“Equitable Powers” Do Not Justify Entry of a Domestic Violence Restraining Order Absent Supporting Evidence

M.C. v. G.T., ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2018).  Judge Fisher used no more words than necessary in his five-page opinion on this appeal.  Plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, alleging that defendant had harassed her.  After a trial, the Family Part ruled that the evidence did not support a finding of domestic violence and, specifically, that plaintiff had failed to prove that defendant had “acted with a purpose to alarm or annoy,” as the statute requires in order to justify a restraining order.  Despite that, the Family Part entered a restraining order, relying on its “equitable powers.”  Defendant appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the Family Part had exceeded its powers.

The Family Part had relied solely on P.J.G. v. P.S.S., 297 N.J. Super. 468 (App. Div. 1997).  That case, in turn, rested on N.B. v. T.B., 297 N.J. Super. 35 (App. Div. 1997).  Each of those cases, Judge Fisher said, “permits only the imposition of restraints– based on evidence heard in the failed domestic violence action– in another pending case between the parties.”  But “[w]hatever we might think of these holdings [and the panel went on, in a footnote, to say that it was not opining on their validity], they do not support what occurred in the matter at hand.”

Here, the Family Part entered restraints “in the very action” where plaintiff failed to prove that defendant committed an act of domestic violence.  Thus, not even the two (doubtful) prior Appellate Division decisions discussed permitted the restraints entered here.

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