In New Jersey, Final Restraining Orders remain in place until they are dismissed or vacated. However, the New Jersey Legislature did not intend that every Final Restraining Order should last forever. Under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, an individual can request the court dissolve or modify a final restraining order (FRO) upon a showing of “good cause.” While this sounds simple in theory, it has been our experience that dissolving a final restraining order can be very difficult and is very fact specific.
In order to seek relief from an FRO, the defendant must prove certain factors, known as the Carfagno factors. The case of Carfagno v. Carfagno, 288 N.J.Super. 424 (1995) sets forth the factors that a judge will consider in making this determination. Those factors are:
- Whether the victim consents to lifting the Restraining Order;
- Whether the victim fears the Defendant;
- The nature of the relationship between the parties today;
- The number of times the Defendant has been convicted of contempt for violating the Order;
- Whether the Defendant has a continuing involvement with drug or alcohol abuse;
- Whether the Defendant has been involved in other violent acts with other persons;
- Whether the Defendant has engaged in counseling;
- The age and health of the Defendant;
- Whether the victim is acting in good faith when opposing Defendant’s request;
- Whether another jurisdiction has entered a Restraining Order protecting the victim from the Defendant; and
- Other factors deemed relevant by the Court.
One consideration that is not enumerated within the factors but is considered by the Court was evaluated in J.N. v. S.B., which considered whether the FRO prejudices the defendant and whether this is what should be considered when we think about “good cause.”
In J.N. v. S.B., a former NJ State Trooper appealed the denial of his request to dissolve an FRO prohibiting him from having contact with his ex-girlfriend. The brief background is that the parties had a romantic relationship for around four years, which ended when J.N. obtained the temporary restraining order. The parties had a lengthy trial and after hearing testimony of the parties, the Judge found that S.B. had engaged in many acts of domestic violence ranging from physical assaults to harassment causing the entry of the FRO on March 30, 2005.
Three years later, S.B. filed his first motion to vacate the FRO arguing that J.N.’s fear of him was unfounded, and that the FRO prevented him from finding employment. The judge denied his motion finding that J.N. was still afraid of S.B. and opposed the motion in good faith.
Two years later, and five years after the initial FRO was entered, S.B. filed his second motion to vacate the FRO in 2010. In this request he suggested that J.N.’s fear was subjective rather than an objectively rational fear because they had no relationship or contact for several years. He also explained that the FRO severely limited his job opportunities. Again the Judge found that J.N.’s fear was indeed objective and reasonable based on his repeated physical assaults on women. (He had a history of violence with two other women that also resulted in FROs.)
In February 2014, nine years after the initial FRO, S.B. filed his third request to vacate the FRO. Between 2010 and 2014, S.B. attended 8 domestic violence counseling sessions with a therapist whom confirmed that he was satisfied that S.B. had completed treatment and counseling was no longer necessary. At the hearing to determine if the FRO should be vacated, the therapist testified that S.B. demonstrated an understanding of what domestic violence is, the cycle of violence, and his anger management issues. The doctor concluded that in his opinion S.B. was a low risk of domestic violence. Despite these steps, J.N. still objected to the FRO being vacated, testifying that she still remained very much afraid of S.B. The trial court judge again denied S.B.’s request because J.N. was still afraid of S.B. even though there had not been any contempt violations or direct contact between them over the 9 years. S.B. appealed this decision.
The Appellate Court is bound to give deference to findings made by the trial court, especially with respect to credibility determinations. Consistent with this, the Appellate Division noted that generally findings of fact made by a trial court are binding on appeal if supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Appellate Division gives this deference, in part, because family court judges have expertise in family matters and the only way a higher court can reverse is if there is a denial of justice because the decision was clearly mistake or error.
The Appellate Division found that the trial court must make clear findings of fact and state clear statements of reasons in balancing the Carfagno factors to give justice to the litigants. In this case, the Appellate Division found the trial court did not do so; however, as the record was clear and there was no dispute over most of the factors, they applied the Carfagno factors and found that the factors pointed to continuing the restraining order.
Because the factors are weighed, it is certainly possible to have an FRO lifted even if a victim objects. The trial court’s main reason for denying the request was based a finding that the defendant lacked credibility. During testimony he was evasive and even refused to answer the question of when he physically assaulted the other partners in his life, leading the judge to not believe his testimony and to not trust his intentions, as one of the factors requires that the court closely scrutinize whether the record demonstrates that there is a likelihood that violent actions would be repeated. When determining whether good cause exists to vacate an FRO, the court must determine whether the victim continues to fear the perpetrator, and whether a reasonable victim in the same or similar circumstances would have the same fear. The trial court found that J.N. objectively feared S.B. and the Appellate Division did not find that there was good cause to vacate the FRO.
It is important to understand that a request to vacate an FRO almost uniformly will require a hearing, during which both parties will testify and be subject to cross-examination. Testifying in open court can be a daunting task, especially given this type of subject matter. Preparation for these types of hearings can be the difference between the Judge finding your intentions to be credible and vacating the FRO, or not credible and the FRO remaining as in J.N. v. S.B.
A careful analysis of these factors as well as other relevant New Jersey case law is imperative to a successful application to vacate an FRO. If you are subject to an FRO and wish to have it vacated, contact us today to discuss your options and let us help you.