In Short: The trial court may enforce its own orders even where the parties agree otherwise; testimony that a party consulted with counsel is not the same as testimony that the party relied up on the advice of counsel; there is no case law standing for the proposition that relying on the advice of counsel is a shield to a finding of contempt.
Prior to dissolution, the parties entered into a pendente lite stipulation providing that certain funds be released for deposit into a joint account requiring the signatures of both parties prior to any withdrawals. Thereafter, the parties deposited the funds into an account without the requisite protections.
Defendant filed a motion for contempt alleging that Plaintiff transferred a portion of those funds into his own personal account. Plaintiff testified that he consulted with his attorney but did not testify that he relied on advice of counsel in withdrawing the funds. Plaintiff was found in contempt. Plaintiff’s filed a motion to reconsider which was denied.
The parties entered into an agreement that was incorporated into a judgment of dissolution. As part of that agreement, the parties agreed to file a joint motion seeking to open and vacate the finding of contempt, ostensibly because they believed it could hinder future employment. Argument was made at a hearing on the joint motion to open and vacate, but no evidence was presented. Plaintiff spoke on his own behalf but was not sworn in. The joint motion to open and vacate motion was denied.
Plaintiff appealed the finding of contempt, the denial of his motion for reconsideration and the denial of the joint motion to open and vacate the finding of contempt. The Appellate Court affirmed the Judgment of the trial court and Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.
Plaintiff argued that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion in finding contempt on the basis of a willful violation, where he claims he relied upon the advice of counsel in taking his actions. The Supreme Court found no evidence in the record that Plaintiff relied upon the advice of counsel in his contemptuous conduct. The Supreme Court noted that O’Brien v. O’Brien, 161 Conn. App 575 (2017), relied upon by Plaintiff, does not stand for the proposition that a party may shield himself from a finding of contempt based on the advice of counsel.
Plaintiff argued that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the parties joint motion to open and vacate the judgment of contempt. Plaintiff argued that the trial court improperly ignored the stipulation of the parties that they believed a finding of contempt “could interfere with the parties’ future employment.” The Supreme Court reviewed for abuse of discretion, noting that the agreement of the parties to vacate the finding of contempt does not limit the broad discretion the trial court enjoys, nor the fact that the trial court may enforce its own order. The Supreme Court found that the trial court emphasized Plaintiff’s failure to produce evidence that a finding of contempt would impact his career, and found no error in the trial court’s mention of possible motives for Defendant to have agreed to the stipulation nor the discussion of the amount of time the court allocated to the contempt hearings.
The Judgment was affirmed.