Monday, December 14, 2009

"Escorts" and the Domestic Violence Act

J.S. v. J.F., December 10, 2009 - A Discussion
[Full text of the decision here.]

The facts in brief:  The plaintiff worked as a dancer at several clubs where defendant was a patron, and defendant occasionally paid plaintiff to be his paid escort.  They went out on several occasions, including once when the defendant took the plaintiff to his parents' house for Thanksgiving.  After the plaintiff began seeing someone, the defendant began to threaten the plaintiff and her boyfriend with bodily harm and deportation.  The plaintiff obtained a temporary restraining order based on terroristic threats and harassment on December 2, 2008.  Eight days later, after a final hearing, the judge issued a final restraining order.

The issues:  Does the plaintiff qualify as a victim of domestic violence in the context of the parties' relationship, although the defendant paid for her company?

The court's holding:  The New Jersey Domestic Violence Act outlines the state's definition of domestic violence and the parameters under which relief can be granted.  Not anyone can obtain a restraining order against anyone else in the New Jersey Family Court.

[For instance, you can't go to Family Court to get a restraining order against your neighbor or some guy at work, even if he smacked you in the head with a baseball bat.  There is other relief available in the criminal and civil courts for cases like that, but not in family court.]

The protected classes of people under the Domestic Violence Act are spouses, former spouses, and any present or former household member of the defendant, anyone with whom the defendant has a child in common, or anyone with whom the defendant has had a dating relationship.  The Act, however, has not defined the term "dating relationship," and has left it to the courts to make that determination on a case-by-case basis.  The only precedent for the Appellate Division to consider in this matter was a single 2003 case, decided at the trial court level.  The holding of a lower court is not binding on the Appellate Division, but is merely advisory.  In the 2003 case, the judge suggested several factors to consider in determining the existence of a dating relationship:  Minimal social bonding of the parties, above and beyond the casual, how, long the alleged dating relationship existed prior to the acts of domestic violence, the nature and frequency of the parties' interactions, the parties' individual or joint expectations with respect to the relationship, the parties' affirmation to others of their relationship by statement or conduct, and any other reasons unique to the case in question that support or detract from a finding that a "dating relationship" exists.

The Appellate Division declined to use the test outlined in that case, but agreed with the 2003 trial court's reasoning that "the facts should be liberally construed in favor of finding a dating relationship because the Act itself is to be liberally construed in favor of the legislative intent to eradicate domestic violence.  Stated another way, the Act embodies a strong public policy against domestic violence.  Because the Act is remedial in nature, it has been liberally construed for teh protection of victims of domestic violence.  Indeed, the Act itself announces that its purpose is 'to assure the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide.'"  As the Appellate Division stated, "These principles would not be served by a cramped interpretation of what constitutes a dating relationship."

In considering the scope of the Act, the Appellate Division rejected the defendant's contention that a relationship that includes a payment in consideration for the other's time precludes the finding of a dating relationship.

[The court went so far as to say that an au pair or live-in housekeeper would qualify under the Act as a protected class as someone who "is a present or former household member."  Financial benefit from the relationship does not automatically preclude legal benefits under the Act.]

The key consideration is what the particular  parties involved would view as a "date," which can vary from couple to couple, group to group, generation to generation.  No matter what, the courts should be careful to consider the parties' own understanding of their relationship.

Here, the defendant contradicted himself with regard to this issue, asserting that the relationship was merely "professional," while also stating that he gave the plaintiff money to help her out.  He did not object when the judge classified the relationship as "dating."  The plaintiff maintained throughout her testimony that they were boyfriend and girlfriend.

The end result:  The Appellate Division refused to vacate plaintiff's restraining order against defendant.  Plaintiff has a permanent Final Restraining Order.

What does all of this mean to you?  If you are a victim of violence, do not think that recourse is not available to you simply because you are in some semblance of a business relationship with your abuser.  If your situation is akin to the one described here, or if you are an in-home, full-time employee of the abuser or the abuser's family member, you may very well be entitled to a domestic violence restraining order and the protections with which it comes.  Definitely contact the police and/or an attorney for advice and assistance.


  1. Fascinating! I really enjoyed reading this. Always fun to learn something about how laws are construed and implemented.

  2. this is a nice blog and very interesting...

  3. Thank you! I try to find issues will be interesting to non-lawyers as well.


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