Contempt: How Much is Too Much?

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Amaria and David Vassar became embroiled in a divorce in 2015. Amaria was required by a temporary order to pay the mortgage notes on the marital residence that was jointly owned by them, but only Amaria was obligated on the note, apparently due to David’s poor credit history.

Instead of paying the note as ordered, Amaria quit paying it and cut off the utilities to the house. By the time of the final hearing, Amaria had amassed an arrearage in mortgage payments of nearly $13,000.

In his final ruling on the divorce issues, the chancellor found Amaria in civil contempt and ordered that she be incarcerated until she pay the arrearage. Six days later, Amaria filed a motion for release from jail on the basis that the proof at trial had shown she was unable to pay it. That motion appears to have been denied. Twenty-one days later, she obtained new counsel and filed yet another motion for release based on the same grounds and further informing the court that she had military orders to report for duty. The motion again was unsuccessful. Finally, after she had been incarcerated more than 40 days, Amaria filed for bankruptcy on the mortgage note, and the chancellor ordered her to be released.

On appeal, Amaria challenged the incarceration order as well as other aspects of the court’s ruling. In Vassar v. Vasar, an October 17, 2017, ruling, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Wilson wrote the majority opinion:

¶47. Amaria also argues that “[t]he chancellor erred in ordering [her] to be incarcerated until such time as she purged herself of contempt” by paying the nearly $13,000 mortgage arrearage on the marital home. Amaria does not contest the chancellor’s finding of contempt—only the order of incarceration. Amaria is no longer incarcerated. She was released after she spent forty-seven days in jail and filed for bankruptcy. Nonetheless, she argues that we should review the issue under the “capable of repetition yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine. We agree that the issue is appropriate to review and that the chancellor erred by incarcerating Amaria given her clear inability to purge herself of contempt by paying the mortgage arrearage.

¶48. “Inability to pay to avoid incarceration is a continuing defense as imprisonment does not accomplish the purpose of the civil contempt decree.” Riser v. Peterson, 566 So. 2d 210, 211 (Miss. 1990). In Riser, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated: “For the benefit of the bench and bar, let us attempt to state clearly that a litigant may be incarcerated for civil contempt for failure to pay a judgment but that litigant is always entitled to offer evidence of inability to pay as a defense, not to the contempt, but to the incarceration.” Id. at 212 (emphasis added; capitalization omitted).

¶49. Here, Amaria concedes that she was in contempt because she violated the chancery court’s temporary order requiring her to pay the mortgage and utilities on the marital home. Amaria’s only argument is that she should not have been incarcerated because the record is
clear that on July 1, 2016, she was unable to pay the $12,997.65 mortgage arrearage that the chancellor ordered her to pay as a condition of her release. We agree. Under Riser, even if inability to pay is not a defense to the underlying contempt, it is always a continuing defense to incarceration. The evidence was clear that on July 1, 2016, Amaria could not pay $12,997.65 or anything close to that amount. The chancellor therefore erred by ordering Amaria to be incarcerated until such time as she paid that amount.

¶50. Amaria’s release from jail after forty-seven days arguably renders moot her challenge to her incarceration. [Fn omitted] However, we may address an issue that is otherwise moot when “the following elements combine: (1) The challenged action was in its duration too short to be
fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration; and (2) There was a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subject to the same action again.” Strong v. Bostick, 420 So. 2d 1356, 1359 (Miss. 1982) (quoting Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975)). This is known as the “capable of repetition yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine. Id. The United States Supreme Court has applied this exception in a case in which a father challenged his incarceration for failure to pay child support but was released before his case reached the Court. See Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431, 439-41 (2011); see also Koestler v. Koestler, 976 So. 2d 372, 379-80 (¶¶19-23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (holding that an appeal from an involuntary civil commitment fit within the exception even though the individual had been discharged).

¶51. Although the facts of Turner are distinguishable in some respects, we agree with Amaria that this exception to the mootness doctrine is applicable. Amaria remained in jail for forty-seven days until she was released for reasons that are not explained in the record. She was never able to comply with the originally stated condition for her release—payment of the mortgage arrearage. In addition, the final judgment imposed a series of financial obligations that were beyond her ability to pay. While we have reversed and remanded these obligations for reconsideration, it is appropriate to address the order of incarceration because it is capable of repetition in the future and could again result in a period of incarceration too short for full litigation of the issue.

Inability to pay, then, is both a defense to the finding of contempt, and to the sentence of incarceration. As to the latter, it is a continuing defense, meaning that it may be asserted as often as the condition persists, as Amaria did in this case. The US Supreme Court’s Turner v. Rogers case cited above, is instructive on how incarceration relates to inability to pay.

Only caveat is that the defense of inability to pay is ticklishly difficult to prove under existing Mississippi case law. Check out the many cases cited in Professor Bell’s book (2nd Ed.) at page 490, Fns 133-135. I suggest that the defense of inability vis a vis contempt demands stronger proof than the defense to incarceration or continued incarceration. I know of no Mississippi cases to support this assertion, but I think Turner v. Rogers supports it.

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