Civil Contempt Petition Revived Because of Multiple Errors in Memphis, TN: Parsons v. Parsons

Facts: Husband and Wife divorced in 2014. Nearly a year later, Wife petition for civil and criminal contempt. She alleged that Husband failed to pay the full amount of spousal support required by their marital dissolution agreement.

After Wife’s counsel completed the direct examination of Wife, Husband’s counsel moved to dismiss on the grounds that Wife failed to elect whether she was seeking civil or criminal contempt. Wife agreed to voluntarily dismiss the criminal contempt claim and proceed solely on her civil contempt claim.

Even though Wife had not concluded her proof, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss after finding that Wife “has failed to sustained the requisite burden of proof, that is by clear and convincing evidence, of any ‘civil’ contempt.”

Wife appealed.

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

Burden of proof. Wife argued the trial court applied the wrong burden of proof when it said Wife failed to prove civil contempt “by clear and convincing evidence.” The Court agreed:

The trial court’s ruling is patently incorrect in that it applied an incorrect legal standard, i.e., clear and convincing evidence as opposed to preponderance of the evidence. The quantum of proof needed to find a person guilty of civil contempt is a preponderance of the evidence. . . . [Husband] argues that the trial court’s analysis of civil contempt using the clear and convincing evidence standard was harmless error. We disagree. . . . Having applied an incorrect legal standard, the trial court erred. [T]his error alone is sufficient for reversal of the trial court’s decision.

Completion of proof. Wife also argued the trial court erred when it dismissed her petition for civil contempt before she completed her proof.

The trial court acknowledged that Husband’s oral motion to dismiss was presented “in a bit of an unusual procedural context in that it was made at the end of the direct examination of” Wife. This “unusual procedural context” did not stop the trial court from dismissing Wife’s case, however. The Court found this, too, was reversible error:

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 41.02(2), which governs involuntary dismissals in bench trials, provides [that an action can be dismissed] “[a]fter the plaintiff in an action tried by the court without a jury has completed the presentation of plaintiff’s evidence . . . [and] has shown no right to relief. . . .”

Rule 41.02(2) clearly contemplates that the proper time to lodge a motion for involuntary dismissal is after plaintiff “completed the presentation of plaintiff’s evidence. . . .” Accordingly, this Court has consistently held that a trial court’s dismissal of the case prior to the close of plaintiff’s proof is reversible error.

Thus, the trial court’s order dismissing Wife’s civil contempt action was reversed. The case is remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

K.O.’s Comment: Family-law attorneys need to avoid pleading contempt actions as “civil and/or criminal contempt.” Civil and criminal contempt are different animals with different purposes, burdens of proof, notice requirements, available remedies, etc. They also must be tried separately from one another. Laweyers need to specify one or the other. For more about the differences between the two, see, e.g., Duke v. Duke.

Parsons v. Parsons (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, March 30, 2017).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce 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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