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New Jersey law recognizes that domestic violence can occur outside marriage and cohabitation. Dating relationships are expressly covered, but what about if the couple has a less traditional relationship and they don’t consider themselves as “dating”? A recent court case addressed this issue determining whether the domestic violence law applied to their situation.

In the case of T.M. v. R.M.W. the parties engaged in a relationship over a period of eight years. For the first four years, the parties engaged in sexual relations frequently. For the next three years, there were no sexual relations. In the last year, the parties’ relationship was limited to private encounters involving “consensual rough sex.” The plaintiff testified at the domestic violence hearing that as part of the “consensual rough sex” she consented to slapping, hair pulling and choking. During the parties’ last encounter, the defendant told the plaintiff that he hated her and then punched her in the face with a closed fist[1]. After the punch, the parties continued to have sexual relations for an additional twenty minutes. Plaintiff’s position was that the punching was not consensual. Two days later, the plaintiff was granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). At the Final Restraining Order (FRO) Hearing, the Court was faced with the following issues:

    1. Whether a plaintiff can qualify as a “victim of domestic violence” based upon a “dating relationship” involving sporadic consensual private sexual relations between adults with few, if any, of the traditional elements of a dating relationship set forth in prior caselaw (See Andrews v. Rutherford)?
  1. Whether a defendant may assert the defense of consent to allegations of simple assault and harassment by offensive touching, when the plaintiff admittedly agreed to “consensual rough sex” with defendant?

With regard to the dating relationship, although neither party defined their relationship as dating in the traditional sense and did not hold themselves out in public as a dating couple, the Court found that the parties’ relationship met the criteria of a dating relationship. In this regard, the Court stated:

For the courts to deny this plaintiff victim status could potentially been seen as morally judging a plaintiff who chooses not to engage in a relationship with “traditional” and “observable” indicia of dating.  It would also be contrary to the purposes of the PDVA to deny a long-term consensual sexual partner of the protections of the act, especially when the alleged violence occurs in her home.

The issue of consent came down to the credibility of the parties. Both parties acknowledged consent for the slapping, hair pulling and choking that would have otherwise been considered harassment by offensive touching and assault. The Court had to determine whether the plaintiff consented to the punch. After evaluating each party’s testimony, the Court concluded that the issue of consent was a “close call” and moved on to analyze the second prong of the domestic violence analysis, which is whether a Final Restraining Order is necessary.

The Court ultimately found that a FRO was not necessary to protect the plaintiff or for the protection of the general public or other persons with whom defendant may come into contact. Although the plaintiff’s argued that other women should be protected from the defendant, the Court noted that a FRO in favor of a particular plaintiff would not protect other third parties unrelated to the case in which the FRO was entered.

It is clear from this case that a broad array of relationships may be covered under the domestic violence law. The courts will look closely at both the nature of the relationship as well as the circumstances of the allegedly violent acts to determine whether a FRO is necessary. These court proceedings have serious consequences to both plaintiffs and defendants and each side should have legal representation to ensure their rights are protected.

If you are a victim or have been accused of domestic violence, contact us for assistance.

[1] According to the plaintiff, she questioned the defendant about punching her and he laughed and punched her again, but the court found insufficient proof of a second punch

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