Officially released June 2, 2020.
In Short: draft stipulations with the “clear and unambiguous” standard in mind to support finding of contempt; construe your contempt pleadings broadly to capture all areas of violation, as the court cannot find contempt as to a violation that was not specifically pled.
The parties filed cross-motions for contempt regarding a post-judgment stipulation. Wife alleged that Husband had violated the stipulation when he was late returning the child to her house four times and that he had violated the stipulation by refusing to work with the guardian ad litem in mediation to resolve a parenting schedule issue. Husband alleged that Wife had violated the stipulation when she unreasonably withheld consent for treatment by removing the child from physical therapy sessions that had been prescribed by the child’s physician.
The trial court found Wife in contempt for improperly removing the child from physical therapy, basing that finding on failure to make good faith consultation, rather than unreasonably withholding consent. The trial court also granted Wife’s motion for contempt regarding the requirement that Husband consult with the guardian ad litem.
Husband appealed claiming that the trial court improperly granted Wife’s motion for contempt regarding Husband’s alleged failure to work with the guardian ad litem. Wife cross-appealed claiming that the trial court improperly denied her motion for contempt regarding timely return of the child and improperly granted Husband’s motion for contempt regarding withheld consent for physical therapy.
Regarding Husband’s claim that the trial court improperly held him in contempt for failure to work with the guardian ad litem, the Appellate Court held that the language of the stipulation “work with the guardian ad litem” was not sufficiently clear and unambiguous to sustain a finding of contempt, where Husband engaged in a 45-minute phone call with the guardian but refused to participate in mediation. The Appellate Court reversed as to this finding.
Regarding Wife’s claim that the trial court improperly failed to hold Husband in contempt for alleged belated return of the child, the Appellate Court determined that the language of the stipulation, again, was not sufficiently clear and unambiguous, where it specified “timely return” but did not specify a time, and where the child stayed after school on the requisite occasions for legitimate purposes such as tutoring or music practice. The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s declination to find contempt.
Regarding Wife’s claim that the trial court improperly found her in contempt for her “failure to engage in good faith consultation with the defendant about proper medical care…” The Appellate Court noted that this was not one of the bases pled by Husband in his motion for contempt, which claimed, instead, that Wife unreasonably withheld consent for such care. The Appellate Court applied plenary review where the Judgment did not conform to the pleadings and found that the requirement of the stipulation of good faith consultation was distinct from the requirement of not unreasonably withholding consent. Thus, the Appellate Court reversed as to this finding.