The Appellate Division Analyzes a "Dating Relationship" in 2020 Under The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act

In a case of first impression, the Appellate Division recently addressed how to define a “dating relationship” under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (the Act) in today’s day and age. While it may not be surprising to those currently on the dating scene, the Appellate Division held that the exchange of countless (nearly 1300) text messages could constitute a dating relationship under the Act, even if the couple never so much as met for a cup of coffee. They never went on one date. They never kissed or held hands or engaged in any sexual activity. Notwithstanding, they were considered in a dating relationship. This could not be more relevant, as the dating scene has effectively become entirely virtual in the last eight weeks.

In the recently published case CC v JAH, the Plaintiff sought a Final Restraining Order under the Act. Plaintiff and Defendant met at a gym. Although somewhat irrelevant, Defendant was 20 years older than Plaintiff. Defendant gave Plaintiff his phone number, and in time, the parties were exchanging text messages day and night. Many of the text messages were sexually explicit and included intimate details about their personal lives.

The parties also exchanged many text messages about “meeting up,” which Plaintiff defined as getting together, on a date. On one day alone, the parties exchanged 1,097 text messages and continued to speak in person at the gym. Three days later, Plaintiff explained to Defendant that she did not want to communicate with Defendant any further, other than as a friend. Almost immediately, the tone of Defendant’s messages changed.

Defendant’s messages became lengthy, vulgar, insulting, and threatening. He sent multiple messages in in a short period of time, late at night. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant attempted to access her cell phone records through the carrier, without authorization. He also allegedly changed his address for his gym membership to reflect her home address.

Plaintiff obtained a temporary restraining order. In an attempt to dismiss the Complaint, Defendant took the position that the parties had not been in a dating relationship, as they had never gone on a date.

The trial court held that in light of the specific facts of the case, a dating relationship had been established under the Act. The trial court further found that Defendant committed harassment and entered a Final Restraining Order against Defendant.

Defendant appealed; again, taking the position that the parties did not have a dating relationship. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division noted that the court should look to all relevant factors, and the absence of what might be traditional dating activities does not mean their relationship and communications were insignificant. In relying on the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division determined that at the very least, there was minimal social interpersonal bonding, extending beyond mere fraternization. In fact, the Appellate Division quoted the trial court and noted that the level of communication between the parties is much more involved than one would imagine exists when two people get together and go out to dinner on one or two occasions.

The Appellate Division did not go so far as defining the number of dates or communications two people must have to necessitate a dating relationship, but in this case, the duration and the extent of the communications would make the relationship fall under the Act.

Finally, the Appellate Division noted that in the “ever-changing world,” we must acknowledge the prevalence of virtual communications, which can form bonds that may be no less intimate than sharing dinner or a movie. Dating is a “loose concept,” which “changes from one generation to the next.”

While the court determined Defendant’s actions constituted harassment in this specific instance, the court must also be careful when permitting such a broad definition of dating so that there is no risk of abusing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. Pursuant to S.K . v J.H., the Court must look at (1) whether there was a minimal social interpersonal bonding of the parties over and above casual fraternization; (2) how long the alleged dating activities continue; (3) the nature and frequency of the parties’ interactions; (4) the parties’ ongoing expectations with respect to the relationship; (5) whether the parties demonstrated an affirmation of their relationship before others by statement or conduct; and (6) whether there are any other reasons unique to the case to support or detract from a finding that a “dating relationship” exists.

Accordingly, while this recent opinion gives deference to the reality of dating in 2020, it could create a slippery slope in the future, if the facts are not carefully examined on a case by case basis.

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