On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Somerset County, FV-18-502-02.
Before Judges King, Lisa and Fuentes.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
We consider in this appeal whether a former dating partner, after a three-year hiatus from the end of the dating relationship, is a protected person under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35 (Act).
Defendant, Charles Roder, seeks reversal of a Final Restraining Order (FRO) issued under the Act in favor of plaintiff, Toren Tribuzio. Defendant argues that notwithstanding a prior dating relationship, plaintiff is not a protected person under the Act, and the evidence does not support a finding of an act of domestic violence. We reject these arguments and affirm.
The parties dated for a year, from September 1997 to September 1998. The incident that precipitated the complaint under the Act occurred on October 15, 2001. As plaintiff was leaving a supermarket, defendant approached her to give her a set of car keys and a book that belonged to her, which he had in his possession since the time of their dating relationship. He had been carrying these items in his car, hoping to encounter plaintiff so he could return the items.
According to plaintiff, defendant approached her in front of the supermarket, holding these items, and stated, "How am I supposed to give these back to you if you won't talk to me?" Plaintiff continued walking and informed defendant she did not wish to speak to him. Defendant followed her yelling, "What the hell did I ever do to you that you would go to the police? What the hell did I ever do to you that you won't talk to me?" Plaintiff proceeded to her car. Defendant pulled his car behind hers, blocking her in her parking space, continuing to ask the same questions. Plaintiff got into her car and started the engine. Defendant finally said, "if you won't talk to me, then write to me", and he left. This incident lasted a "couple of minutes." Plaintiff was upset by the incident, and when she got home she called the police. The next day she met with the police, and on October 17, 2001 her application for a temporary restraining order was granted.
Defendant's version of the October 15, 2001 incident was substantially the same as plaintiff's, except he denied using vulgarities, stating he asked her to "please" tell him what he did wrong. He also denied blocking her car in, although he acknowledged pulling up behind plaintiff's parked car, but only so he could attempt to talk to her again after she refused to talk to him in front of the supermarket. He also acknowledged raising his voice, but claimed it was only for the purpose of enabling plaintiff to hear him.
The evidence also established other incidents of unwanted contact initiated by defendant during the three-year hiatus since the parties stopped dating. For some months after the breakup, defendant frequently drove up and down plaintiff's street, pulled into her driveway and called her from his cell phone. Plaintiff called the police and had them speak to defendant. This conduct did not stop, although plaintiff threatened to again call the police. He sent flowers, letters, gifts and videotapes. She called the police again. He called plaintiff's friends and neighbors, inducing her neighbors to call the police. Defendant built a web site using plaintiff's business name and his e-mail address, without her authorization. He also had business cards printed with her name on them. An aspect of the depiction on the web site could be characterized as off-color, or even pornographic. Plaintiff also reported these actions to the police. On all of these occasions, plaintiff refrained from signing a domestic violence complaint.
After a hearing in the Family Part on October 25, 2001, Judge Friend issued an FRO, concluding that plaintiff was protected under the Act and that defendant's conduct constituted harassment and stalking, the two predicate offenses alleged in plaintiff's complaint. See N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19a(13), (14). The judge credited plaintiff's version of the October 15, 2001 incident and of the intervening incidents. His factual findings are supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence, and we will not disturb them on appeal. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974).
Defendant contends that on October 15, 2001 plaintiff was not a protected person under the Act because their dating relationship ended three years earlier. Defendant recognizes that the Act's definition of "victim of domestic violence" includes "any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19d. Relying on Sperling v. Teplitsky, 294 N.J. Super. 312 (Ch. Div. 1996), however, he argues that because the parties had not been in a dating relationship for a significant period of time, they never married or had children, and their contacts after the breakup of their relationships were minimal, the Act does not apply. Id. at 317-18. We do not agree.
In Sperling, after a four to five-year hiatus from a dating relationship that produced no children, defendant encountered plaintiff and her current live-in boyfriend in a car owned by the boyfriend. Defendant repeatedly kicked the car. This conduct was apparently motivated by an ongoing business dispute between defendant and the current boyfriend, which was not related to plaintiff. During the incident, defendant expressed no harsh or angry words towards plaintiff. Id. at 316. During the four or five years since the parties ended their dating ...