Defendants in PFA cases in Philadelphia may (or may not) be caught off guard when they are served with a complainant's Protection from Abuse petition, often by the Philadelphia Police Department. Whether or not a PFA defendant expects possible consequences after an argument or physical encounter, often as a result of a failed relationship or domestic violence, PFA defendants almost always ask, "What happens at a PFA hearing in Philadelphia?" Or, "What should I expect at at Philadelphia PFA hearing?" The process can be complex for people unfamiliar with courtroom proceedings, and it must be understood that regardless of whether a party is seeking a final Protection from Abuse order under Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 23 § 6108, or defending against the potential issuance of such an order, the stakes can be very high.
First Things First - What happens after a Temporary PFA is issued in Philadelphia?
After a PFA complainant in Philadelphia is issued a temporary Protection from Abuse order by either a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge sitting in the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court (or in the cases of temporary PFA's issued during non-business hours, an Emergency Protection from Abuse master often sitting at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center), a "final" hearing date will be set within ten days. This ten days hearing is required by Pennsylvania law, but if the tenth day falls on the weekend or a court holiday, the final hearing may take place shortly after ten days.
The reason that the final hearing date is set within ten days is that when a temporary PFA is issued, it is issued after the PFA plaintiff only presents their case to Philadelphia Family Court. Because only the PFA plaintiff (as well as whomever may be present in support of the plaintiff) appear at the initial, "ex parte" hearing, the defendant in the PFA action does not have the opportunity to defend themselves against the allegations making the basis for the PFA complaint until the final PFA hearing. Although ten days, or more likely in practice, the amount of time between when the defendant is served the PFA complaint and the final hearing date, may feel like an eternity, this is the arguably the most practical accommodation that can be made under Pennsylvania law in light of how backlogged Pennsylvania Family Courts' calendars are; Philadelphia Family Court is no exception.
The "Final" PFA Hearing in Philadelphia
The "final" PFA hearing will take place at the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court, located at 1501 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA 19102 (215-686-7466), where all Philadelphia Family Law matters take place.
There are a select few Philadelphia Family Court judges who preside over Protection from Abuse matters in Philadelphia, and I have appeared countless times before all of them when representing clients. These judges are: Judge Ida Chen, Judge Joel Johnson, Judge Christopher Mallios, Judge Ournia "Rainy" Papademetriou, and Judge Daniel Sulman.
Each Philadelphia judge has their own manner as to how they preside over PFA cases. For example: Judge Ida Chen takes her time and is extremely methodical. She was also a professor of mine at Temple University Beasley School of Law, and I was proud to get an "A" in her class at Temple Law. Judge Joel Johnson is fast-paced and demands appropriate responses if he has a question for a PFA plaintiff, PFA defendant, or a respective party's attorney. In addition to Protection from Abuse cases, I also appeared many times before Judge Johnson when I represented clients in child support enforcement matters. Judge Christopher Mallios, a former prosecutor at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, has high expectations for how a PFA case should be presented. In the recent past, many of my clients' cases have been scheduled in front of Judge Mallios, and I always welcome the opportunity represent a client before him. Judge Ournia "Rainy" Papademetriou, a newer judge, is a graduate of Temple University's Beasley School of who also served as prosecutor at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. Later in her career, Judge Papademetriou was the managing attorney at Philadelphia VIP, and also served as the Director of Legal Services for Women Against Abuse. Judge Daniel Sulman, a former child support master, has worked at Philadelphia Family Court for many years. As with Judge Johnson, I represented clients before Judge Sulman on many occasions when he was a child support master. Ultimately, understanding a particular Philadelphia judge's protocol and preferences are critical to achieving success in the courtroom on behalf of a client.
Do Not Contact the PFA Plaintiff
When a defendant is served a temporary PFA, they may believe (or hope) that the plaintiff will not pursue the matter to a final hearing, but this is a mistake. If a defendant is served, it can be expected that the plaintiff is seeking a final protection order. Defendants will on occasion attempt to contact the plaintiff, or will have a third party, such as a family member or friend, do so. Doing so puts the defendant at serious risk for further issues, including the prospect of being charged with a criminal offense; namely, contempt of a PFA order, also known as violating a PFA order. For example, an ex-boyfriend, who is a defendant in a PFA action, may ask his mother, who had a good relationship with his ex-girlfriend, to intervene on his behalf. If the ex-girlfriend informs the Philadelphia Police or Philadelphia Family Court that the defendant contacted her through a third party (the ex-boyfriend's mother), the defendant can be charged with criminal contempt of the temporary PFA order.
