Criminal Contempt Reversed in Franklin Post-Divorce: Knellinger v. Knellinger

Knoxville family law attorneysFacts: Mother and Father, the parents of two children, divorced in 2010. Father subsequently married Stepmother. Chronic conflict between Mother and Stepmother ensued.

While specific details are discussed below, Father petitioned to have Mother held in criminal contempt for violating the Parenting Plan, specifically the following preamble contained in all Tennessee parenting plans:

The Mother and Father will behave with each other and each child so as to provide a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child even though they are divorced. They will not speak badly of each other or the members of the family of the other parent. They will encourage each child to continue to love the other parent and be comfortable in both families.

After a hearing, the trial court found Mother guilty of criminal contempt.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Mother argued the trial court erred in holding her in contempt of the Parenting Plan because the preamble is impermissibly vague and ambiguous as to whether her conduct was prohibited.

To convict a person of criminal contempt of a court order, four essential elements must be established. First, the order alleged to have been violated must be “lawful.” Second, the order alleged to have been violated must be clear, specific, and unambiguous. Third, the person alleged to have violated the order must have actually disobeyed or otherwise resisted the order. Fourth, the person’s violation of the order must be “willful.”

A person may not be held in contempt for violating an order unless the order expressly and precisely spells out the details of compliance in a way that will enable reasonable persons to know exactly what actions are required or forbidden. The order must, therefore, be clear, specific, and unambiguous. Vague or ambiguous orders that are susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation cannot support a finding of contempt. Orders need not be full of superfluous terms and specifications adequate to counter any flight of fancy a contemnor may imagine in order to declare it vague. They must, however, leave no reasonable basis for doubt regarding their meaning.

Orders alleged to have been violated should be construed using an objective standard that takes into account both the language of the order and the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the order, including the audience to whom the order is addressed. Ambiguities in an order alleged to have been violated should be interpreted in favor of the person facing the contempt charge.

First Incident. Stepmother approached Child during Mother’s parenting time and offered him candy. Mother asked Stepmother not to give him candy because Child had been to the dentist that day. An argument ensued over what constituted appropriate pediatric dental care. After Mother told Stepmother to “let’s have it, let me hear what you’ve got, just give me your best shot,” the parties separated and the confrontation ended. The trial court found that “neither party legitimately believed that there was going to be a first fight between the parties,” but that Mother should nevertheless be convicted of criminal contempt because “Mother was not trying to de-escalate the situation.”

The Court concluded:

To put it simply, Stepmother started it, and in concert with Mother, escalated the situation. Further, Mother had repeatedly, and justifiably, asked Stepmother to “give her space,” especially during Mother’s parenting time. Moreover, while inappropriate in the presence of the child, Mother’s comment was relatively innocuous considering the circumstances, and if anyone in that situation jeopardized the “loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship” the parents share with the children it was Stepmother.

Mother’s action, or more accurately stated, Mother’s reaction to Stepmother pushing herself upon Mother and the child in this situation does not constitute a willful violation of a clear, specific, and unambiguous order of the court….

Second Incident. Child, who was only three-years-old, threw a tantrum on the field in an emotional meltdown during a soccer game. Mother helped Child off the soccer field, removed his cleats and fed him yogurt, because, as Mother explained, Child was very upset and did not want to play. Father claimed Mother’s actions “interrupted the flow of the game,” which he felt “was inappropriate.” The trial court found Mother’s behavior at the game “was overreaching,” and it “undermined” Father’s authority as Child’s coach and parent. Based upon these findings, the trial court held Mother in criminal contempt.

The Court did not hold back when assessing this incident:

Father testified that [Child] “didn’t like people taking the ball away from him,” which is typical of a three-year-old child, but Father felt strongly that [Child] needed to understand that, “well, that’s what soccer is.” We respect Father’s desire to teach his children appropriate life lessons and to exhibit good sportsmanship; however, it is not a contemptuous crime for a mother to escort her three-year-old off of a soccer field when in distress. Father coaches [Child] in soccer and in baseball, which is admirable of him, and he will have many more opportunities to teach [Child] important life lessons. We can only hope that other authority figures can teach Father the gravity of filing petitions accusing his children’s mother of criminal offenses that carry the possibility of jail time, and which require each parent to exhaust financial resources that could best be used for the benefit of the children.

Ouch.

Not satisfied with that smackdown, the Court continued:

As noted earlier, criminal contempt is only to be used to preserve the power and vindicate the authority of the court and the law; it is not to be brandished as a weapon to torment former spouses in order to benefit the adversary. As the trial court correctly noted, Mother, Father, and Stepmother, are having problems “that will effect the children,” and if they “don’t get on the same page, . . . the kids [will] suffer.” The children are involved in multiple school, church, and extra-curricular activities, which are important and beneficial to the children…. [T]here will be times the parents differ on parenting issues. When such occur in the future, the parties should consider whether a continuance of the recent Rambo style litigation is more likely to benefit or harm the children and their relationships with the parents. Mediation, if necessary and appropriate, would likely be more beneficial and less costly.

Accordingly, the trial court was reversed.

Knellinger v. Knellinger (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, August 29, 2013).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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