Facts: The parents of three children were divorced. Much post-divorce litigation ensued culminating in this 54 page (!!!) opinion.
While the opinion delves into numerous issues and disputes, the only one I am going to address on this blog concerns civil contempt.
At the time of divorce, the trial court ordered:
[Father] shall continue to be responsible for any additional non-school associated extracurricular activities’ expense (including summer camps, baseball, dance and gymnastics) not to exceed $500 per month per child. Whenever possible, [Father] shall pay these expenses directly to the school or supplier or [Father] shall reimburse [Mother] within 30 days of receipt of the bill from [Mother]. These obligations will terminate with each child as he or she reaches the age of 18 or graduates from high school, whichever occurs last.
Shortly after the divorce, Mother moved to have Father found in civil contempt of court for failing to pay some of the children’s extracurricular activities and school summer camp expenses.
Father took the position that he was not required to pay any amount for extracurricular activities or summer camp until shortly before the activity or summer camp was to take place. He also argued that he was not required to pay more than $500 towards that activity or summer camp. According to Father, even at the cost of a camp or activity exceeds $500, he is required to pay no more than $500 for that activity or camp.
Alternatively, Father argued the court order was ambiguous such that he cannot be held in contempt.
Mother argued the provision at issue requires Father to pay up to $6000 per child, per year for extracurricular activities and camps without regard for the dates when the cost is incurred or the activity takes place.
The trial court ruled its order was “sufficiently clear” such that Father should be found in civil contempt of court. Father was ordered to pay Mother $10,693.21 — the sum of the expenses owed — within 10 days in order to purge himself of contempt.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Civil contempt occurs when a person does not comply with a court order and an action is brought by a private party to enforce rights under the order that has been violated. Punishment for civil contempt is designed to coerce compliance with the court’s order and is imposed at the insistence and for the benefit of the private party who has suffered a violation of rights.
A finding of civil contempt requires four elements: (1) the order allegedly violated was lawful; (2) the order was clear and unambiguous; (3) the individual charged did in fact violate the order; and (4) the individual acted willfully in so violating the order.
The only issue in this case as to civil contempt was whether the order was clear and unambiguous.
Vague or ambiguous orders that are susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation cannot support a finding of civil contempt. Although orders need not be immune from all vagueness challenges, they must leave no reasonable basis for doubt regarding their meaning. Furthermore, any ambiguities in an order alleged to have been violated are interpreted in favor of the party facing the contempt charge.
After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:
We find the provision of the Final Decree of Divorce relative to extracurricular activities is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Orders should be construed objectively by considering the language of the order, the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the order, and the order’s intended audience. The language “not to exceed $500 per month” can be read either as setting a limit on Father’s responsibility for payment or a limit on the rate at which expenses for extracurricular activities can be incurred. If read as limit on Father’s responsibility for payment, the provision could be interpreted to mean that Father would not be obligated to pay or reimburse Mother for any expense beyond the first $500, or the provision could limit the rate at which Father would be required to pay or reimburse Mother for the expense, irrespective of the total amount of the expense. We do not perceive the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the order, a hotly contested divorce, or the order’s intended audience as clarifying the meaning.
Because there is a reasonable basis for doubt regarding the provision’s meaning, the provision cannot support a finding of civil contempt. In so finding, we do not disturb the court’s interpretation of its order or the portion of the judgment awarding Mother $10,693.21 for extracurricular expenses plus post-judgment interest.
Accordingly, the trial court’s finding of civil contempt was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: I would be remiss if I failed to mention the trial court awarded Mother her attorney’s fees and discretionary costs in the amount of $678,933.05 (!!!), which award was affirmed on appeal.
The case also is notable for its findings on Father’s persistent efforts to destroy the children’s relationships with Mother. The trial court heard extensive expert proof as to Father’s “parental alienation” and imposed rather extreme limitations on his parenting time as a result. If that subject interests you, consider reading this lengthy opinion.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.