Does the District Court have subject matter jurisdiction over the issuance of protective orders, particularly where they are issued ex parte, meaning without the defendant present in court? This was a question posed in a recent case of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
A protective order, sometimes also referred to as a restraining order, serves to protect a victim of domestic abuse which is perpetrated by a member or former member of the victim’s household. It may also serve to protect a victim from abuse or violence perpetrated by someone the victim is or was dating. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of the court to decide a certain matter—essentially, the power of the court over the type of case or controversy presented.
In the case, V.M. v. R.B., the plaintiff filed for a protective order against the defendant ex parte, meaning the defendant was not present at the hearing on the matter. Typically, where an ex parte protective order is issued under Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 209A, the defendant against whom the order is issued may challenge the order at the ensuing hearing after notice, and not by an appeal to an appellate court. In this case, however, the defendant appealed. He argued that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence of a substantive dating relationship at the ex parte hearing, and because of this, the District Court did not have requisite subject matter jurisdiction to hold the hearing after notice.
At the ex parte hearing, the plaintiff presented an affidavit, claiming that the defendant threatened her through text messages, phone calls, and in person. On her Complaint for Protection from Abuse form, she checked the box indicating that she and the defendant “are or were in a dating or engagement relationship.” Her affidavit did not describe the nature of the parties’ relationship, but she testified at the ex parte hearing that they were in an exclusive dating relationship.
The judge entered an order prohibiting the defendant from abusing or contacting the plaintiff and 978requiring him to stay away from her. Nine days later, both parties appeared at a hearing, where the defendant filed a motion to vacate the restraining order and expunge the record at the hearing after notice, arguing that the judge lacked jurisdiction to extend the order. The judge extended the order for six months.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that the existence of a substantive dating relationship is an element of a claim for a protective order, and not a prerequisite for subject matter jurisdiction. “The elements that the plaintiff must establish to obtain relief are not equivalent to the “nature” or “genre” of the case, which determines subject matter jurisdiction,” the Court noted. The Court explained that it is well-established that the Legislature has unequivocally given the District Court, the Boston Municipal Court and the Probate and Family Court jurisdiction over cases involving a protective order under chapter 209A. “[A] plaintiff’s failure to establish a substantive dating relationship at the ex parte hearing would not deprive the court of jurisdiction,” the Court concluded, dismissing the defendant’s appeal as moot.
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Jack and Jen were married in Massachusetts and lived together as husband and wife for four years, during which they had one child, Jonah. Jen has left the marital home on her own. Jack wants to file for divorce, and he also wants custody of Jonah and wants Jen to pay child support. The wrinkle? Jen has just moved to California, and Jack is unsure how to begin the process. Should he file for divorce in Massachusetts, or consider hiring an experienced family law attorney in California? And how might the child support order be affected by the parties’ continental divide? We’ll need to look to the Massachusetts long arm statute to see if Massachusetts has personal jurisdiction over both parties before proceeding.
First, Jack may file the divorce action in Massachusetts based on Jack’s domicile, as he has lived in Massachusetts for more than one year. In addition, the cause of action for the divorce also took place in Massachusetts. In order to serve Jen with process, Jack may turn to two resources: Rule 4(e) of the Massachusetts Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure, and the Massachusetts Long Arm Statute.
Rule 4 (e) deals with service of process in divorce cases. Service of process allows the defendant proper notice of the divorce action against him or her. The section of the rule authorizes service of process in the following manner:
When any statute or law of the Commonwealth authorizes service of process outside the Commonwealth, the service shall be made by delivering a copy of the summons and of the complaint: (1) in any appropriate manner prescribed in subdivision (d) of this Rule; or (2) in the manner prescribed by the law of the place in which the service is made for service in that place in an action in any of its courts of general jurisdiction; or (3) by any form of mail addressed to the person to be served and requiring a signed receipt; or (4) as directed by the appropriate foreign authority in response to a letter rogatory; or (5) as directed by order of the court. 
The Massachusetts Long Arm Statute  also provides Jack with an important remedy: it describes the circumstances under which a Massachusetts court may exercise jurisdiction over a person who has engaged in certain business or actions in the Commonwealth. Personal jurisdiction, which allows the court to bind a defendant to the court’s orders, is available under the Massachusetts Long Arm Statute in divorce cases. Specifically, the statute applies to anyone who was “maintaining a domicile in this commonwealth while a party to a personal or marital relationship out of which arises a claim for divorce, alimony, property settlement, parentage of a child, child support or child custody; or the commission of any act giving rise to such a claim[.]”
The same section of the Massachusetts Long Arm Statute will apply to Jack’s claim for child support against Jen. So long as Jack continues to live in Massachusetts, he may petition the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court for child support, and the Court may exercise personal jurisdiction over Jen.
Should Jack later seek a modification of the child support order (or any alimony order which may be granted), he may use the next section of the Long Arm Statute. Section (h) of the statute provides for personal jurisdiction over a defendant “having been subject to the exercise of personal jurisdiction of a court of the commonwealth which has resulted in an order of alimony, custody, child support or property settlement, notwithstanding the subsequent departure of one of the original parties from the commonwealth, if the action involves modification of such order or orders and the moving party resides in the commonwealth, or if the action involves enforcement of such order notwithstanding the domicile of the moving party.” 
Another important law to aid Jack with the enforcement of any child support order he may receive is the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act. First, this law provides the court which issues the order with continuing jurisdiction:
A court of a State that has made a child support order consistently with this section has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the order if the State is the child’s State or the residence of any individual contestant or the parties have consented in a record or open court that the tribunal of the State may continue to exercise jurisdiction to modify its order, unless the court of another State, acting in accordance with subsections (e) and (f), has made a modification of the order.
Second, the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act provides that a state’s child support order will receive the “full faith and credit” of every other state—in other words, other states will be able to enforce the order. In Jack’s case, this gives the California courts the power to enforce any child support order rendered by the Massachusetts courts.
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 Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 4(e)
 Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 223A, s. 3
 Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 223A, s. 3(g)
 Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 223A, s. 3(h)
 28 U.S.C. 1738B