Mootness of Civil Contempt for Facebook Post Examined in Memphis, Tennessee Divorce: Stark v. Stark

February 24, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband, a sergeant in the police department, and Wife, an attorney representing herself, started divorce proceedings after five years of marriage.

Wife asserted claims for spousal torts, including battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, which allegedly arose from a physical altercation with Husband shortly after the divorce was filed.

Wife published a Facebook post alleging domestic violence by Husband and complaining about the police department’s investigation. In the Facebook post, Wife claimed to be “a recent victim of domestic violence at the hands of a Memphis Police Officer.” She also sent a four-page email to the mayor about the incident asking the mayor to “look into this before it goes further.” The mayor is the public official with ultimate authority over the police department.

Tennessee divorce Facebook

Husband petitioned for a restraining order directing Wife to remove the Facebook post and not make future statements that might jeopardize his employment or impugn his reputation with his employer, the police department.

When the trial court announced its ruling that the Facebook post had to be removed that day and prohibiting Wife from making further allegations on social media or further communications with Husband’s employer, this exchange took place:

COURT: That post shall be removed today, and a mandatory injunction will go into effect that there will be no communication with employers. . . . But at this point, making any further allegations in social media is completely inappropriate and is being enjoined.

WIFE: Well, Your Honor, I would just with all candor to the Court say you might as well take me into custody right now. I have contacted the FBI as well as having contacted the mayor of Memphis to try and get this addressed. I am saying that I am a victim of corruption from the Memphis Police Department, and I am going to pursue every course of action I have and—

COURT: Are you going to remove that post, yes or no?

WIFE: I am not.

COURT: Officer Houston, take her into custody. We’ll stand in recess.

(Short break.)

COURT: [Wife], please stand. Are you going to comply with this Court’s orders?

WIFE: No, I’m not.

COURT: All right. I’m making a finding that you are in direct contempt of court by willfully refusing to comply with this Court’s orders. You will be held in custody until such time that you decide that you want to change your position and you apologize to this Court. We’ll stand in recess until that time.

Wife was held in custody for four hours before she agreed to remove the Facebook post and was released.

Facebook jail Tennessee divorceThe trial court entered its written order granting the petition for a restraining order. It also entered a separate order finding Wife in direct civil contempt while noting that she had already purged her contempt.

Wife appealed.

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

First, Wife argued that the restraining order was improper.

As soon as a complaint for divorce is filed and served, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-106(d) imposes a mutual injunction on the parties that prohibits parties from “harassing, threatening, assaulting, or abusing the other and from making disparaging remarks about the other . . . to either party’s employer.”

Either party can request that the injunction be expanded, modified, or removed.

Contempt proceedings are unique and independent from the case out of which they arise. An order that imposes punishment for contempt is a final, appealable order, even though the proceedings in which the contempt arose are ongoing.

Wife filed a notice of appeal within 30 days of the trial court’s contempt order. The Court held she perfected an appeal from the contempt order, not an appeal from the restraining order.

Second, Wife argued the trial court erred in holding her in civil contempt.

When a trial court orders imprisonment after finding civil contempt, the confinement is remedial and coercive, designed to compel the contemnor to comply with the court’s order. Compliance with the order will cause a contemnor’s immediate release from confinement. It is often said that in a civil contempt case, the contemnor “carries the keys to his prison in his/her own pocket.”

The Court found no error in the trial court’s finding of contempt:

In the case before us, the trial court held Wife in direct civil contempt and ordered her incarcerated until she agreed to remove the Facebook post. Wife was in custody for approximately four hours before she agreed to remove the post and was released. Thus, Wife has purged herself of contempt.

This Court has repeatedly held that issues raised on appeal regarding civil contempt findings are moot if the contemnor has already purged himself or herself of contempt by the time the issue reaches this Court.

* * * * *

The general rule remains that appellate courts should dismiss appeals that have become moot regardless of how appealing it may be to do otherwise. . . . The Tennessee Supreme Court has identified a limited number of exceptional circumstances that make it appropriate to address the merits of an issue notwithstanding its ostensible mootness. Those exceptional circumstances are:

  1. when the issue is of great public importance or affects the administration of justice;
  2. when the challenged conduct is capable of repetition and evades judicial review;
  3. when the primary dispute is moot but collateral consequences persist; and
  4. when a litigant has voluntarily ceased the challenged conduct.

The only exception arguably relevant in this case is “when the primary subject of the dispute has become moot but collateral consequences to one of the parties remain.” This exception to the mootness doctrine applies if prejudicial collateral consequences are shown to exist. Such collateral consequences can include the continued effect of an order that has expired or is invalid.

Wife argued that the issue of contempt was not moot because the contempt finding was a “blight” on her record and might be used against her in the divorce trial.

* * * * *

Tennessee courts have not recognized the type of vague and speculative interests asserted by Wife as a sufficient “prejudicial collateral consequences.”

Absent a showing by Wife of specific prejudicial collateral consequences resulting from the trial court’s finding of contempt, we decline to appeal the collateral consequences exception to the mootness doctrine.

The Court dismissed Wife’s appeal.

K.O.’s Comment: A divorce is one of the most emotional events anyone can experience. Most divorcing parties cannot view their circumstances objectively, which is one of the many reasons they hire family-law attorneys. While it’s tempting to represent oneself, I strongly recommend that all divorcing parties, including especially lawyers, find and hire a family-law attorney whose advice they will follow. Had Wife done that here, none of this would’ve happened.

Stark v. Stark (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, January 31, 2020).

Mootness of Civil Contempt for Facebook Post Examined in Memphis, Tennessee Divorce: Stark v. Stark was last modified: February 24th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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