September 17, 2012
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket Nos. FV-14-008400-11 and FV-14-001168-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 18, 2012
Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.
In these consolidated matters, P.B. appeals from a final restraining order (FRO) entered against him on March 7, 2011, pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, and a subsequent order denying his request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against R.B.,*fn1 his wife. We affirm.
The parties were going through a divorce when R.B. filed a domestic violence complaint and obtained a TRO on March 3, 2011. The complaint recited a prior history of domestic violence and alleged the predicate offense of harassment. N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4. The parties were the only witnesses to testify at the final hearing, which took place on March 7, 2011.
Respondent testified she was "very scared" after she received a series of threatening emails from appellant on February 11, 2011. In one of the emails, appellant stated:
Again, don't take this lightly or think that it's just an idle threat. You have one last chance to save yourself, and considering what an asshole you are, I shouldn't even give this to you. Blow me off this time and I promise you, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. That is not a threat . . . it's a promise.
In another email, appellant stated:
I begged you to go to the counselor for one reason only, so you could be saved. John*fn2 knows what is going to happen to you and he was in on this. It was his idea to see if he could save you, when he saw how hard it was for me to destroy you.
Following her receipt of the emails, respondent received several telephone calls from her husband. According to respondent, her husband told her she "brought all this upon [herself]" and she would "have to pay for the pain that [she] caused him." In addition, appellant told her she "ruined his life" and "it's time to pay."
Respondent also testified that while she was employed by an accounting firm, someone sent her employer an anonymous letter accusing her of tax fraud and other criminal conduct. Appellant admitted at trial that he sent the unsigned letter to his wife's employer. The letter, dated February 22, 2011, reads as follows:
Enclosed please find a copy of the complaint that has been filed with the New Jersey State Board of Accountancy against Ms. [R.B.]. This complaint copy is being provided to you as Ms. [B.] is presently in your employ as an accountant.
This complaint details evidence of numerous civil and criminal violations by Ms. [B.]. These violations include:
Federal tax fraud
N.J. State tax fraud
U.S. Treasury Foreign Bank and
Financial Accounts (FBAR) violations
Violation of the United States Bank
Violation of Tax Preparer Conduct as
defined by IRS's Office of
Professional Responsibility As you have now been provided with notice of the charges against Ms. [B.], be aware that continuing to employ her may expose your firm to substantial liability. As a forensic accountant . . . Ms. [B.]'s work has been an important part of the financial evidence in many legal cases. Since she was committing tax fraud and other violations during this time, the veracity of her work might come into question, should clients learn of this matter. Please govern yourself accordingly.
Respondent testified that all of the allegations in the letter were false. Moreover, when appellant was asked why he sent the letter to his wife's employer, he claimed he was trying to protect himself from liability by disclosing "to as many people as possible" that he "might have uncovered a crime."
In an oral decision, the trial court found that respondent "testified credibly"; the email communications sent by appellant were intended to cause "emotional distress and to coerce [R.B.] to do things like going to a counselor"; and the anonymous letter to his wife's employer was part of a course of conduct designed "to scuttle her career." The court further found appellant's explanation for the letter was not credible, and respondent was entitled to a FRO to prevent further acts of harassment.
On appeal, appellant argues: (1) his wife abused the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act in order to gain an advantage in the parties' custody dispute involving their two children; (2) respondent's proofs were insufficient to establish that a restraining order was necessary to protect her from immediate danger and further abuse; and (3) his conduct did not constitute harassment. After considering these arguments in light of the record and the applicable law, we have concluded they are clearly without merit, Rule 2:11-3(e)(1)(E), and we affirm with only the following comments.
The scope of our review is limited. A trial court's findings "are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998). "[A]n appellate court should not disturb the 'factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless [it is] 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.'" Ibid. (alteration in original) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). In this case, the trial court's findings and conclusions are supported by substantial credible evidence, and we affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Thomas Critchley on March 7, 2011.
We also reject appellant's argument that the trial court erred in denying his request for a TRO. During a hearing on June 3, 2011, appellant testified he was charged with reckless driving as a result of an incident mentioned in his domestic violence complaint. Appellant also testified he did not "have the paperwork from the charges." Due to the court's concern that domestic violence complaints "can be used as a sword as well as a shield," Judge Critchley denied the request for a TRO. However, the judge stated he would request additional information from the police department and would "revisit" the matter if there was a need to do so. Under these circumstances, we find no abuse of discretion or reversible error.