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).
I. What Happened?
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 lapse, 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.
The mother filed a contempt petition. The trial court found Mr. Dodson in contempt because he did in fact not pay the insurance premium (and for possible other reasons no summarized on appeal). The trial court ordered Mr. Dodson to provide monetary compensation to the mother for her items lost. This was overturned upon appeal, however, for several reasons, including that a contempt petition is meant to enforce Court Orders, and Mr. Dodson's one-time lapse was in the past, could not be fixed, and he returned to regularly paying as ordered. So, he was not in contempt when the trial court's hearing occurred.
II. Discussing The Outcome At Court.
What Dodson tells us, in part, is that while the mother won at the trial court, she eventually lost on appeal, and the time and expense involved was taxing on both parties. The appellate court held that because the mother sought redress through contempt - rather than through a breach of contract or tort action for negligence - she had used improper procedure that could not be cured, and the entire proceeding was vacated and dismissed.
In other words, contempt is meant to enforce ongoing compliance with Court orders. It's not a collection-like, breach of contract action, or action for negligence. Mr. Dodson's one-time lapse was not a good factual situation for a contempt action where Mr. Dodson went back to paying the insurance as ordered.
Lastly in Dodson, the Maryland Court of Appeals - which is being renamed the Maryland Supreme Court - further noted that the husband could not retroactively pay the premium because the insurer would not permit retroactive coverage, so ordering him too under a contempt procedure was not effective and could not save this procedure from dismissal.
Further, the husband after missing this one-time went back to regularly paying, and that was the key point warranting dismissal. So, the husband was following his divorce obligations pursuant to Court Order and he was no longer in contempt.
III. Takeaways From Dodson.
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, probably over the father's negligence is missing that payment or breach of contract if that requirement was part of a divorce agreement that was incorporated (as a legal contract) but not merged into the divorce Judgment.
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.
IV. Final Thoughts on Contempt:
As things stand now, Dodson is illustrative of the proper use of the contempt petition process.
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. However, the underlining contempt action must be valid.
Cautious analysis up front saves time in any legal step forward.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
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