Argued: October 28, 2014.
Approved for Publication November 14, 2014.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-284-08.
Alan L. Zegas argued the cause for appellant ( Law Offices of Alan L. Zegas, attorneys; Mr. Zegas and Stephanie G. Forbes, on the briefs).
Brian C. Lundquist argued the cause for respondent ( Morris, Downing & Sherred, LLP, attorneys; Douglas C. Gray and Mr. Lundquist, on the brief).
Before Judges REISNER, HAAS and HIGBEE. The opinion of the court was delivered by HAAS, J.A.D.
[438 N.J.Super. 80] HAAS, J.A.D.
Plaintiff obtained a final restraining order (FRO) against defendant in the Family Part and subsequently brought an action in the Law Division seeking to recover damages for injuries allegedly inflicted upon her by defendant in the assaults that were the subject of the Family Part proceedings. In this appeal, we address the issue of whether defendant was collaterally estopped from arguing in the Law Division action that he did not assault plaintiff. We also consider whether evidence of a prior alleged assault that was not raised in plaintiff's complaint was admissible as habit evidence, and whether plaintiff should have been permitted to introduce the FRO into evidence. Based upon our review of the record and applicable law, we hold that the doctrine of collateral estoppel did not bar defendant from challenging plaintiff's claims in the Law Division action. We also hold that evidence of the prior alleged assault and the FRO should not have been admitted into evidence. Therefore, we reverse and remand for a new trial.
We summarize the procedural history and facts that are relevant to the issues raised on appeal. Between 2000 and February 27, 2008, plaintiff and defendant were in a dating relationship. In 2005, they entered into a written agreement concerning the purchase of a house. Under the terms of the agreement, plaintiff had eighteen months to buy out defendant's interest in the house. During this period, plaintiff would live in the house and the parties would equally share the monthly mortgage payments. After eighteen months, defendant could put the house up for sale. If defendant elected to sell the house, the agreement provided that [438 N.J.Super. 81] plaintiff could delay the sale for an additional year. The eighteen-month term ended in March 2007, and the one-year " grace period" was due to expire in March 2008.
On February 27, 2008, plaintiff obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) against defendant pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991 (Act), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35. As the predicate act in her complaint, plaintiff alleged that, on the morning of February 27, 2008, the parties had an argument after defendant returned from the gym. She stated that defendant spat in her face, pushed her against the bathroom wall, grabbed her neck, and hit her head repeatedly into the wall. According to plaintiff, defendant then took a shower. As he did so, plaintiff left the house, drove to a coffee shop parking lot, and then called the police. Later in the day, plaintiff went to the hospital and was prescribed medication for her injuries.
Plaintiff alleged there had been three other incidents of domestic violence. Plaintiff asserted defendant grabbed her neck and banged her head against a wall
on an unspecified date in April 2007. She stated defendant broke her toe in August 2007, by " stomping" on it while the couple was on a boat. Finally, plaintiff claimed that defendant pushed her down " a small flight of stairs" sometime in November 2007.
Approximately thirty days after the TRO was filed, a Family Part judge conducted a three-day trial at which plaintiff was represented by counsel. Defendant, who is an attorney, was not represented. The parties did not exchange any discovery. Defendant denied all of plaintiff's allegations. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge granted plaintiff's request for a FRO, finding that plaintiff had proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that defendant assaulted her on February 27, 2008. The judge also found that the April 2007 and August 2007 assaults " occur[red.]" The judge found he did " not have sufficient information or detail to make a finding as to whether [the November 2007] incident occurred or not."
[438 N.J.Super. 82] Plaintiff advised the judge she wished to seek compensation for the injuries she sustained in the three assaults. The judge stated that the " issue of compensatory damages" was not yet " ripe" for consideration, and he reserved decision on the request in order to enable the parties to marshal the proofs needed to address the matter. Defendant did not file a motion for leave to appeal from this interlocutory decision.
Rather than pursuing her claim for compensatory damages in the domestic violence case, plaintiff filed a three-count complaint against defendant in the Law Division. Plaintiff alleged defendant assaulted her in April and August 2007, and again on February 27, 2008. Plaintiff sought compensatory damages, punitive damages, and counsel fees. Defendant filed an answer denying plaintiff's allegations.
The Family Part judge initially handled the matter in the Law Division. In July 2010, plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing that the judge's findings in the prior FRO trial " establish[ed defendant's] liability, as a matter of law, in the present intentional tort action, by operation of the doctrine of collateral estoppel." Following oral argument, the judge denied plaintiff's motion in a thorough oral opinion. The judge also issued a written opinion setting forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law.
The judge stated there were significant procedural differences between the summary proceeding he conducted in the FRO matter and an action in the Law Division seeking to recover compensatory and punitive damages for an alleged assault. The judge explained,
[438 N.J.Super. 83] a domestic violence hearing is clearly a summary proceeding, held in an " emergency situation." The procedural limitations imposed by the Legislature in achieving the worthy goal of " assur[ing] the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide" are not consistent with a civil action, filed in the Law Division, in which the parties are permitted extensive pre-trial discovery, which New Jersey Courts consistently construe liberally.
Under these circumstances, the judge determined it would be unfair to apply the
doctrine of collateral estoppel against defendant in the Law Division action.
By May 2011, responsibility for the matter had been transferred to a different judge. At that point, plaintiff renewed her motion for partial summary judgment and again sought to bar defendant from offering any evidence in defense of plaintiff's claims that he assaulted her on three occasions. Without conducting oral argument, and following an off-the-record meeting with counsel in chambers, the second judge issued an order on May 5, 2011, stating " [d]efendant is collaterally estopped from offering evidence and testimony at ...