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Credibility Determinations and Domestic Violence

An unpublished Appellate Division decision was released this morning that provides some insight concerning domestic violence proceedings and the credibility determinations of trial judges: L.G. v. M.B.

If you are involved in a domestic violence proceeding or may experience a trial of any kind, we feel that it’s worth the short read.

A fact that is relatively unknown to the general public is that an Appellate Court will rarely (and we mean extremely rarely) overturn a trial court’s credibility determinations. As explained in L.G., “The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” That is the case because “[t]he trial court . . . has the opportunity to make first-hand credibility judgments about the witnesses who appear on the stand; it has a ‘feel of the case’ that can never be realized by a review of the cold record.” The Appellate Court will review the transcript and evidence presented below, but there is no new testimony on appeal.

While that may sound reasonable, it often leaves undisturbed truly adverse credibility determinations. For example, in L.G., the trial court found the ex-wife credible and the ex-husband incredible. On essentially on that basis alone, the trial court concluded that the ex-husband planted nails underneath his former spouse’s car tires and issued a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”). Some of you out there may have experience with domestic violence/restraining order proceedings, but they are quite serious. The FRO is permanent. Any violations, even a text message, can be considered a criminal infraction and result in incarceration. In this case, there was absolutely no evidence beyond the ex-wife’s testimony to support the predicate act of domestic violence necessary to issue the FRO. It may very well have been the children, or neighborhood pranksters, or any other of the innumerable possible causes. Nevertheless, the trial court’s decision was affirmed on appeal, and the parents of two children are now permanently barred from communicating through normal and arguably appropriate channels.

L.G. was a sound decision in accordance with prevailing case law in the State of New Jersey, but it should serve to caution against taking domestic violence proceedings lightly. Understand the consequences. If you think, “Oh, I can just appeal,” you may be very wrong. Secure proper representation, whether this firm or other certified matrimonial attorneys.