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Sebastian v. Nallapu

July 25, 2008

SUJATHA SEBASTIAN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BHARATH NALLAPU, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FV-02-02519-07.

Per curiam.

RECORD IMPOUNDED

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted July 15, 2008

Before Judges Parker and Gilroy.

Defendant Bharath Nallapu appeals the Family Part's July 31, 2007 final restraining order (FRO) entered against him, pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35. We affirm.

After dating for less than one month, plaintiff decided in late May 2006 that she was not interested in continuing a relationship with defendant, telling him "that I just wanted a break from him as a nice way of saying that I didn't want to see him anymore." After the breakup, defendant continued to see and communicate with plaintiff by: 1) making unsolicited telephone calls to both her personal cellular phone, and her work phone, including calling from third-party telephones so that plaintiff was unable to screen his telephone calls; 2) appearing at the place where plaintiff was taking courses for the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and speaking to one of plaintiff's instructors; 3) sending plaintiff numerous unsolicited e-mails, many of which referenced titles of papers that plaintiff had written for college courses that defendant had obtained over the Internet, without plaintiff's knowledge or permission.

After defendant appeared at her LSAT class, plaintiff made it "very clear" to defendant that she did not want to see him anymore. On June 21, 2006, plaintiff's father sought out defendant at the YMCA in Hackensack and requested that defendant not contact or harass his daughter again.

Although defendant left the country on August 23, 2006, he continued to send plaintiff unsolicited e-mail communications. When defendant returned to the United States in June 2007, he visited plaintiff's mother's residence after learning of plaintiff's father's death. On visiting the home, plaintiff did not ask for plaintiff's mother, but rather inquired of plaintiff's brother as to plaintiff's whereabouts and whether he could see her. Plaintiff's mother escorted defendant out of her home, telling him to leave immediately or she would call the police and file a restraining order.

On June 21, 2007, plaintiff filed a domestic violence complaint against defendant, alleging that defendant had harassed and stalked her after she had terminated their dating relationship in May 2006. A temporary restraining order (TRO) was entered that day, prohibiting defendant from having any oral, written, personal, or electronic contact with plaintiff. On July 19, 2007, defendant filed a cross-complaint under the Act, alleging harassment.

On July 26, 2007, and July 31, 2007, an FRO hearing was conducted by Judge Kenneth Slomienski. The judge determined that defendant had committed the predicate act of harassment, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4c, which led to the entry of the FRO, from which defendant now appeals. The judge also determined that defendant failed to prove that plaintiff had committed an act of domestic violence, dismissing defendant's complaint and vacating the TRO previously entered thereunder.*fn1

In reaching his decision, the trial judge determined that plaintiff was credible and defendant was not; plaintiff had instructed defendant not to communicate with her and to leave her alone; defendant continued to send plaintiff unsolicited e-mail communications for approximately one year thereafter; the e-mail communications "annoy[ed] her, upset her, and cause[d] her alarm"; and that the numerous e-mails over the one-year period of time constituted a "pattern of harassment under the statute."

On appeal, defendant argues that "the trial court erred in finding harassment under the Domestic Violence Law." This argument is not supported by the record.

"The scope of appellate review of a trial court's fact-finding function is limited. The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). Furthermore, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Id. at 413. We grant substantial deference to a trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law, which will only be disturbed if they are "'manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence.'" Rova ...


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