A contempt motion is a quasi-criminal proceeding that can be employed in a family law case when there is a clear, unequivocal violation of a court order. The person violating an order can be subject to both fines and jail time for each violation.
For example, if a person obligated to pay support fails to do so yet had the ability to pay thereby meeting the courts requirement of satisfying the burden of proof of violating a court order beyond a reasonable doubt, the court can find the violator in contempt.
Critical to properly pursuing a contempt motion is the assurance you can meet the high burden of proof to establish your case. Experienced family law attorneys are very selective on using this extreme family law remedy. A recent California case illustrates why you must use caution in selecting this litigation option.
A recent case ( Parker v. Harbert [full text] (12/19/12; ordered published 1/15/13) 1 Civ A134060, Div 5 (Jones) 2012 WL 6913936 ) upheld the family law trial courts order of imposing substantial monetary sanctions on a parent that improperly used the contempt motion remedy.
In 2005, while father was in prison for vehicular manslaughter, mother had physical custody of their son. Father filed a contempt action against mother, claiming that she violated two existing custody orders by refusing to bring their son to visit him in prison or to give him son’s medical records, and by failing to make sure that the boy took “‘the full course of medication for his poison oak medical problem.’” Mother filed response to fathers motion denying all allegations. When mom moved for acquittal, the trial court granted her motion as to one allegation, but denied it as to the rest. Thereafter, mother moved for award of Fam C §271 fees as sanctions.
After 13-day trial, the trial judge issued a tentative decision, finding that father failed to prove any of his contempt allegations beyond a reasonable doubt and imposed sanctions of $87,000.00! The court gave father a chance to object to the sanctions decision. Both parents filed objections to the decision. The judge issued a 30-page statement of decision, finding that fathers evidence was insufficient to support a contempt judgment of guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge concluded that many, but not all of fathers allegations were frivolous, and proclaimed in the decision that father pursued the contempt motion primarily to force mother to give in to his demands in the pending custody litigation. The trial court imposed Fam C §271 sanctions of $92,000.00 on father. Father appealed, but the California Appellate Court upheld the trial judges final sanctions order.
The appellate judges held in their decision that the evidence clearly showed that fathers conduct in bringing the meritless contempt action delayed settlement of several pending custody issues, increased court costs, and as stated in the appellate decision “wasted the court and the parties’ time.”
This case sends a powerful message to family law litigants that they will be held accountable by the court for pursuing weak contempt motions or other actions that delay the proper management or settlement of cases.