The Modern Family Now Falls Under The Scope Of The Domestic Violence Act In New Jersey

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The issue in the published trial court decision, S.C. v. J.D., reviewed what is a “household member” under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”) pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35.  The plaintiff, “Samantha”, filed a temporary restraining order against her half-sibling, “Jake”, alleging assault and terroristic threats.  The two share the same father.  Jake filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that jurisdiction had not been established under the PDVA.  Jake claimed that his “sporadic relationship” of sharing weekends, holidays, and an occasional family vacation was insufficient to establish jurisdiction.  The trial court set a hearing to determine jurisdiction in March 2019.

Jake’s parents were divorced and established a custodial arrangement for Jake under a marital settlement agreement (“MSA”).  Under the MSA, Jake’s mother had “custody” of Jake, but Jake’s father had “free and liberal visitation . . . as often as possible.”  Jake’s mother obtained a final restraining order against Jake’s father, wherein Samantha’s mother would supervise Jake and his father’s parenting time.  Samantha’s mother was also designated as Jake’s driver during parenting time with his father.  Until college, Samantha lived with her mother and father.  Jake and Samantha would spend time together with their father, Samantha’s mother, and Samantha’s brother consistently during the school year and summer breaks.  While Jake attended a different school district than Samantha, the two had a meaningful and “substantially integrated sibling relationship . . . not dissimilar from siblings in a singular household.”  Jake was not a mere sporadic visitor, but a part of the family.

The PDVA is meant to assure “victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide.”  N.J.S.A. 2C:25-18.  The law is meant to be read liberally, but “[t]he PDVA specifies jurisdictional relationships that must exist.”  The PDVA defines a “victim of domestic violence” as “any person who is 18 years or older . . . who has been subjected to domestic violence by . . . any other person who is a present household member or was at any time a household member.”  N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d) (emphasis added).

The PDVA was amended in 2015 to include prior household members.  The analysis shifted from the amount of time that passed since the parties shared a household to whether the current conflict arose from the parties’ prior domestic relationship.  See N.G. v. J.P., 426 N.J. Super. 398, 411 (App. Div. 2012).  Even prior to the 2015 amendment, the term “household member” had been construed liberally.  See e.g., S.P. v. Newark Police Dep’t, 428 N.J. Super. 210 (App. Div. 2012) (boarders in a rooming house who shared bathroom, kitchen, and communal appliances); S.Z. v. M.C., 417 N.J. Super. 622 (App. Div. 2011) (unrelated tenant); Hamilton v. Ali, 350 N.J. Super. 479 (Ch. Div. 2001) (college suitemates).

Judge Aquaviva found that the facts give rise to the notion of a modern family.  The fact that Jake’s primary residence was at his mother’s and his alternate residence was at his and Samantha’s father, does not mean Jake cannot be a part of two households under the PDVA.  Jake spent meaningful and significant parenting time with Samantha and their father as a family under one household.  To state that Jake is not a member of Samantha’s “household” would undermine the purpose of the PDVA and the public policy of assuring minor children of “frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage”.  N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.  Under Jake’s argument, a child of separated or divorced parents could only file a restraining order against one set of step-siblings, but not the other if he only has one “household” under the PDVA.  Therefore, the Appellate Court found that the PDVA must be extended to include “modern, blended households.”  Jurisdiction had been established and the trial court could resume the final restraining order hearing.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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