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? The Massachusetts Appeals Court looked at this question in a recent case.

A protective order, sometimes referred to as a restraining order, serves to protect a victim of domestic abuse who 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/was dating. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of the court to decide a certain matter; essentially, it is 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. This meant the defendant was not present at the hearing on the matter. Typically, where a judge issues an ex parte protective order under Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 209A, the defendant against whom the judge issued it 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. Because of this, he claimed the District Court didn’t have requisite subject matter jurisdiction to hold the hearing after notice.

At the ex parte hearing, the plaintiff presented an affidavit. It stated that the defendant threatened her through text messages, phone calls, and in person. Plaintiff filled out a Complaint for Protection from Abuse form; on it, she checked the box indicating she and the defendant, “are or were in a dating or engagement relationship”. Her affidavit did not describe the nature of the parties’ relationship. However, she testified at the ex parte hearing that they were in an exclusive dating relationship.

As a result, the judge entered an order prohibiting the defendant from abusing or contacting the plaintiff; it also required him to stay away from her. Nine days later, both parties appeared at a hearing. There, the defendant filed a motion to vacate the restraining order and expunge the record at the hearing after notice. He argued 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 while the existence of a substantive dating relationship is an element of a claim for a protective order, it is 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 consequently concluded. It therefore dismissed the defendant’s appeal as moot.

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