The same can happen if a final PFA order is entered against a defendant. If the person who the final PFA is entered against (the defendant in the initial action) contacts, directly or indirectly, the person who the PFA order is intended to protect (the plaintiff in the initial action), the person whom the final PFA is entered against can be charged with criminal contempt of the final PFA order, and the same potential consequences will apply. Domestic violence in Philadelphia and spousal abuse, both real and alleged, is taken very seriously by Philadelphia Family Court, the Philadelphia Police, and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. Because of this, tt must be understood that all forms of contact are prohibited, whether in-person, or via phone, text message, email, or social media, and whether direct or indirect.
If a defendant is charged with contempt of the PFA order, a separate hearing will be scheduled at Philadelphia Family Court. Judge Michael Fanning, a former Philadelphia child custody master, and now a Philadelphia Family Court judge, may preside over the PFA contempt case. Whether the contempt hearing is presided over by Judge Michael Fanning or another Philadelphia Family Court judge, the judge will decide whether the person charged is in contempt for violation of a court order. If a defendant is convicted of contempt of a PFA, they will have a conviction on their criminal record, and will face penalties including being sentenced up to six months in jail, placed on probation and supervised by the Philadelphia Probation Department, having to pay up to a $1000 fine, and so forth.
The Day of the Final PFA Hearing
When a PFA plaintiff and PFA defendant arrive at Philadelphia Family Court for the final PFA hearing, they will be instructed to check in with the court crier for the courtroom to which their case is assigned. After checking in with the court crier, the plaintiff and defendant will instructed to wait in designated Protection from Abuse waiting rooms that are separate from one another so that interaction between the plaintiff and defendant is minimized. Even if it requires going out of one's way to do so, the PFA defendant should stay away from their accuser if the two parties see one another at Philadelphia Family Court (or elsewhere, for the reasons noted above, if such potential interaction takes place prior to the final PFA hearing).
Who goes first at the PFA hearing? Who goes last?
Understanding the battlefield is critical to achieving success at a PFA hearing, and the sequence of events at the hearing is of particular importance. Although individual judges at Philadelphia Family Court have specific courtroom procedures, all PFA judges follow a general order as to how PFA cases proceed:
- The PFA plaintiff presents their case - The alleged victim will have the opportunity to testify about every alleged incident of abuse. He or she can also call witnesses to support his or her claims and present evidence such as hospital records, photographs, emails, text or voicemail messages, and bills that demonstrate damages or financial losses.
- Cross-examination by the PFA Defendant - The PFA defendant will then have the opportunity to cross-examine the alleged victim and all witnesses that testified.
- The PFA defendant presents their case -This is the alleged offender's opportunity to testify about their version of the events in question, call their own witnesses, and present their own evidence.
- Cross-examination by the PFA Plaintiff - The alleged victim then gets the opportunity to cross-examine the PFA defendant and their witnesses.
- Redirect by the PFA Plaintiff - The alleged victim can then offer "rebuttal" testimony and evidence to anything that the PFA defendant may have presented. "Rebuttal" testimony and evidence is intended to."refute" testimony and evidence presented by the PFA defendant. Depending on the particular circumstances of the PFA case, rebuttal evidence may include evidence not initially presented in the PFA plaintiff's case, or it may include a new witness who contradicts the PFA defendant's witnesses. As with all testimony and evidence, the judge will decide what rebuttal evidence will and will not be allowed. This is especially true if an objection is made to any proferred testimony or evidence.
- PFA Judge makes a ruling — The judge will make a decision based on "a preponderance of the evidence." This means that a final PFA order can be issued against the defendant that provides all of the relief sought by the plaintiff even if the defendant's guilt was not proven "beyond a reasonable doubt," the burden of proof required in criminal court. Parties in a PFA action must understand the "preponderance of the evidence" burden of proof because that what is required in order to have the judge find in one's favor. A "preponderance of the evidence" means that a party has shown that its version of facts, causes, damages, or fault is more likely than not the correct version. At the end of the PFA hearing, the judge will briefly explain to the parties the basis for the decision that was made.
