Attorney’s Fees in Contempt Actions

October 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s pretty much a given that, if you are found to be in contempt of a court order, you will be assessed with the other side’s reasonable attorney’s fees.

The point was brought home again recently in the COA case of Dupree v. Pafford, decided September 6, 2016.

In that case, Stephanie Dupree had been found in contempt of court orders for discovery in a contempt/modification action, and for her denial of visitation. Unhappy with the trial court’s rulings, Stephanie appealed. Two of her contentions were (1) that there was no proof that the father of her child, Patrick, was unable to pay his attorney’s fees, and (2) that the court did not adequately address the reasonableness of the fees that were assessed. Judge Fair wrote for the majority:

¶8. Next, Stephanie contends that the chancellor erred in finding the fees to be reasonable. She makes two distinct arguments here, and the first is easily disposed of: Stephanie contends that the chancery court was required to find that Patrick was unable to pay his own attorney’s fees. This is simply not required when a finding of contempt has been made:

When a party is held in contempt for violating a valid judgment of the court,
attorney’s fees should be awarded to the party that has been forced to seek the
court’s enforcement of its own judgment. The award may be assessed against
the offending party without regard to the recipient’s inability to pay.

Caldwell v. Atwood, 179 So. 3d 1210, 1217 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (citations and
internal quotation marks omitted).

¶9. Stephanie next contends that the chancellor failed to adequately determine the
reasonableness of the fees claimed by Patrick’s attorney. The record reflects that the
chancellor expressly found the fees to be reasonable. While Stephanie faults the chancellor for not going into detail, detailed findings are not required if the award of fees is, in fact, reasonable. West v. West, 88 So. 3d 735, 747 (¶¶57-58) (Miss. 2012). On that point, Stephanie offers nothing other than her assertion that many of the fees were “generated by totally needless litigation” resulting from Patrick’s motion for custody modification, which, according to Stephanie, delayed the hearing on the contempt issue and resulted in multiple contempt motions being filed.

¶10. “An award of attorney’s fees in domestic cases is largely a matter entrusted to the
sound discretion of the trial court. Unless the chancellor is manifestly wrong, his decision regarding attorney[’s] fees will not be disturbed on appeal .” Gaiennie v. McMillin, 138 So. 3d 131, 137 (¶15) (Miss. 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Stephanie has failed to show an abuse of discretion regarding the reasonableness of the attorney’s fee awards.

That’s pretty straightforward. As a practical matter, however, it may just be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, because the COA sent the case back to the trial court because the chancellor had found Patrick not to be in contempt despite a history of non-payment of child support. The COA held that Patrick’s history of non-payment and late payments should have resulted in a contempt adjudication. That will likely cost him something in attorney’s fees, which will offset — in whole or in part — the award against Stephanie.

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