What do you mean they’re not in contempt?
The best kind of custodial order is the kind people abide by and the Court takes non-compliance with a court order very seriously. However, in 2021, Breona C. v. Rodney D. put parameters in place that tend to limit the Court’s ability to address contempt.
What is contempt?
According to Maryland Rule 15-202, constructive civil contempt is contempt that occurs outside of the courtroom. For example, a parent denying access to the other parent when a custodial schedule has been ordered.
What does Breona C. say?
The Court in Breona C. held that an order finding someone in contempt must satisfy three basic requirements:
- The order must impose a sanction. This means that if a person does not purge themselves of the contempt, then a more serious sanction such as jail time, attorney’s fees, etc. must be considered by the court.
- The order must provide a reasonable purge provision to allow the party found in contempt the opportunity to purge themselves of the contempt. For example, if a parent has failed to pay their child support obligation the court can order lump sum payments to be made in addition to their monthly obligation so long as that lump sum payment amount is reasonable; and
- The order must be written in a way that will coerce future compliance rather than punish the contemnor for past conduct. Therefore, if a party is in compliance with an order by the time they appear in court, there is no future compliance to coerce, and any finding of contempt would strictly be punishment for past bad behavior.
What does this mean?
According to the Court, for an order to be coercive, the sanction, purge provision, and provisions of the controlling order all must differ from one another. Meaning that the sanction and purge provision provided in the contempt order cannot merely tell a party to “follow the order.” Therefore, if a court is unable to provide a distinct sanction and/or purge provision, then there cannot be a finding of contempt because the Order would not be valid.
Additionally, the Court cannot find someone in contempt who is compliant with the order by the time they appear in court. A contempt order must coerce future compliance, which it cannot do if someone is already in compliance. For example, if a parent is denying access to the other parent for weeks, but the week of the contempt hearing is compliant with the order, then that party can no longer be found in contempt.
What if a party continues to violate an order?
Although Breona C. put some fairly strict parameters on contempt, Footnote #6 discusses that in a situation where a party has exhibited a pattern of behavior in violation of a court order that, due to the repetitive nature of the conduct, the party could be found to be in contempt at the time of the hearing regardless of if that person is technically in compliance with the order at the time of the hearing or not. For example, if a parent repetitively withholds access from the other parent but conveniently abides by the order the week of the hearing each time a contempt is filed against them, they could very well still be held in contempt by the court for that pattern of behavior.
Understanding the basics of contempt as set out in Breona C. is extremely important and if you have questions, feel free to give us a call!