What happens after the Philadelphia PFA Hearing?
After the judge's decision is made, the parties will be escorted from the courtroom and instructed to wait separate from one another for the the final order, which will reflect whether the temporary PFA was dismissed or whether a final PFA was granted. Once in receipt of the final order, the parties will be instructed to leave Philadelphia Family Court in a staggered fashion to minimize the potential for any further issues. If a party feels unsafe, they can ask that a Philadelphia Sheriff escort them from the building, and even to their car if necessary.
After the judge makes their decision, PFA plaintiffs and PFA defendants have a limited amount of time to pursue the matter further. A Protection from Abuse "Motion for Reconsideration" can be filed within ten days of the issuance of the judge's order. Parties considering filing must understand that weekends and court holidays count towards the ten day filing deadline for a PFA Motion for Reconsideration. A Motion for Reconsideration is intended to ask the judge to reconsider the decision that was made based on supporting evidence and argument. A judge can either deny the Motion without a hearing, or schedule a hearing to consider the matter further, and then rule accordingly after a Motion for Reconsideration hearing on the matter.
Parties can also file an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court within thirty days of the issuance of the judge's order. As with a PFA Motion for Reconsideration, weekends and court holidays count towards the thirty day filing deadline. Because it can take more than thirty days to get a decision regarding a filed Motion for Reconsideration, parties should consider the strategy of also filing an appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within the thirty day deadline. Filing a Motion for Reconsideration in an PFA matter within the ten day deadline does not change the fact that a PFA appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court must be filed within thirty days. The thirty day deadline is not "stayed" in other words; it remains firm.
Parties must understand that the opportunity to achieve the relief sought is at the final PFA hearing itself. Trying to mitigate damage after an adverse hearing decision through either a Motion for Reconsideration or an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court should only be considered as an absolute last resort because the chances of success are generally limited at best. Judges are obviously human, and are not always perfect in making rulings, but when a PFA judge makes their ruling at the final PFA hearing, they want to address the matter once and for all, so the judge will try their best to rule in accordance with Pennsylvania law based on the testimony and evidence presented at the hearing. A judge does not want their decision to be overturned by the Pennsylvania Superior Court for example, and for that reason, will try to do what is right.
It is not always obvious to unrepresented parties, but whether one is a plaintiff or a defendant, parties should not wait until after the fact to take the necessary steps to get the relief they seek. In that regard, parties must approach the final PFA hearing with the necessary diligence; including the prospect of being represented by a Philadelphia PFA attorney; in particular, an attorney who understands the battlefield; can make sure the steps that need to be taken are taken, both in preparing for, and at the actual hearing; and can present the necessary evidence and legal argument to help a client achieve success in the courtroom.
A Philadelphia PFA Attorney Can Help
For a PFA plaintiff who is subject to potential or actual harm at the hands of an abuser, a final order is needed to help ensure the plaintiff's safety. The plaintiff cannot risk obtaining a temporary Protection from Abuse order only to have it dismissed because they failed to meet their burden at a final hearing.
On the other end of the battlefield is the PFA defendant, and the issuance of a Protection from Abuse order against a person can have serious negative consequences, both short and long-term. A temporary PFA can lead to a final PFA, and a final PFA can lead to further consequences yet. The potential of a PFA order resulting in criminal charges is real.
Moreover, a PFA order in and of itself can jeopardize a person's employment, school, most basic rights, and the like. The stakes can be higher yet if a PFA defendant has to maintain a professional license or professional certification for work; as is the case with doctors, nurses, teachers, and so forth People who have to carry firearms for employment purposes also have to be extremely mindful as to the implications of having a final PFA issued against them; police officers, probation and parole officers, correctional officers, and other law enforcement agents, for example.
Ultimately, regardless of one's place in life, or the reasons why parties find themselves at Philadelphia Family Court, it is critical to take the proper steps to respond to and address a Protection from Abuse case, and a Philadelphia PFA attorney can help.
If seeking or defending against a PFA in Philadelphia, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today to learn how he can help.