On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket No. FV-16-000621-96.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Reisner and Alvarez.
Defendant W.W. appeals from the October 21, 2010 denial of his motion to vacate a final restraining order (FRO) issued pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to - 35. For the reasons that follow, we remand for the trial judge to reconsider the application after a plenary hearing, make necessary findings of fact, and analyze the legal question in light of the factors outlined in Carfagno v. Carfagno, 288 N.J. Super. 424 (Ch. Div. 1995).
The parties have one child, now age sixteen. When plaintiff obtained an FRO against defendant on September 7, 1995, neither party was represented. The transcript reflects that defendant asked for a postponement so he could retain the attorney with whom he had consulted, but who was not available on that date. Defendant told the judge he had assumed he was not permitted to speak until plaintiff completed her testimony, and did not request the postponement until that time. At that point, the judge informed him it was too late to postpone the hearing, asked him some questions, went on to make findings, and issued the FRO. In support of the application, plaintiff alleged defendant had pushed her on one occasion, threatened to push her out of a window, and verbally harassed her.
Some four months later, in December 1995, defendant was found guilty of violating the FRO because of a statement he made to plaintiff regarding visitation. We reversed the conviction on the basis that his words were "trivial" and "non-actionable." See State v. Wilmouth, 302 N.J. Super. 20, 23 (App. Div. 1997). There have been no further proceedings between the parties to the date of this application.
When defendant filed to vacate the FRO on June 21, 2010, plaintiff cross-moved for an increase in child support and for future contributions to the child's college education. Plaintiff was unrepresented at the ensuing October 21, 2010 hearing.
This is the sum and substance of plaintiff's testimony in opposition to dissolution of the FRO: "[F]irst of all . . . I want to know when does the fear go away? Because I don't think he's reformed. And when he got the paperwork, my answer, he didn't call me, Your Honor. You know what . . . he did, he called our child." After that, the judge appeared to cut off her testimony.
The court nevertheless denied both applications. Although noting the case involved only "verbal abuse and intimidation," the judge observed that, when those confrontations occurred fifteen or sixteen years prior, it was defendant's "intention to place [plaintiff] in fear." The court went on to conclude plaintiff was acting in good faith in opposing defendant's request and that it "saw nothing in the certification of defendant that would indicate to me that this relationship [as of] today's date is a normal relationship between two people not in fear of one [an]other. I don't find it. And I find that it's necessary to continue this order." He also explained "the relationship between the parties today has been civil to a degree, and mostly because of the fact that the plaintiff is muzzled by her fear to really address matters on an equal footing with the defendant."
We do not disturb a trial court's factual findings unless unsupported by "adequate, substantial and credible evidence," Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974), and we pay particular deference to the Family Part's expertise. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412-13 (1998).
Defendant's principal contention on appeal is that the court simply failed to apply the eleven criteria enumerated in Carfagno in reaching its decision. See Carfagno, supra, 288 N.J. Super. at 435. He further contends his contacts with plaintiff since entry of the FRO have been peaceful and there is no rational or objective basis for plaintiff to fear him.
In addition to the October 21, 2010 decision denying the dissolution request rendered from the bench, the judge filed an amplified statement of reasons pursuant to Rule 2:5-1(b) on November 4, 2010. He said he had considered each and every Carfagno factor, despite not specifically mentioning them during the course of his oral ...