Some Useful Information on Civil Contempt

May 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

From Newell v. Hinton, 556 So.2d 1037, 1044 (Miss. 1990):

This case represents a civil contempt which has been defined as follows:

If the purpose of the proceedings is to coerce action or non-action by a party, the order of contempt is characterized as civil. This type contempt proceeding is ordinarily instituted by one of the parties to the litigation who seeks to coerce another party to perform or cease performing an act. The order of contempt is entered by the court for the private benefit of the offended party. Such orders, although imposing a jail sentence, classically provide for termination of the contemnor’s sentence upon purging himself of the contempt. The sentence is usually indefinite and not for fixed term. Consequently, it is said that the contemnor ‘carries the key to his cell in his own pocket.’ [citations omitted]

Jones v. Hargrove, 516 So.2d 1354, 1357 (Miss.1987). See also, Hinds County Bd. of Supervisors v. Common Cause, 551 So.2d 107, 120-21 (Miss.1989); Smith [v. Smith], 545 So.2d at 727 [(Miss. 1989)].

Even when there has been established a prima facie case of contempt, the defendant may avoid judgment of contempt by establishing that he is without present ability to discharge his obligation. Smith, supra at 727; see also, Prestwood v. Hambrick, 308 So.2d 82, 85 (Miss.1975). If the contemnor raises this as a defense, he has the burden of proving his inability to pay, and such showing must be made with particularity and not in general terms. Clements v. Young, 481 So.2d 263, 271 (Miss.1985) cited in Jones, 516 So.2d at 1357.

There are other defenses as well. For example, the defendant may show that he was not guilty of wilful or deliberate violation of the prior judgment or a decree. Dunaway v. Busbin, 498 So.2d 1218, 1222 (Miss.1986) (emphasis added); Hooker v. Hooker, 205 So.2d 276, 278 (Miss.1967). The burden of the defendant in raising this defense, however, is not nearly as great as the defendant who claims he is without ability to pay. Consequently, it is appropriate that this defense be viewed against the “extremely lenient view this Court and the courts of this state have taken of contempt proceedings in general.” Smith, 545 So.2d at 727. Furthermore, a contemnor also has available to him the traditional notion of “clean hands” as a defense. Vockroth v. Vockroth, 200 So.2d 459, 463 (Miss.1967) cited in Smith, supra. Vagueness or the lack of specificity of the decree gives the contemnor another avenue for defense as well. Id.

Even if the defendant cannot successfully raise a defense, the court’s power to commit a person to jail until he complies with the terms of a decree depends upon his present ability to pay. Wilborn v. Wilborn, 258 So.2d 804, 805 (Miss.1972) quoted in Jones, 516 So.2d at 1357. If the person has already been committed to jail, he is entitled to be discharged on proof of inability to pay. Id. at 1358. This contrasts with criminal contempt in that the purpose of incarceration is punitive and the contemnor is jailed regardless of an offer of payment or a present inability to make payment. Id.; see also 27C C.J.S. Divorce § 715 (1986).

In the case sub judice, although the chancellor may have been correct in granting summary judgment on the issue of contempt, he should have given Newell a meaningful opportunity to present her defense as to payment of the attorneys’ fees. There should have been a careful examination of her present ability to pay. It does not matter that the chancellor suspended his order of incarceration for sixty days giving Newell the time to satisfy the judgment. If she had failed to pay the amount within this time period, according to the chancellor, she would go to jail. And, she would remain in jail until she purged herself of the contempt. This was wrong.

This Court is fully aware of the constitutional problems implicated in the chancellor’s ruling. If for some reason Newell is unable to come up with the amount owed during her life time would that also mean imprisonment for life? This may well be the case. Ex Parte Raymer, 644 S.W.2d 889, 890 (Tex.App.1982); Jones, 516 So.2d at 1358.

In the case of Brown v. Brown, (1933), 205 Ind. 664, 187 N.E. 836 [the Supreme Court of Indiana] stated that when one has been imprisoned for failure to comply with an order … and where [the] defendant is able to show that he has not the actual ability to pay for any one of a number of valid reasons, then [the] defendant is entitled to be discharged. The Court went on to hold that a defendant cannot be imprisoned indefinitely because of failure to pay support money where it is shown that he does not have an ability to make such payments and cites such a practice as being unconstitutional on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.

Smith v. Indiana State Board of Health, 158 Ind.App. 445, 303 N.E.2d 50, 60 (1973) quoted in Jones, 516 So.2d at 1358. “The result of [Newell’s] inability to pay may well be an unfortunate one, and this Court appreciates the frustration possibly experienced by the trial judge, but the fact remains that one cannot be imprisoned where the failure to pay is due to an inability to comply.” Jones, 516 So.2d at 1358; see also, Murphy v. Murphy, 447 So.2d 798, 800 (Ala.Civ.App.1984).

Therefore, we must remand this case so that the chancellor can determine if Newell has the ability to reimburse Hinton as well as pay his attorneys fees in defending this case.



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