The Requirement of Particularity in an Order or Judgment

May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s fundamental that, in order for an order or judgment to be enforceable, it must be complete on its face, and the obligation imposed must be specified. It can not require reference to extraneous information to determine the obligation. For example, an order that the obligor pay 14% of his adjusted gross income is unenforceable since it requires that we determine from extraneous sources what 14% of his income might have been.

The principle was brought to the fore in the COA’s decision reversing a chancellor’s adjudication of contempt in Lindsay v. Lindsay and Pickering, handed down April 7, 2020. Judge Lawrence wrote for the majority:

¶23. “Civil contempt orders enforce a private party’s rights or compel compliance with a court’s order.” Hanshaw v. Hanshaw, 55 So. 3d 143, 147 (¶13) (Miss. 2011). “Failure to comply with a court order is prima facie evidence of contempt.” Evans v. Evans, 75 So. 3d 1083, 1087 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “Before a party may be held in contempt for failure to comply with a judgment, ‘the judgment must be complete within itself[,] leaving open no matter or description or designation out of which contention may arise as to meaning.’” Davis v. Davis, 829 So. 2d 712, 714 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002) (quoting Wing v. Wing, 549 So. 2d 944, 947 (Miss. 1989)). “A contempt citation is proper only when the contemner has wilfully and deliberately ignored the order of the court.” Lewis v. Pagel, 172 So. 3d 162, 178 (¶39) (Miss. 2015) (quoting Gaiennie v. McMillin, 138 So. 3d 131, 136 (¶13) (Miss. 2014)). Further, “[t]his Court will not reverse a contempt citation where the chancellor’s findings are supported by substantial credible evidence.” Witters v. Witters, 864 So. 2d 999, 1004 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004) (citing Varner v. Varner, 666 So. 2d 493, 496 (Miss. 1995)).

¶24. “A defendant may avoid a judgment of contempt by establishing that he is without the present ability to discharge his obligations. However, if the contemnor raises inability to pay as a defense, the burden is on him to show this with particularity, not just in general terms.” Varner, 666 So. 2d at 496 (citation omitted).

¶25. Here, the trial court held Bruce in contempt of the October 13, 2016 written temporary order entered nunc pro tunc to June 13, 2014. At the June 13, 2014 hearing, the court examined Bruce’s Rule 8.05 financial statement and heard testimony from both Bruce and Paula. At the close of the hearing, Judge Steckler indicated his ruling was not complete, stating, “But I want to meet again with both attorneys early next week and go over it and then we’ll finish this order.” He continued “[B]etween now . . . and the time that I enter another order, he is to continue to pay everything that he’s paying now.” (Emphasis added). His bench ruling made no mention of the exact amount of child support, the exact amount of spousal support, home mortgage notes, house maintenance for the pool or yard, or any other specific amount for a specific obligation that Bruce was to pay.

¶26. What Bruce was actually paying at the time of June 13, 2014 hearing is unclear from the record. His Rule 8.05 financial statement from that hearing shows he was paying over $14,000 per month in expenses despite only having $10,260.76 in net income. Further, his Rule 8.05 financial statement does not mention any amount of child support or spousal support, both of which he was later held in contempt for not paying. The vague nature of the
temporary order continued with the new chancery judge’s equally vague ruling—the October 3, 2016 written order—that Bruce “continue to pay an[y] and all debts, obligations and expenses he was paying prior to June 13, 2014.” The specific amounts for what specific obligations that Bruce was required to pay and for which he was held in contempt for not paying were not “complete within the judgment.” In other words, Bruce was held in contempt and incarcerated for not paying obligations that were never specifically set forth within the four corners of the oral ruling on June 13, 2014, or the written temporary order entered by a different judge on October 3, 2016. The written order simply used similar language given by Judge Steckler from the June 13, 2014 hearing. If we looked only to the temporary orders, it would be impossible to know what exactly Bruce had been ordered to pay and in what amounts. The orders are vague and confusing. At the second contempt proceeding on October 19, 2017, before he was ordered to be incarcerated, Bruce said as much when he argued pro se to the court the following:

My point, I guess, is that it’s certainly not willful. There’s a lack of money. Additionally, I think there was definitely confusion over this to this day, but there certainly was confusion through the different meetings, conferences . . . and hearings and no written order by Judge Steckler.

¶27. Simply put, the language in the oral order from the bench and the written order entered over two years later never mention any specific type of obligation or in what amount that obligation is to be paid. In fact, the words child support, spousal support, home mortgage, and lawn or pool maintenance, or any specific monetary amounts for any of those obligations, are never mentioned in either orders. At the June 13, 2014 hearing, the court simply said to “pay everything that he’s paying now[,]” and the October 3, 2017 written order simply stated, “[P]ay any and . . . all debts, obligations, and expenses he was paying prior to June 13, 2014.” This Court has made clear that the “judgment must be complete within itself[,] . . . leaving open no matter or description or designation out of which contention may arise as to meaning.” Davis, 829 So. 2d at 714 (¶9) (quoting Wing, 549 So. 2d at 947). The meaning of the oral order from the bench on June 13, 2014, and the written order trying to reduce to writing that oral order was not clear and certainly not “complete” within itself. Orders from courts, whether oral or written, should not be so vague as to prevent a reasonable person from understanding its clear legal effect or the potential for contempt in failing to abide by its terms. Those terms should be clearly defined within the four corners of the order in an effort to cause “contention [that] may arise as to meaning.” Id. The temporary orders in this case were overly vague, ambiguous, and unclear as to exactly what was required to be paid. Therefore, the order of contempt against Bruce in the amount of $105,470.67 is hereby reversed.

Lawyers have presented PSA’s and agreed orders with flaws similar to that spelled out above, and I have sent them back to the drawing board, although I do confess to signing off on a few when the lawyers whined enough to wear down my resistance. I did  point out, however, that if it came back before me for enforcement, the obligation would clearly be unenforceable for the same reasons set out in Lindsay.

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