Todays blog is a wild yet true story told by our family law and divorce law firms most senior associate attorney as well as an Early Settlement Panelist at the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Edward A. Wojciechowski, Esq.
One of the most difficult matters you can come across as a family law attorney are those concerning domestic violence. As a practicing New Jersey restraining order lawyer, I have represented many individuals throughout my career and have encountered countless scenarios wherein I would not be able to makeup such a unique and interesting set of facts even if I tried. This not only makes the practice of law interesting, but it also keeps veteran attorneys on their toes. You never know what may transpire during the life of a case or what might happen to your client during pending litigation. No matter what occurs, as long as it is within the confines of the law, i.e. we would never represent or further the efforts of someone trying to do something illegal or unethical; as an attorney, you are tasked with zealously representing your client.
I once had a case with a very interesting fact pattern, the details of which I will skew a bit for the purposes of this blog and to further protect the identity of the parties, even though no names or places will be mentioned. In that matter, a Temporary Restraining Order was filed against my client upon her husbands return to the marital residence after he went away for the weekend with the parties children. This particular case was interesting because upon his return to the home, wherein he was called by the police department to return home, he had discovered that the wife had attempted to burn it down while she was inside. Clearly this was no laughing matter, but raised a serious question of whether someone could be found in violation of a predicate act of domestic violence for destroying or attempting to destroy a jointly owned piece of marital property.
It was the husbands position that the wife burned the house down knowing that he would be returning and thus not only did she commit criminal mischief for the act of setting the home on fire, but that this was a form of harassment as well. The husband was successful in obtaining the Temporary Restraining Order and the matter was set down for a Final Hearing in order to determine if the court would issue a final restraining order. It was the wifes position that this was not an act of domestic violence in any respect, but unfortunately, a suicide attempt based upon the fact that she was in a severe state of depression.
What had previously happened was that the parties were having marital difficulties, presumably due to the wifes issues with alcoholism and the husband seeking the companionship of another individual. This had caused serious issues for the wife and affected her emotional and mental state. Upon the familys departure for the weekend, the wife had decided that she could not live with herself any longer nor face what she perceived to be the end of the marriage and a substantial change in everyones life. As such, the wife took a portable fire pit from the backyard, brought it inside the home, and upstairs to the bathroom. She then proceeded to place the fire pit into the tub, got into the tub herself and set a fire in the fire pit. Upon seeing smoke coming from the upstairs bathroom, a neighbor called the police and fire departments. There was significant damage to the inside of the home and the wife had suffered some burns herself. The husband, believing that the wife intended for him to return home and see this and/or be caught in it as well, filed for a temporary restraining order.
The parties appeared in court on the hearing date with counsel and were able to resolve the matter to their mutual satisfaction by entering into what is called civil restraints and the husband dismissing the Temporary Restraining Order. As part of the resolution, the wife agreed to get a psychological evaluation, attend counseling for her alcohol issues and vacate the marital residence. Simultaneously, the husband had filed for divorce, and thus the divorce process had now commenced as well. The parties engaged in what appeared to be your average divorce case, proceeding forward as was customary. They attended a case management conference, exchanged discovery, appeared before the Early Settlement Panel and were set to go to economic mediation to try and finalize a settlement of the matter. Interestingly, the wife received a very favorable recommendation from the Early Settlement Panelists and things appeared to be going her way. Counseling was going well, she was staying clean and there appeared to be an end to the litigation in sight.
As the time between the ESP and mediation passed, I had not heard from the wife in quite some time. A few emails and telephone calls to her went unanswered. A few days later, her brother contacted my office asking to speak with me advising that it was urgent. Upon speaking to him I had learned that apparently she had relapsed, went out drinking one night, got in her vehicle to drive home and was pulled over by the police. She spent the weekend in jail, was issued various summonses and was in serious danger of losing her license and her job, since she previously missed a substantial amount of time from work for the prior incident and her stay at the hospital as a result of same. The wife did not tell anyone about this, she chose not to return to work and cut ties to everyone she knew for several days. It was at that point when she once again attempted to, while originally inside, burn down the place where she was currently living. She was in an apartment complex and once again a neighbor called the fire department. This time there was significant damage to the building, however, the wife was outside when the police arrived. She was charged with arson and held on a significant amount of bail, more than she could afford to come up with in order to be released.
The divorce case continued, however, with this recent incident presenting significant hurdles to same, since the wife was the primary wage earner during the marriage, was now incarcerated and lost her job. What was her family supposed to do at this point without having the benefit of her income and support? The case proceeded to economic mediation where the mediator had to come to the County courthouse, the wife had to be brought in with the rest of the inmates going to court that day and a room secured with two guards so we could proceed with the mediation. Tremendous progress was made that day and shortly thereafter a draft settlement agreement was circulated, however moving forward became increasingly difficult due to the new communication barriers between my client and me.
The matter was set for a pre-trial conference and once again my client had to be bused to the courthouse and placed in a holding cell in the basement of the courthouse. I was tasked with going back and forth between the holding cell in the basement and another floor of the courthouse where my adversary and his client were, to continue negotiations on the case. After much back and forth, give and take from both sides, and a creative solution to the unique facts of this particular matter, a global settlement was reached. The parties were able to get divorced and attempt to move forward with their respective lives from that date forward. The wife still faced significant legal troubles and the husband continued to worry about what he and the children would do once the fund they were receiving monthly support from ran out. The case was difficult to say the least, but it was able to get resolved.
This was definitely a very interesting case and I am glad that the matter was ultimately able to settle to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. If you are dealing with a difficult situation, no matter how unique, and need zealous representation, please do not hesitate to contact our firm to further discuss your rights and how we can help you during your difficult time.