JANET ULRICH v. BRIAN HANNOCK
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-0414-05T10414-05T1
Submitted March 15, 2006 - Decided March 28, 2006
Before Judges Wefing and Graves.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Family Part, Gloucester
S. Daniel Hutchinson, attorney for appellant.
Helmer, Stowell & Gelfand, attorneys for
respondent (Todd J. Gelfand, on the brief).
Defendant Brian Hannock appeals from a final domestic violence restraining order entered on August 18, 2005. After reviewing the record and applicable law in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Defendant presents the following arguments:
DEFENDANT CONTENDS THAT THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED WAS INSUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT THE JUDGE[']S DECISION THAT THE DEFENDANT COMMITTED AN ACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.
THE TRIAL JUDGE'S DECISION IS WITHOUT REGARD TO THE FACTS PRESENTED AND DOES NOT SET FORTH REASONABLE CRITERIA THAT WOULD SUPPORT A FINDING THAT THE DEFENDANT COMMITTED [AN] ACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.
Plaintiff's domestic violence complaint signed on August 13, 2005, alleged a prior history of domestic violence consisting of "various incidents both reported and unreported dv issued in [M]ay by [B]arrington pd." The complaint also alleged that defendant assaulted plaintiff on August 13, 2005:
[V]ictim and defendant became involved in a verbal [argument] while the victim was holding their 4 month old son, [T]yler. [A]t this time the defendant became enraged and struck the victim in the face and threatened to take her child away from her and that she would never be able to leave him.
At the final hearing on August 18, 2005, plaintiff Janet Ulrich testified that the parties resided together with their son, Tyler Cody Hannock, who was born on April 26, 2005. Plaintiff testified that defendant "drinks every day," usually beer, but sometimes "different kinds of shots," and he is "abusive" with marijuana. According to plaintiff, she moved into defendant's house in April 2005, and she described an "ongoing situation," which included threats that "he would never let [her] go." In addition, she testified that defendant "trapped" her in different rooms, and that he would refuse to leave her alone when she asked him "to get away from me." With respect to the alleged assault on August 13, 2005, plaintiff had this to say:
I was sitting in our reclining chair holding my son and feeding him and rocking him. He started to get into a verbal argument with me. He came closer to my face and got in my face. The next thing I know, he slapped me, as I'm still holding my son. And . . . I just wanted him to just get away, but he never listens when I say that. And he wouldn't just leave. He kept going on. My friend, Denise Begley, walked in the room and heard some verbal arguments going on. And I just was really upset and nervous at the time.
He . . . then proceeded outside to the gym area and I called 9-1-1.
During cross-examination, plaintiff was asked to describe her "ongoing situation," and she elaborated as follows:
Verbally abusive, physically abusive. He's had me on the floor, where he's had my arms down and he's straddling me so I couldn't move. He's choked me.
. . . .
He's been verbally abusive, called me a C-U-N-T, the "B" word, that I'm worthless. He was trying to belittle me, calls me a little girl and different things like that.
The only witness, in addition to the parties, was Denise Begley. She confirmed that when she arrived at defendant's house on August 13, 2005, she heard the parties arguing. When Begley entered the home, she saw plaintiff "in the chair crying. She was holding the baby and I took her baby from her." According to Begley, as soon as she arrived at the house, plaintiff told her "that he did smack her," and Begley confirmed that she had seen "some marks" on plaintiff "in the past" when defendant had "physically abused her."
Defendant's version of what took place on August 13, 2005, was quite different. He denied that he slapped plaintiff, and he denied that he abuses alcohol or drugs. Defendant testified that plaintiff "erupted saying that [he] never [did] anything with her or with the child." According to defendant, while plaintiff was holding the baby in her left arm, she attempted to punch him with her right hand, he blocked the punch, and plaintiff "head-butted" him by striking him in the face with her forehead. He was not injured, however.
The trial court's findings and conclusions included the following:
[T]his case comes down to one of credibility. And I'm going to indicate for the record that I do not find the defendant to be credible. The burden of proof here is by a preponderance of the evidence.
The plaintiff testified. She also had a witness that backed up her testimony, verified that the baby was crying, verified that the argument was so loud that she heard it from the outside. I find that to be credible testimony and, therefore, I believe there is good cause to believe that the plaintiff's life, health and well-being was endangered. I find that an act of domestic violence did occur on 8/13/. In particular, I do find that assault did occur. Therefore, I am going to issue a final restraining order.
As noted by the trial court, the credibility of the witnesses was critical to its findings and conclusions. The scope of our review is limited. A trial court's findings are binding on appeal when supported by "adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). "[A]n appellate court should not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless [it is] convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Id. at 412 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Such deference is particularly appropriate when the evidence is mostly testimonial and involves questions of credibility. Ibid. "Because a trial court hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, [and] hears them testify, it has a better perspective than a reviewing court in evaluating the veracity of witnesses." Ibid. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Id. at 413.
In this case, we are satisfied that the trial court's findings are firmly supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record, and its conclusions predicated on those findings are legally sound. We therefore affirm.
March 28, 2006