Until recently, the legislative landscape surrounding domestic violence largely targeted and provided protection to victims with a familial or dating relationship to their offending actor. This meant that victimized persons in situations where domestic violence statutes did not apply due to a lack of such a relationship were denied the opportunity to seek protection via protective orders. Luckily, New Jersey Governor Murphy changed this with the passage of Victim’s Assistance and Survivor Protection Act (VASPA) in July 2023 which came into effect on January 1, 2024.
VASPA amends the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015 (SASPA). This amendment expands the list of eligible acts for which a protective order may be obtained, now including non-sexual acts such as stalking and cyber-harassment. The passage of this bill represents NJ’s commitment to keeping residents safe and bridges the gap that the NJ legislature left open in 2015 with SASPA.
Who is protected under the Act?
The Act will provide stalking and cyber-harassment victims with access to protective orders against strangers or non-familial, non-romantic partners who are targeting them. Senator Lina Greenstein brings to light the shocking reality that in nearly one fifth of cases the perpetrator is a stranger rather than a current or former partner. Additionally, stalking can continue for long periods of time leaving victims without legal recourse and thus living in fear on a day to day basis. This bill ensures that victims will now have a critical tool to protect themselves against behavior that may escalate and become threatening – in and out of the workplace.
Significantly, VASPA authorizes the New Jersey Superior Court to issue temporary or final protective orders to victims, regardless of their current or prior relationship status to the abuser, by expanding the eligible acts for which a protective order may be obtained to four specific offenses: stalking, cyber-harassment, sexual assault, and criminal sexual contact. The new law applies the same procedures for obtaining either an initial, temporary protective order or a final protective order for victims of stalking or cyber-harassment. This can mean abusers who are supervisors or co-workers in employment situations.
The Effect on Victims On The Job: Making Tough Judgement Calls.
While VASPA is certainly a great win for victims, but with this newfound empowerment also comes responsibility. Particularly in the workplace, many victims will face the responsibility of making tough judgment calls in these situations. Why? In cases where a victim is being stalked, harassed, or sexually abused by a supervisor or co-employee, the question becomes: what is the first course of action?
Do you give your employer – HR or someone else “up the food chain” – the opportunity to address the situation first – and fast? Or do you bypass this step and seek legal recourse immediately via VASPA? This decision poses difficulty to victims in balancing dealing with their bosses with prioritizing their safety. A restraining order could bar the predator from the workplace, taking the decision to discipline out of an employer’s hands. The best strategy may be to report the behavior and demand immediate action. That could protect against employer retaliation later on.
However, reporting stalking or harassment behavior through VASPA is likely to be considered a “protected activity” under New Jersey’s Anti-Retaliation law, preventing employers from retaliating against an employee for reporting conduct marked by discrimination or harassment.
Gianna D’Onofrio is a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law with a passion for Corporate Law. Upon graduating in the Spring and taking the Bar Exam, she will serve as a law clerk to Judge Cynthia Santomauro in Essex County, Civil Division.