On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, FV-09-003439-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes and Chambers.
In this domestic violence case, defendant Aditya Sharma appeals from the restraining order entered against him on November 29, 2006, thereafter amended on March 1, 2007. After careful review of the record, we find no harmful error in either the conduct of plaintiff's counsel or in the trial court's evidentiary rulings, and therefore we affirm.
Defendant, a native of India residing in the United States on a temporary visa, married plaintiff Shaiffu Sharma, also a native of India, in India on November 28, 2005, in accordance with an arranged marriage. On May 28, 2006, after having lived with defendant in Jersey City for six months, plaintiff filed a domestic violence action against defendant in the Jersey City Municipal Court and obtained a temporary restraining order against him. The complaint alleged that defendant had committed domestic violence against plaintiff by striking her in the forearm with a closed fist on May 28, 2006, causing redness and swelling. The complaint also alleged prior domestic violence, namely, that defendant had hit plaintiff in the face one month earlier. Defendant disputed these contentions, denying that any domestic violence had taken place, although he conceded that the parties argued.
A bench trial on the domestic violence complaint was conducted in the Superior Court on June 21, August 15, September 20, October 4, and November 1, 2006. Both parties were represented by counsel in the proceedings. The trial judge placed her oral decision on the record on November 29, 2006. On the question of credibility, the trial judge accepted plaintiff's version of events.
The trial judge found that defendant had assaulted plaintiff on May 28, 2006. She noted that the swelling and redness of plaintiff's forearm witnessed by two Jersey City police officers corroborated plaintiff's testimony that she had been assaulted that day. She made this finding although the swelling and redness was not observable in the poor quality Polaroid taken at the police station.
The trial judge also found that defendant had struck plaintiff in the face in March 2006, causing her to bleed around the nose. The trial court stated that plaintiff's testimony about this incident was corroborated by the credible testimony of a neighbor, Kathleen Burke. The trial court also found that defendant had smashed with a rolling pin the computer that plaintiff used to look for employment.
Due to the fact that plaintiff had no job, no money, and a limited ability to pursue employment due to her immigration status, the trial court found that plaintiff was "under the full control of the defendant" and that she had initially feared going to the authorities. The trial court also observed that the email communications between the parties that were placed into evidence showed "a troubled marriage and an unstable relationship."
The trial court found that plaintiff had proven her allegations of domestic violence by a preponderance of the credible evidence and that the entry of a restraining order was necessary in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(a). While plaintiff's counsel sought $19,650 in attorney fees and $2,200 in costs, the trial court allowed only $8,000 in attorney fees and $1,103.37 in costs, because the proceedings had been unnecessarily protracted due to the unsubstantiated allegations and unnecessary issues raised by plaintiff.
On appeal, defendant contends that the egregious conduct of plaintiff's counsel denied him the opportunity for a fair trial, challenges various evidentiary rulings made by the trial court, and contends that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.
Our review is limited, since we may not overturn the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judges unless we are "convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). In cases in which the evidence is largely testimonial, we must give special deference to the findings of fact of the trial judges, since they are better able to determine the credibility of the witnesses due to their opportunity to hear and observe the witnesses. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 ...