Legal Spotlight: Contempt Enforcement Under Dodson v. Dodson
Call it a cautionary tale, but the precedent of Dodson v. Dodson is illustrative of the care required in enforcing contempt. See Dodson v. Dodson, 380 Md.438 (2004).
In Dodson, a former husband and ongoing father was ordered by the divorce and custody decree to continue to pay the insurance for the condo where the mother and children lived. For various reasons, he failed to do so one time for the modest insurance for personal property. As it unfortunately happened, during that one time-period, there was a fire at the condo. Luckily, everyone was safe and unharmed.
Unluckily, the personal items that went up in flames totaled around an alleged $25,000.00.
What Dodson tells us, in part, is that while the mother won at the trial court, she eventually lost on appeal, because she sought redress through contempt rather than through a breach of contract or tort action for negligence. In other words, contempt is meant to enforce ongoing compliance with Court orders. It's not a collection-like, breach of contract action.
In Dodson, the Court noted that the husband could not retroactively pay the premium because the insurer would not permit retroactive coverage. Further, the husband after missing this one-time went back to regularly paying. So, the husband was following his divorce obligations pursuant to Court Order and he was no longer in contempt. The trial finding of contempt got it wrong, and thus, was overruled and vacated.
The above scenario has different facts but is similar to the recent decision of Breona C. v. Rodney D., Slip Op. No. 0299 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Nov. 17, 2021). There, a contempt trial ruling also was overruled and vacated, because the person who had violated a court order was no longer in contempt when the trial happened. I covered that in a prior legal article, linked here. I cover it again, because it remains a thorny field of Maryland law as these two precedents together illustrate.
The takeaway is take care. In the above scenario, the appeal went to Maryland's highest court before, if the mother wished to pursue it, she would need to try again through a proper lawsuit.
The Dodson opinion did not foreclose the idea that (a) economic injury (b) caused by a past violation of a Court Order (c) might be redressable via contempt petition, 380 Md. 454, but it did not endorse the position either.
Considering the contempt petition process is "remedial," 380 Md. 448, and requires both a purge and sanction provision under the statute, Dodson, supra, Breona C., supra, the concept of a purge cuts against the concept of making someone whole for an injury unless that might be reasonably and simply done and so be part of the purge.
Dodson provides authority for "ancillary orders" during a contempt ruling to aid in compelling compliance with current Court Orders, the rationale animating the contempt process, 380 Md. 448. As things stand now, Dodson is illustrative of the proper use of the contempt petition process. Cautious analysis up front saves time in any legal step forward.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
Mosson Law, LLC
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Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
Mosson Law, LLC