April 14, 2017

Strict Compliance With Contempt Statute Unnecessary

Category: Civil Procedure, Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

Indiana has enacted Ind. Code § 34-47-3-5 to set forth the procedural requirements to finding someone in indirect contempt of court. That statute requires that the trial court issue a rule to show cause, which must “clearly and distinctly set forth the facts that are alleged to constitute the contempt.” Reynolds v. Reynolds addresses what happens when the trial court does not strictly comply with this requirement.

Thomas and Tricia Reynolds were divorced in 2010. Father was to (1) pay a child support obligation, and (2) provide certain tax documents on request. Mother served a request for those tax documents for the years 2011-13. Father did not respond. Mother’s counsel tried resolving the issue informally. Father did not respond.

Mother filed a verified show cause motion, which described Father’s failure to comply with the trial court’s prior orders, and continued to actively seek the requested documents. While some of the requested documents were eventually produced, not all of them were. Mother then filed a motion to compel. The trial court granted the motion and set the matter for a compliance hearing. At that hearing, the trial court found Father in contempt, ordered that the documents be produced, and awarded attorney’s fees to Mother.

On appeal, Father argued that the trial court erred when finding him in contempt because it never issued a proper rule to show cause. The Court of Appeals reversed and the Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer.

The Court’s analysis began with the statute describing what “must” be in a proper rule to show cause. Such a rule must

(1) clearly and distinctly set forth the facts that are alleged to constitute the contempt;

(2) specify the time and place of the facts with reasonable certainty, as to inform the defendant of the nature and circumstances of the charge against the defendant; and

(3) specify a time and place at which the defendant is required to show cause, in the court, why the defendant should not be attached and punished for such contempt.

The trial court’s order in this case did not contain all of this information. However, Mother’s motion “contained detailed factual allegations that Father failed to comply with provisions of the dissolution decree and agreed modification order. The Motion also incorporated by reference Mother’s request for production of documents to show which documents had been requested.” The Court found that this was sufficient notice under the statute for purposes of due process.

Father also objected to the trial court’s factual findings, but the Court found that he waived this objection when agreeing to a summary proceeding. The Court defined a summary proceeding as one in which the parties “allow the court to base its findings and conclusions upon the arguments of counsel and limited evidence.”

Under this standard, Father’s failure to provide all of the required tax information was dispositive.

One of the big takeaways from this case is something the Court did not mention: the proposed order Mother submitted with her motion. While not specifically mentioned, it appears that the trial court may have signed a vanilla order submitted by Mother. If so, then this appeal is largely Mother’s fault. When submitting a proposed order, litigants should be aware of and include anything required to be in the order. The court may not sign your order, but there is no need to take the risk that it may sign an order that is missing something material.

Lessons

  1. A rule to show cause does not need to strictly comply with Ind. Code § 34-47-3-5, so long as the motion to show cause contains sufficient factual detail about the allegations of contempt.
  2. Assent to a summary proceeding effectively precludes all but abuse of discretion challenges to a trial court’s factual findings.

Read the full February 23, 2017 Law Club Handout or listen to the recording here.