Following the August 2015 amendments to New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, a New Jersey trial court has recognized economic abuse as a form of domestic violence predicating the issuance of a final restraining order. This decision provides hope to victims who may suffer from historically unrecognized forms of domestic violence, such as economic abuse, which is designed to harass, intimidate and wield improper control over a partner or former partner.
In C.G. v. E.G., the plaintiff sought a final restraining order against her estranged spouse for interfering with her choice to return to work following a period of time when she was unemployed and collecting disability. Upon deciding to resume waitressing at the restaurant where she formerly worked, the plaintiff’s husband began sending derogatory messages, threatening the plaintiff about going back to work. The defendant intentionally attempted to interfere with her renewed employment by repeatedly calling the plaintiff’s employer and the employer’s spouse and by alleging that the plaintiff was having an affair with her employer. At the hearing, the plaintiff further represented that the defendant had punched her and had given her a black eye many years prior. The defendant did not admit to the plaintiff’s allegations, but he neither refuted them nor offered a credible defense.
The court noted that there are few threats more harassing or coercive than a threat to one’s livelihood or employment, especially considering that most people are financially dependent upon earned income from work. Moreover, the court found that, as a matter of common sense and social decency, the workplace is implicitly entitled to a line of sanctity which former partners are expected to honor rather than improperly cross.
The court deemed such behavior to be economic abuse that constituted domestic violence in the form of harassment and coercion. The court noted that harassment is a criminal offense and is recognized as a form of domestic violence under the criminal code. The court found it is difficult to imagine any employee voluntarily consenting to an estranged partner contacting his or her employer with malicious and unwelcome comments. Moreover, where the defendant has no legitimate objective to contact the plaintiff’s employer, the potential damage to the employee’s employment stability can naturally cause significant anxiety and distress, constituting economic abuse.
The court found that the defendant’s action also constitutes coercion. For example, a victim may feel forced to engage with his or her abuser or submit to certain demands if made in public at the victim’s place of work, in an effort to “save face” and preserve his or her professional reputation. The court recognized that the 2015 amendments to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act incorporated additional definitions of domestic violence, including “coercion” as defined in the criminal code. Criminal coercion sets forth the following categories of threats:
(1) Inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other offense, regardless of the immediacy of the threat;
(2) Accuse anyone of an offense;
(3) Expose any secret which would tend to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to impair his credit or business repute;
(4) Take or withhold action as an official, or cause an official to take or withhold action;
(5) Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action, except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the restriction compelled is demanded in the course of negotiation for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor acts;
(6) Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another's legal claim or defense; or
(7) Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to substantially harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.
The court found that the defendant’s behavior met the definition of coercion because he (1) threatened to expose malicious information about the plaintiff which might impair her business repute; and (2) performed an act which in itself did not benefit the defendant but was calculated to harm the plaintiff with respect to her business, career and financial condition. By enacting the 2015 amendments and incorporating this definition of coercion, the court noted the Legislature’s inferential emphasis that an abuser may wrongfully coerce, intimidate, control and harass a target through not only physical abuse, but economic abuse as well.
New Jersey’s recognition of economic abuse as a form of domestic violence is in line with the United States Department of Justice, as well as various national advocacy groups. It reinforces the notion that domestic violence incorporates the subtleties of abuse that encompass far more than physical violence. As set forth by the National Center of Domestic and Sexual Violence, at its core, all domestic violence is driven by power and control. Click here to view the "Power and Control Wheel" created by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. The recent statutory amendments and this decision offer hope to victims who suffer from all forms of domestic violence. While socially some may still perceive traditional concepts of domestic violence, such as physical violence, as the exclusive actionable offenses, it is promising that New Jersey has embraced a more nuanced definition of domestic violence and expanded the offenses that present a legally cognizable claim.
Katherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the Family Law Practice Group of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP and a contributor to the Riker Danzig Family Law Blog. Katherine’s interest in family law stems from a desire to help others while navigating a difficult process, and she brings a high level of compassion and zeal to her practice. Katherine is a resident in the Morristown, New Jersey office and can be reached at 973-451-8445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.