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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