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Shah v. Shah

June 30, 2005

GAYATRI SHAH, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MAYANK SHAH, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 373 N.J. Super. 47 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The Court considers the extent of the authority of New Jersey courts to protect a person, who claims to be a victim of domestic violence in another state and who seeks refuge in New Jersey, from an alleged abuser who has had no contact with this State.

Plaintiff Gayatri Shah and defendant Mayank K. Shah were married in India in 2001. Mayank returned to Illinois, where he was licensed to practice medicine, and Gayatri joined him eighteen months later. After four months, Gayatri left the marital home and sought refuge with family friends in Bergen County. In August 2003, she filed a complaint against Mayank under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to --33 (Domestic Violence Act or Act). An ex parte temporary restraining order issued on the filing of the complaint. That order barred Mayank from Gayatri's confidential location and prohibited all contact with her, along with other prohibitory relief. The temporary restraining order also included two forms of affirmative relief, requiring Mayank to surrender all firearms to the officer serving the order and requiring Mayank to maintain Gayatri on his health plan.

Subsequently, two amended temporary restraining orders were entered that continued the terms of the initial order but added additional terms, including that Mayank pay emergent support and send to Gayatri her work permit, social security card, immigration-related documents and her personal mail. On September 23, 2003, Gayatri was served in New Jersey with a complaint for divorce filed by Mayank in Illinois.

In respect of the temporary restraining order, Mayank moved, through counsel, to dismiss the domestic violence complaint for lack of both subject matter and personal jurisdiction and on grounds of forum non conveniens. He further moved to stay the final restraining order hearing, asserting that because he had no contacts whatsoever with New Jersey, this State's courts could not exercise personal jurisdiction over him. Gayatri did not challenge Mayank's factual assertions concerning the lack of minimum contacts. The trial court denied all of Mayank's objections on October 8, 2003, clearing the path for the final restraining order hearing.

The Appellate Division granted Mayank's motion for leave to appeal and stayed further proceedings in the trial court. In a published opinion, the panel affirmed in part and reversed in part, vacated its stay, and remanded to the Family Part. 373 N.J. Super. 47 (App. Div. 2004). As an overarching proposition, the panel held that the trial court possessed both subject matter and personal jurisdiction to issue the protective or prohibitory portions of the temporary restraining order because Gayatri, "having a lawful presence in New Jersey and residing here, at least for the time being, is entitled to seek and expect the full protection of the laws." The panel distinguished, however, between protective or prohibitory relief and affirmative relief, relying on the principle that a court is without the power to effect a mandate when it lacks personal jurisdiction over a defendant. Therefore, to the extent that the orders required Mayank to undertake particular acts, the panel found that the order could not be enforced in this state. In respect of that portion of the order requiring Mayank to turn over Gayatri's papers, the panel described this requirement as having "hybrid qualities" because it "works to keep plaintiff legally whole and as fully protected by the law as circumstances permit, as distinguished from factually better off, [therefore] it has some of the same character as the protective order ...." The panel held that the trial court possessed the authority to enter the order requiring plaintiff's papers to be restored to her, but cautioned that the order requiring Mayank to perform those acts could be enforced only by a court that has personal jurisdiction over him.

HELD: On the filing of a domestic violence complaint by a plaintiff in the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court in a county where the alleged violence occurred, where the defendant resides, or where the plaintiff resides or is sheltered, New Jersey courts have the authority to issue ex parte relief in the form of a temporary restraining order upon a showing both that the plaintiff is in danger of domestic violence and that the temporary restraining order is necessary to protect life, health or well-being. If personal jurisdiction cannot be exercised over the defendant within constitutional due process limits, the temporary restraining order may only provide for prohibitory relief, and no final restraining order may issue. Once issued, an order for emergency, ex parte relief shall remain in effect until a judge of the Family Part issues a further order.

1. The purpose of the Domestic Violence Act is to assure victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide. Because it is remedial in nature, the Legislature directed that the Act be liberally construed to achieve its salutary purposes. Under the Act, a victim alleging domestic violence can file a complaint and seek emergency ex parte relief. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28a, a plaintiff may apply for such relief in a court having jurisdiction over the place where the alleged act of domestic violence occurred, where the defendant resides, or where the plaintiff resides or is sheltered. Courts will grant emergency, ex parte relief in the form of a TRO if there is a showing that restraints are necessary to protect the life, health or well-being of a victim. If after conducting a hearing the court concludes that an act of domestic violence has occurred, the court may provide additional assistance to the victim. (Pp. 8-9).

