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The Appellate Court in L.C. v M.A.J. Condemns the Use of In Limine Motions to Dismiss Domestic Violence Cases

One unfortunate aspect of practicing family law means one will inevitably have to deal with issues of domestic violence. NJ domestic violence laws are an interesting intersection of family law and criminal law. The L.C. v M.A.J. case which recently came down from the Appellate court offers some perspective on the realities of the law in New Jersey. The case concerned the defendants’ communications to plaintiff. The complaint filed by the plaintiff alleged, among other things, that defendant had emailed plaintiff asking if she was staying home with the child who he understood was sick. Plaintiff did not respond to the email, so defendant called the child, who said he was home sick. Defendant then accused the plaintiff of making the child lie, while also claiming the plaintiff left the child at home alone, sick. Furthermore, defendant called her employer to find out if she was working because he did not hear from her. Plaintiff stated that defendant called her employer a total of three times, and a police officer came to her home to check on her. On top of this, the defendant used a fake name when inquiring about her whereabouts.

As a result of these actions, the plaintiff filed a domestic violence complaint against the defendant, and at a brief hearing, was granted a temporary restraining order from one judge. The complaint alleged a pattern and practice of domestic violence from the defendant, including physical abuse and controlling behavior, and currently, she alleged the defendant harassed her through communication to her and her employer. On the day of the final hearing, in front of a completely different judge, the attorney for the defendant presented a motion to dismiss, which were argued to be on the basis that there was no claim presented upon which relief could be granted. The appellate judges noted that the defendant’s motion did not say this at all, but rather said only the facts alleged by the plaintiff concerned only his parenting issues and did not constitute harassment. The appellate court reversed based on the current state of NJ domestic violence laws.

They first held that they have repeatedly condemned any consideration of in limine motions which seek to terminate an action. The rules of court do not allow filing dispositive motions at the last minute – in fact, these sort of motions should only be permitted to address preliminary or evidentiary issues. Defendant sought only dismissal rather than the resolution of any sort of preliminary or evidentiary issues. The judge should have rejected it out of hand. But instead, he not only considered it, but granted it. To make matters even more grave, this case was a domestic violence matter. The court held that NJ domestic violence laws even more vigorously prohibit the use of such motions to dismiss the action when the alleged victim’s safety is the primary consideration of the court. Rarely will a domestic violence action be able to be dismissed without a full hearing – and even in that case, due process must be upheld, with the victim getting an opportunity to file an opposition with a chance to be heard. In this case, the judge disregarded due process, by his willingness to hear the defendant’s motion.  Defendant could have requested a dismissal at the close of all evidence.

The second issue the court found problematic was that the judge and the defendant both believed that the factual allegations presented by plaintiff, finding that the required burden of proof had not been met. However, under the law, this kind of motion cannot address the ability to prove the allegation contained in the complaint. Essentially, the court handled defendant’s motion as though it were a summary judgment. The judge granted the motion based on his acceptance of defendant’s premise that whatever communications he made were solely concerned about the child in question’s welfare, in spite of there being no sworn statement to support that theory, which – by itself –  should have required a denial on the motion. However, the record does not support any of these assumptions, and denied plaintiff any of presumptions and inferences that NJ domestic violence laws would grant here, particularly under summary judgment principles.

Plaintiffs complaint, standing on its own, provided enough evidence to suggest that defendant’s motivations in his communications were not so innocent, and in fact, he intended to harass and control her, just as he had in the past. So, on top of the previous mistakes the judge made, he also failed to examine and interpret plaintiff’s allegations in the light most favorable to her, in direct contravention of established law. Furthermore, he seems to have completely ignored the allegations of past domestic violence against her in a fact-sensitive domestic violence matter.

The court held that the judge should not have considered the motion in limine in the first plus, much less grant it. Furthermore, even if he had been correct in considering it as a motion for summary judgment, he failed to follow basic legal principles in rendering his decision. As a result, the court reversed the dismissal order and reinstated the temporary restraining order to be heard finally before an entirely different judge. This case shows that courts often interpret NJ domestic violence laws strictly, keeping the safety and welfare of the alleged victim in mind. It is a good example of the court’s attitude – when erring in court, and domestic violence is the cause of action, err on the side of the defendant’s well being.  If you have any questions concerning a restraining order, call the Law Offices Of Peter Van Aulen for a free initial consultation at (201) 845-7400.

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