Rest assured. If you’ve never heard of domestic contretemps, you’re not alone. However, it may be something you learn about if you’re in the process of getting divorced. For that matter, you could hear the term used even if you’re staying in your marriage. Likewise, the court may find that disagreements you have with your former spouse also equate to domestic contretemps.
For starters, domestic contretemps should not be confused with domestic violence. The difference? Domestic contretemps recognizes that couples can have ordinary glitches in their relationship. Just because families fight does not mean that every argument rises to the level of domestic violence.
In some cases, the distinction represents a fine line. After all, NJSA 2C:25-19 lists nineteen separate acts that would entitle a domestic violence victim to protection. Truth be told, a great many have nothing to do with physical assaults or threats.
Consider your personal situation. You and your spouse engage in disputes about your children. In fact, sometimes you find it downright infuriating. As you look at the list of predicate acts of domestic violence, you notice that harassment is one of them. You figure it’s worth a shot at making an application for a restraining order.
Before you go through the motions, you decide to meet with an experienced family law attorney. You discover that filing for a restraining order based on harassment comes with its share of issues. In the end, it’s up to the judge to determine if your exchanges with your former spouse are just ordinary family spats or more.
The New Jersey Appellate Division recently decided a case regarding the issue of domestic contretemps. In fact, it served as the basis for denial of a restraining order.
Domestic Contretemps: Restraining Order Reversed
Like many family court cases, the legal opinion in J.A.C. v. C.A.C. uses the parties’ initials for confidentiality reasons. Notably, the New Jersey Appellate Division did not select this case for publication. Therefore, the outcome applies to the individuals involved in the matter. It is not precedential law.
J.A.C. and C.A.C. divorced in 2010 and are the parents of two children. When they were married, they lived in California. However, after their divorce, J.A.C. relocated to New Jersey and brought the couple’s son and daughter with her.
As part of their divorce judgment, the court approved a parenting time schedule that gave the children time to visit with their father in California. The problems that are the subject of this case occurred on August 9, 2016.
On that date, the couple’s nine-year-old son was in California with his dad. At approximately 10:00 PM EST, the parties began exchanging text messages. J.A.C. instructed her ex-husband to end all text messages by 11:00 PM EST.
Despite the request, C.A.C. continued to text his ex-wife past the requested time. Notably, J.A.C. did not see the new text messages until 11:00 AM the next day.
On August 10, 2016, J.A.C. applied for a restraining order under the New Jersey Protection of Domestic Violence Act. Her complaint accused her former husband of harassing her by sending numerous text messages beyond a reasonable hour. Additionally, J.A.C. stated that C.A.C. threatened that he would call his ex-wife’s employer. J.A.C. claimed she was afraid of her ex.
When it came time for the court hearing, J.A.C. appeared without legal counsel, and C.A.C. came with his attorney. The judge gave J.A.C. instructions prior to allowing her testimony. She was requested to “tell the reasons why a final restraining order should be issued.” Additionally, the court advised J.A.C. that her former husband’s lawyer would then ask her questions about her testimony.
Restraining Order Granted by Trial Court
In reviewing the matter, the Appellate Division characterized J.A.C.’s testimony as”freewheeling.” J.A.C. was all over the place and only mentioned C.A.C.’s text message once. In that regard, she said that C.A.C. threatened to call her employers and tell them that she used their internet service to stalk him. J.A.C. did not produce a copy of the text messages.
When she was cross-examined by defense counsel, J.A.C. stated that she called to talk to her son. Initially, the child’s father informed her that he went to bed early because he was tired from swimming. Ultimately, J.A.C. did speak with the boy and could tell he just woke up.
C.A.C. testified on his own behalf and explained the threat regarding calling J.A.C.’s employer. He admitted his belief that his former wife stalked him online dated back to 2011.
At the trial court level, the judge issued the final restraining order. The court concluded that C.A.C. harassed J.A.C. by continuing to message her. “…There was no longer a[n] . . . ongoing discussion about the child, but rather back and forth between . . . the parties."
Appellate Division Reverses Trial Court
J.A.C.’s initial complaint for a restraining order listed harassment as the predicate act of domestic violence. Notably, the Supreme Court has written on this subject as follows:
..harassment is the predicate offense that presents the greatest challenges to our courts as they strive to apply the underlying criminal statute that defines the offense to the realm of domestic discord. Drawing the line between acts that constitute harassment for purposes of issuing a domestic violence restraining order and those that fall instead into the category of ordinary domestic contretemps presents our courts with a weighty responsibility and confounds our ability to fix clear rules of application.
[J.D. v. M.D.F., 207 N.J. 458, 475 (2011) (citation omitted).]
In deciding to reverse the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division pointed out that J.A.C. did not even see the late hour text messages until the next day. There was also no record disclosing the content of the text messages. Therefore, there was no way of knowing if C.A.C. intended to harass his former spouse.
The fact that C.A.C. lives across the country also proved relevant to the appellate court. It did not seem likely that the parties would have physical contact. There is no evidence that a restraining order was necessary to ensure further abuse.