment and concludes that J.P.’s conduct constituted harassment where he communicated with N.G., his conduct undermined his claim that his intent was other than to harass her, and his repeated conduct was likely to cause annoyance or alarm.
The panel affirms the award of counsel fees, finding that such an award in a domestic-violence proceeding requires no special showing and that the judge carefully applied all of the factors specified in Rule 4:42-9(b), RPC 1.5(a) and Schmidt v. Schmidt, 262 N.J. Super. 451 (Ch. Div. 1992).
For appellant Jack Venturi (Jack Venturi & Associates; Venturi and Michael B. Roberts on the briefs). For respondents Mark H. Sobel (Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis; Sobel and Dennis F. Feeney on the brief).