When a court enters an order, the power to enforce the order is by a finding of contempt of court and violating a court’s order is not a child’s game. Contempt of court is the willful failure to obey a court’s order and can be punished by a civil penalty (money), criminally (jail) and sometimes both.
On October 26, 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided the case of Hanley v. Hanley. In the Hanley case, Mrs. Hanley (Pamela) was determined to be in criminal contempt of court by the trial court for violating the court’s order in her divorce case.
What did Pamela do to be found in contempt of court?
During the parties’ divorce, an order was entered which mutually prohibited the parties from disclosing personal or business financial information revealed during the discovery process. This type of order is typically called a “protective order” and is used to maintain privacy during the exchange of information which is called the discovery process.
Shortly after the divorce was concluded, Pamela filed a request for investigation with the Attorney Grievance Commission as her ex husband, Mr. Hanley was an attorney. Pamela (in an apparent effort to damage his reputation) alleged numerous unlawful, unethical or improper financial dealings by her ex-husband in his law practice. In support of her grievance Pamela supplied the Attorney Grievance Commission with information she discovered in the divorce process and protected by the protective order. The grievance was dismissed.
Thereafter, when Mr. Hanley remarried and his new wife was being sued on a debt. Pamela proceeded to send a letter to the attorney suing the new Mrs. Hanley accusing accusing her ex-husband and his new wife of numerous unlawful financial dealings. Once again, Pamela utilized information she obtained during discovery in her divorce case and governed by the protective order.
Obviously frustrated by his ex-wife’s actions, Mr. Hanley brought an action for contempt of court (Show Cause) against Pamela for violating the terms of the protective order. The trial court found Pamela in criminal contempt, sentenced her to 93 days in jail, imposed a $7,500.00 fine and ordered her to pay $15,000.00 in attorney fees. Pamela appealed.
What is contempt of court?
Contempt of court involves a willful act or omission which questions the authority of the court and courts have the authority to punish a person for contempt. See: In re Contempt of Robertson, 209 Mich. App. 433 (1995). The main purpose of a finding of contempt of court is to preserve the effectiveness of the court and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling ordering Pamela to pay taxable costs associated with the appeal.
Key learning – Contempt of Court
Simply put, a court can use a finding of contempt of court to enforce its orders by imposing a civil or criminal penalty. While sending a litigant to jail is rare in a divorce case, it does happen.
If you cannot follow a court order for any reason, you should try to change the order first, before considering violating it as a violation of a court’s order could lead to a finding of contempt of court. We can help.
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By: Daniel Findling