A court’s contempt order must have teeth to be enforceable.

By Vincent M. Wills

Contempt orders – orders issued by a court to force a person to comply with a prior court order – must contain a sanction and a purge provision to be enforceable. Dolet v. Martin, a recent unreported* decision of Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, holds that to be valid a court’s contempt order must contain a sanction and a provision that allows the person in contempt to purge the contempt.

Mr. Dolet (“Husband”) and Ms. Martin (“Wife”) entered into a separation agreement that was incorporated into their judgment of absolute divorce. By incorporating the agreement into the Judgment of Absolute Divorce, the court obtained the ability to enforce the agreement with its contempt powers. The parties agreed that the Husband would be the owner of property located in Bowie, Maryland. However, the parties also agreed that if the Husband vacated the property he would transfer the property to the Wife. When the Husband vacated the property, he refused to transfer the property to the Wife. In response, the Wife filed a motion for contempt, asking the court to order the Husband to deed the property to her. During the hearing on her motion for contempt, the Wife argued that the Husband was in contempt of court for failing to deed the property to her as required by the divorce decree.

Contempt is an inherent power of a court to enforce compliance with its orders. There are two classifications of contempt – civil and criminal. The purpose of civil contempt is to coerce present or future compliance with a court order. A civil contempt proceeding is used to enforce the rights of a private party to a case and to compel obedience to orders made to benefit such party. In contrast, criminal contempt is used to punish someone for past misconduct or disobedience to a court order.

Contempt may be direct or constructive. A direct contempt is something that occurs in the presence of the court and affects the proper functioning of the court. For example, saying something derogatory to a judge or flipping an inappropriate hand gesture to the judge are examples of direct contempt. In contrast, a constructive contempt occurs outside the presence of the court. For

example, failing to pay court-ordered child support is an example of constructive contempt.

Because civil contempt is used to force a party to obey a court order and not for punishment, it is remedial in nature. As a result, the sanction or penalty in a civil contempt must provide for purging. A purge provision is some action or monetary payment that a party is required to take or make in order to undo the finding of contempt. A purge provision has been described as having “the keys to the prison in his or her pocket.” Except for child support cases, before a court can make a finding of contempt, the person subject to contempt must have the present ability to comply with the purge provision.

Since the penalty imposed in a criminal contempt is intended as punishment, it does not have to provide for purging. If there is no purge provision to enforce compliance, the court is limited to using criminal contempt.

In Dolet v. Martin, the trial judge found the Husband to be in civil contempt. The judge stated that the Wife was entitled to any relief awarded by the court in a separate breach of contract suit that she also filed against the Husband. The Order did not contain a sanction, nor did it contain any provision that would allow the Husband to purge himself of the contempt.

On appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals decided that the trial court’s civil contempt order was invalid, because it did not contain a sanction, nor did it contain a purge provision.

* An “unreported” opinion by Maryland’s intermediate appellate court is published on the Court’s website, but may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in any Maryland court, as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104. However, unreported opinions do offer insight into issues addressed by that court.