THINK BEFORE YOU SEXT

By: Frank J. Morano, Esq.

On May 4, 2020, The New Jersey Appellate Division released a decision for publication on C.C. v. J.A.H. (record impounded) that has great impact on what the Court considers to be a “dating relationship” The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act specifically provides protection within the family court system for those people who are spouses or former spouses, household members or former household members, people with a child (or anticipated child) in common, and for parties who had a dating relationship. 

The main issue in this matter was whether the Plaintiff had standing to seek a final restraining order (FRO) based on the relationship between the parties and, specifically: was there a DATING relationship despite the parties never having gone on a single date?

The matter arose over contact between the Plaintiff and Defendant that began in the mid-summer of 2018.  Defendant was a member of a gym where Plaintiff worked.  Defendant would engage Plaintiff in intimate conversations about Plaintiff’s life.  At one point, Defendant gave his cell phone number to the Plaintiff, but she did not contact Defendant on the phone until the end of September 2018.  Over the next five weeks they exchanged almost 1,100 text messages of varying degrees of intimacy and many sexual in nature.

On October 20, 2018, Defendant sent the Plaintiff a text describing his romantic feelings for her.  They set up two dates, but each was cancelled: the first on October 22, 2018 was cancelled by Defendant, and the next date set for October 26, 2018 was cancelled by Plaintiff.  On November 4, 2018, Plaintiff texted the Defendant and said she just wanted to be friends.  Over the course of that night the Defendant sent Plaintiff multiple text messages that were vulgar and threatening.  The next day, Plaintiff claims, she used “Google” to search the Defendant and discovered that he had a prior harassment/stalking charge from Pennsylvania.  As the Pennsylvania case went to that State’s Appellate Division as well, Plaintiff was able to read the similarities between her situation and that one.  When she told her boss at the gym about the situation, the owner agreed to cancel Defendant’s membership.  When Plaintiff went into the gym’s computer system to cancel the membership, she realized that someone had gone into Defendant’s file on the computer and changed his address to reflect PLAINTIFF’S address as if he were residing with her. She sought a restraining order and was granted a temporary restraining order on November 17, 2018. 

Because of a series of administrative issues, the matter did not return to the trial court until the spring of 2019 for a final restraining order hearing.  There, the Judge ruled that there was a dating relationship based upon the nature of the parties’ communications and the circumstances of the case and that the Plaintiff had standing to seek the restraining order.  Defendant sought a reconsideration which was denied.  He then brought the appeal.  The Appellate Division agreed and found that based on the intimate content and the number of texts (totaling almost 1,300 by the end,) there was adating relationship despite the fact that the parties never actually went on a “date.”

This is an interesting time for this matter to be considered by our courts. While we all sit home and wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to become manageable, people are seeking some sort of connection.  Using apps such as Tinder and, for the gay community, Grindr, people are able to connect and sometimes those connections blossom.  Many times, those connections lead to texting, and texting, and more texting…and then “sexting” where the texts include more “intimate” content.

Does this Appellate decision mean that the court views your text (sext?) communications as  “dating relationship?”

This Appellate Court is saying YES, even without dating in person , an intimate relationship that qualifies as a “dating relationship” under the statute can be established.  Content and quantity of text messages and other communications are the two factors that the Court examined when deciding this.  So those seeking romance online may have to be wary. In the time at homedue to shelter-in-place directives, outreach for some sort of (physically distant and medically safe) intimacy ,  can establish a legally recognized intimate relationship.   In my opinion, the Courts should be wary of looking at the sheer number of text messagest as an independent component because we all know that person who  sends  each individual thought in a separate text and the other person who writes book chapter in a single  message. For those of us (yes, me) who text every thought separately, this could be a troublesome consideration if viewed in a vacuum!

In a domestic violence case, once the relationship is established, and the court finds that an act of domestic violence (here, harassment) then the court has to evaluate whether an FRO is necessary to protect further abuse.   This could be an important distinction for “virtual” based relationships.  In the case described above, the Defendant knew where the Plaintiff worked and where she lived.  They met in real life, not on an app or other “virtual” way. I can meet someone on Grindr, text them there, give them my phone number and then text with them on my regular texts.  Depending on how much information about myself that I gave them, if the relationship takes an abusive turn, I can simply block them on the apps and on my phone.  End of story.  No more communication.  I control the flow of communication.

However, if the person on the other end of the text has my full name and town, it’s harder to ensure they have been removed from my life.  In the above case, the Defendant took the extra step to change his address to reflect Plaintiff’s address, confirming that he knows where she lives: that is both very creepy and an affirmative threat.  Add in the fact that he did the exact same thing to another person in Pennsylvania, and the Court had more than enough cause for concern.  If there was a solely virtual relationship and no affirmative step made by the Defendant that would cause alarm, the Court would be faced with a very different situation.   Such a situation could result in the same conclusion; we will not know until these cases make their way through the system.  The longer the lockdown continues, however, the more likely we will continue to see an increase in cases navigating and evaluating virtual relationships as our new normal.