2. The Domestic Violence Act permits the filing of a complaint where the plaintiff resides or is sheltered. N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28a. The logic of that provision is unassailable: a victim of domestic abuse who seeks a place of refuge must be able to engage the protections of the law of the jurisdiction in which he or she is sheltered. New Jersey's approach is consistent with that of most other jurisdictions. The overwhelming majority of states protect a victim of domestic violence while he or she is in the state, regardless of where the abuse occurred. The Court holds, therefore, that New Jersey courts have the requisite subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate a domestic violence complaint so long as one of the statutorily enumerated subject matter jurisdiction conditions is present and the action is venued either where the alleged act of domestic violence occurred, where the defendant resides, or where the plaintiff resides or is sheltered. (Pp. 9-14).

3. In Domestic Violence Act matters, New Jersey courts lack the power to enter an order requiring the performance of any affirmative act by a defendant over whom in personam jurisdiction cannot be asserted. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division's distinction between prohibitory orders that serve to protect a domestic violence victim and affirmative orders that require a defendant to undertake an action. That distinction is rooted in two separate concepts. The former, which allows the entry of an order prohibiting acts of domestic violence against a defendant over whom no personal jurisdiction exists, is addressed not to the defendant but to the victim: it provides the victim the very protection the law specifically allows and it prohibits the defendant from engaging in behavior already specifically outlawed. However, in respect of orders compelling action by a defendant, a court must evaluate the defendant's minimum contacts and then consider whether the assertion of jurisdiction affects traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. Here, because the issuance of a prohibitory order does not implicate any of Mayank's substantive rights, the trial court had jurisdiction to enter a temporary restraining order to the extent it prohibited certain actions in New Jersey. However, no New Jersey court can exercise personal jurisdiction over Mayank Shah in a manner consistent with due process. It is conceded that he has zero contacts with the State of New Jersey. (Pp. 15-18).

4. The minimum contacts considerations that forbid the entry of an order granting affirmative relief against a defendant over whom the court lacks personal jurisdiction also forbid the entry of a final restraining order within the context of a domestic violence complaint. A final restraining order must include, by statutory definition, affirmative relief. In addition, a final restraining order may well have severe collateral consequences, including registration in a central registry. For these reasons, when personal jurisdiction over a defendant is lacking, New Jersey courts do not have the power to enter a final restraining order against that defendant. (Pp. 18-19).

5. The Court rejects the Appellate Division's characterization of the order requiring Mayank to turn over plaintiff's personal papers as a "hybrid" order. The Court sees no difference between affirmatively requiring that Mayank turn over documents and requiring that he pay money to Gayatri. If, consonant with due process, a court lacking jurisdiction over the person of the defendant cannot order that defendant to pay money, then it surely follows that the court similarly cannot order that defendant to take any other affirmative act. (P. 19).

6. Finally, the Court rejects Mayank's arguments that the temporary restraining order must come to an end at some point. Mayank can easily rid himself of the temporary restraining order by coming into New Jersey and substantively defending against the domestic violence complaint. He also can request that both matters be heard in Illinois. When, as here, a defendant is able, by his voluntary inaction, to subvert the legal machinery designed to bring about the very closure he claims to seek, he cannot be heard to complain. Under those circumstances, the analysis must revert to the language of the Domestic Violence Act, which states that, once issued, "[a]n order for emergency, ex parte relief . . . shall remain in effect until a judge of the Family Part issues a further order." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28i. (Pp. 20-21).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED AS MODIFIED, and the matter is REMANDED to the Family Part of the Chancery Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

Argued May 2, 2005

In State v. Reyes, 172 N.J. 154, 168-69 (2002), we addressed "whether a victim of domestic abuse who seeks refuge in this State is entitled to the protections of the [Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -33] when the abuser enters the State and commits an act of domestic violence in New Jersey." This appeal requires that we address an issue identified but not confronted in Reyes: the extent of the authority of New Jersey courts to protect a person, who claims to be a victim of domestic violence in another state and seeks refuge in New Jersey, from an alleged abuser who has had no contact with this State. Id. at 169 n.3.

We hold that, upon the filing of a complaint by a plaintiff in the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court in a county "where the alleged act of domestic violence occurred, where the defendant resides, or where the plaintiff resides or is sheltered," N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28a, New Jersey courts have the authority to issue ex parte relief, in the form of a temporary restraining order, upon a showing both that "the plaintiff is in danger of domestic violence," N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28g, and that the temporary restraining order is "necessary to protect the life, health or well-being of a victim on whose behalf the relief is sought." N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28f. If personal jurisdiction cannot be exercised over the defendant within constitutional due process limits, the temporary restraining order may only provide for prohibitory relief, and no final ...


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