Are false allegations of child abuse domestic violence?


In E.W. v. W.M-H., 476 N.J.Super.433 (Ch.Div.2023) plaintiff filed a civil suit against the defendant to recover money owed to her. The parties had a brief (one month) relationship, during which the plaintiff apparently gave the defendant tens of thousands of dollars. In apparent retaliation for the suit, the defendant contacted D.C.P.&P. and alleged that the plaintiff was using marijuana around her minor child.

The plaintiff testified that the defendant had told her that he had friends/family that worked for D.C.P.&P. and that he would file a complaint against her. Notably, the defendant had also told the plaintiff that he was a government assassin which was the basis upon which she gave him money. The case does not indicate whether defendant’s claim of being an assassin was a threat against the plaintiff.

The court found that the plaintiff’s testimony was credible. While the evidence was circumstantial, the court made a finding of fact that the defendant did in fact make a referral to D.C.P.&P. against the plaintiff causing her to be investigated. The court further held that the defendant’s purpose in making the referral was to harass the plaintiff, specifically to alarm or seriously annoy her, which would constitute the predicate act of harassment on the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA).  The question presented in the case was whether a defendant is to be afforded immunity in making a referral to D.C.P.&P.

The court turned to the statute. N.J.S.A. 9:6- 8.13. provides, in pertinent part:

Anyone acting pursuant to this act in the making of a report under this act shall have immunity from any liability, civil or criminal, that might otherwise be incurred or imposed. Any such person shall have the same immunity with respect to testimony given in any judicial proceeding resulting from such report.

A person who reports or causes to report in good faith an allegation of child abuse or neglect pursuant to section 3 of P.L.1971, c. 437 (C. 9:6-8.10) and as a result thereof is discharged from employment or in any manner discriminated against with respect to compensation, hire, tenure or terms, conditions or privileges of employment, may file a cause of action for appropriate relief in the family part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court in the county in which the discharge or alleged discrimination occurred or in the county of the person’s primary residence.

The court focused on the inclusion of the language “in good faith” in the second paragraph and the omission of the same phrase in the first paragraph. The court further noted that only New Jersey, California, and New York do not require good faith in order for a reporter to obtain immunity under the statutory scheme. The court concluded, “the Legislature intended to protect children as a primary purpose in enacting the immunity statute and that the expansive use of the words and phrases “anyone,” “shall have immunity from any liability,” and “any such person” must be given their plain meaning and effect within the confines of the immunity statute.”

However, the court went on to consider the whether it was likewise the intent of the legislature to provide more protection to children than to victims of domestic violence. Since, “[a] literal reading of them which would lead to absurd results is to be avoided when they can be given a reasonable application consistent with their words and with the legislative purpose” the court concluded that same would be an absurd result. Haggar Co. v. Helvering, 308 U.S. 389, 394 (1940).

The court noted that children too, are victims of domestic violence. But most importantly, the court held that it was more likely than not, that the defendant made a knowingly false referral to D.C.P.&P. for the sole purpose to harass the plaintiff. Therefore, the trial court was unwilling to allow the defendant to hide behind the immunity statute as this would be an absurd result.

Ultimately, the court held that under the second prong of Silver, the evidence weighed against the plaintiff’s need for a final restraining order to protect her against future acts of domestic violence. While finding that making a false referral to D.C.P.&P. can be harassment, the trial court declined to enter the FRO.

This case demonstrates the complexities in obtaining or defending a FRO. Simply because you establish a predicate act of domestic violence does not mean that the court will enter a FRO. A plaintiff should be cautious in thinking that simply because there is clear cut evidence of a predicate act that she will be successful. Likewise, a defendant can attack the entry of FRO by establishing sufficient evidence that the predicate act was an isolated incident or unlikely to recur since the parties have no financial or familial entanglements and defeat the entry of the FRO.

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