Yes, if they are also “dating” that is. As a well-versed lawyer as to New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, I am aware that only certain folks qualify to obtain a Final Restraining Order. One of the classifications that would allow a potential victim to be protected under New Jersey law is if a Family Part judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey finds that the parties had a “dating relationship.” As a result, New Jersey attorneys and judges are left to interpret what does and does not constitute a “dating relationship,” as the answer is not always as clear as one might think. For instance, say someone is paying an exotic dancer while she is work yet they spend significant time together on non-working hours. Is this a “dating relationship?” All told, while the lawyers must extract specific facts via testimony during a restraining order trial in order to prove their case, ultimately the court shall liberally interpret the “dating relationship” threshold. The following recent decision illustrates this legal issue.
In J.S. v. J.F, J.S. filed a domestic violence complaint against J.F. J.S was an exotic dancer that J.F. was involved with. The Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part, Essex County, issued a final restraining order in favor of J.S. under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, New Jersey Statute 2C:25-17 to -35. The Family Part court found that J.S. and J.F. were in a dating relationship and that J.F. made terroristic threats and harassed J.S. On appeal, J.F. argued that J.S. did not qualify as a domestic violence victim because he paid her for her company. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that in determining if a relationship is a dating relationship, a court must consider the Andrews factors, and also what the parties themselves believed the extent of the relationship to be.
On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division carefully reviewed the factors relevant to determining whether a dating relationship existed for purposes of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and concluded that J.S. was not automatically disqualified from claiming a dating relationship merely because J.F. may have paid her for her company. J.F. admitted that his payments to her were meant to help her out financially and were not strictly in exchange for her time. During questioning by the trial court he even agreed that he and J.S. date. Moreover, J.S. testified that she and J.F. were girlfriend and boyfriend. Finally, the New Jersey Appellate Division concluded that the Family Part’s findings that J.F. committed acts of domestic violence, in that his communications constitute terroristic threats and harassment, were supported by credible evidence.
On December 2, 2008, J.S. filed a domestic violence complaint and obtained a temporary restraining order. The judge conducted a final hearing eight days later, and at the hearings conclusion, made findings and issued a final restraining order. J.F. appealed and argued that the restraining order was not appropriate because the parties were not in a true dating relationship and therefore not under the protection of the Act.
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act permits the entry of restraining orders in favor of victims of domestic violence. The statute defines a “victim of domestic violence” to include, among others, “any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship. The act, however, does not define what is meant by “a dating relationship.” Rather, the Legislature has left it to the courts, in the course of their day-to-day involvement with these matters, to determine what relationships might be appropriately characterized as dating relationships.
Case law defining the scope of a dating relationship is limited to a single opinion by authored by a trial judge. In the 2003 case of Andrews v. Rutherford, Judge Michael Hogan suggested numerous factors to be evaluated in defining what constitutes a dating relationship for purposes of the Act, including: if there was a minimum social interpersonal bonding between the parties over and beyond a mere casual fraternization; how long the alleged dating activities continue prior to the alleged acts of domestic violence; the nature and frequency of the parties’ interactions; the ongoing expectations, both individually and jointly, of the relationship; if the parties acknowledged the relationship in front of other people; and if there are any other reasons unique to the case that support or detract from a finding that a “dating relationship” exists. In regards to the factors, Judge Hogan concluded, “[w]hile none of these factors may be individually dispositive on the issue, one or more of the factors may be more or less relevant in any given case depending on the evidence presented.”
The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that while J.S. v J.F., was not the right case to either approve or disapprove the Andrews test, and that there may be other factors not mentioned in Andrews that may warrant consideration, The appellate panel still agreed with Andrews insofar as there it was held that the facts should be liberally construed in favor of finding a dating relationship. This is because the Act itself is to be liberally construed in favor of the legislative intent to eradicate domestic violence. Furthermore, the Act embodies a strong public policy against domestic violence. The Act itself states that its purpose is “to assure the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide.” These principles would not be served by a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a dating relationship. Here J.F. argued that he was not in a dating relationship with J.S., because their relationship was purely “professional.” According to his arguments on appeal, their interactions occurred when J.F. frequented local clubs where J.S. worked as a dancer. Long story short, J.F. argued, without any legal support, that a paid escort does not meet the Act’s definition of “a victim of domestic violence.”
The New Jersey Appellate Division considered the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act’s intended broad scope, and therefore rejected the contention that a relationship that includes a payment for the other’s time prohibits the finding of a dating relationship. The appellate panel compared this relationship to an au pair or live-in housekeeper who would most definitively qualify as a “person who is a present or former household member,” entitled to relief under the Act, even though that person may be a member of a household merely because compensation has been paid for his or her presence. Just because a person receives a monetary benefit from engaging in a relationship does not by itself automatically disqualify that person from the protection of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.
Still, the New Jersey Appellate Division did not resolve this issue through the application of the Andrews factors. The panel stated that experience suggests that most claims of a dating relationship turn on what the parties would view as a date. The Court stressed that while Andrews suggests some useful factors, courts should still guard against a strict adherence to any formula that does not consider the parties’ won understanding of their relationship tempered by socio-economic and generational influences.
Despite J.F.’s allegations that the couple’s relationship was “professional,” he testified that when he gave her money it was simply meant “to help her out financially,” and not necessarily in exchange for her time. The judge even asked if the same payments occurred “during the time you were dating,” and J.F. responded that they did. This acknowledgement that he and J.S. dated was incredibly relevant to the court. Furthermore, J.F. brought her to thanksgiving dinner who which he did not pay her, and J.S. testified that they “were boyfriend/girlfriend, I went to his house, he introduced me to his parents. We went out several times together. We spent weekends together.” Taking all the evidence in totality, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that the Family Part judge had ample evidence to find that the parties were engaged in a dating relationship that ended shortly before J.F.’s harassing and threatening communications that formed the basis for the domestic violence action.
Our law firm stands prepared to help anyone who may be involved in a domestic violence situation.