How Not to Behave in Court: Kenyon v. Plump

January 20, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband and Wife are divorcing. During legal argument on Wife’s motion for a protective order regarding her medical records, Wife suddenly jumped up in a distracting fashion and stormed out of the courtroom. On her way out, Wife called opposing counsel a “F’ing liar” loud enough for spectators in the front row to hear her.

When the trial court reconvened after a short recess, this exchange took place:

JUDGE: [Wife], if you will stand there at the podium for a minute. It’s my understanding, ma’am, that as you were leaving the courtroom before I took a break, and I took a break because of the manner in which you left the courtroom, that you said loud enough for the people on the first row to hear you, make reference to this lawyer that she was a F’ing lair; is that correct?

WIFE: Yes, sir.

JUDGE: Okay. All right. That’s two incidences where I could hold you in contempt of court and put you in jail. I’m not going to do that, but I want to be perfectly clear that I will not tolerate that type of conduct in this courtroom ever again. Is that clear?

WIFE: Yes, sir.

JUDGE: All right. I think you need to apologize to this lawyer too.

WIFE: Would you like me to apologize to the pedophile family while I’m at it, who molested my children?

JUDGE: I didn’t hear you.

WIFE: I apologize to [opposing counsel.]

JUDGE: No, I want you to repeat what you said, I didn’t hear you.

WIFE: I’m also standing in front of the family that also abused my children and the pedophile, would you like me to apologize to them too, sir? . . . Would you also like me to apologize to the family that abused and the pedophiles for my children too while I’m here, because I’m sorry, these are representing them [sic], I have a hard time. So it is a little emotional for me. I’m sorry, that I’m very emotional to be around them. It is just—it is very hard to sit here while lies are being spoken about me and to be in a room with these people. . . But any mother would be a little emotional, Your Honor, when she has to sit here . . . and they are telling egregious lies. I don’t know if you see what [opposing counsel] filed, the lies she told about me.

JUDGE: All right, ma’am.

WIFE: Egregious lies.

JUDGE: Ma’am, enough.

Tennessee contempt of court

After five minutes of deliberation, the trial court announced:

I’m going to hold you in direct contempt of court. The statement you just made is deplorable. It does not show any rational basis whatsoever. I just got through saying to you that your conduct in this court was contemptuous not only in storming out of the courtroom in the middle of the proceeding, but also in calling the lawyer a F’ing liar in the courtroom, and then right on the heels of that you made a statement to the people in the gallery that I cannot tolerate. So I find that you’re in contempt of court. I will confine you for a period of 10 days. I sincerely regret that I have to do that, but I must do that in order to maintain the integrity of this courtroom and these proceedings.

The trial court found that Wife’s statements were disrespectful, unreasonable, and personal misbehavior amounting to contemptuous conduct that caused an actual obstruction to the administration of justice by interrupting and delaying the proceedings.

Wife appealed.

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

Tennessee courts may inflict punishments for contempt of court based on the willful behavior of any person in the presence of the court that obstructs the administration of justice. Courts may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both as punishment for contempt. Fines are limited to $50, and incarceration may not extend beyond 10 days for each count.

Direct acts of contempt include acts committed in the presence of the court that are disrespectful, unreasonable, or contemptuous; use of violent or loud language or noises; or “turbulent” conduct that disrupts the proceedings.

The Court found Wife’s conduct to be indefensible:

[Wife] contends that she had no intention of being disrespectful to the court when she made the statements that formed the basis that the trial court’s contempt finding and that she was not speaking out of turn, yelling, or being argumentative. She also contends that she was not willfully misbehaving. We disagree, noting that [Wife] made the statements at issue after leaving the courtroom without permission, while the court was addressing one of her motions, and after calling one of the opposing attorneys “a F’ing liar.” [Wife’s] abrupt departure and name-calling interrupted the court proceeding, and she made the statements at issue in response to the trial judge’s request that she apologized to [opposing counsel], before actually apologizing. Before holding her in contempt, the trial judge put [Wife] on notice that he could hold her in contempt for storming out of the courtroom and saying what she did to [opposing counsel]. However, this warning did not deter [Wife] from continuing her offensive behavior by describing some of the people in the gallery as pedophiles and abusers of her children. The trial court found [Wife’s] statements disrespectful, disruptive, and unreasonable, and determined that they constituted “contemptuous conduct.” We do not find, under the circumstances, that the trial court abused its discretion in determining that [Wife’s] statements constituted willfulness behavior that obstructed the administration of justice.

After finding that the sentence of 10 days’ incarceration was not excessive, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in its entirety.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) To the divorcing parties reading this post, let this case serve as a cautionary tale: while acting out may feel good in the short term, it does lasting damage to your case. It helps your opponent and leaves an impression on the judge that may be impossible to overcome.

Do not raise your voice or show frustration. Avoid histrionics. When testifying or addressing the judge, gentler is stronger.

Always take the high road. Let your behavior show you are a person of high character and sound judgment. Your good name is your most valuable asset.

Your behavior is one of the few things you can control during the divorce process.

(2) I hope you enjoy the new look of the blog. It’s long overdue. Kudos to SW Creative for the update!

Kenyon v. Plump (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, January 13, 2020).

How Not to Behave in Court: Kenyon v. Plump was last modified: January 20th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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