Coward v. Biddle

Decision Date30 November 2022
Docket Number2021-03286, 2022-00643,Docket Nos. V-15066-2016/2018E, 18J, 19M, 19N, 19O, 19P, 19Q, 20Y, 20V
Parties In the Matter of Lashonda COWARD, appellant, v. Anthony H. BIDDLE, respondent.
CourtNew York Supreme Court — Appellate Division

Law Offices of Eyal Talassazan, P.C., Garden City, NY, for appellant.

The James Firm, PLLC, Hauppauge, NY (Brian A. Picarello of counsel), for respondent.

MARK C. DILLON, J.P., LINDA CHRISTOPHER, LARA J. GENOVESI, HELEN VOUTSINAS, JJ.

DECISION & ORDER

In related proceedings pursuant to Family Court Act article 6, the mother appeals from (1) an order of the Family Court, Suffolk County (James F. Quinn, J.), dated April 14, 2021, and (2) an order of the same court dated December 8, 2021. The order dated April 14, 2021, granted the father's application for an award of attorneys’ fees to the extent of directing the mother to pay attorneys’ fees in the sum of $3,000 directly to the father's counsel. The order dated December 8, 2021, in effect, granted those branches of the father's counsel's motion which were to hold the mother in civil contempt for her failure to comply with the order dated April 14, 2021, and for an award of additional attorneys’ fees, to the extent of finding the mother in civil contempt and directing the mother to pay attorneys’ fees totaling $7,500, inclusive of the prior award of $3,000, directly to the father's counsel.

ORDERED that the orders are affirmed, without costs or disbursements.

The parties have engaged in extensive litigation since 2016 regarding the custody of their child, who was born in 2010. In August 2021, the father's counsel moved, inter alia, to hold the mother in civil contempt for her failure to comply with a prior order of the Family Court dated April 14, 2021 (hereinafter the April 2021 order), which had directed the mother to pay attorneys’ fees directly to the father's counsel in the sum of $3,000. This Court denied the mother's application to stay enforcement of the April 2021 order. In an order dated December 8, 2021 (hereinafter the December 2021 order), the Family Court found the mother in civil contempt of the April 2021 order, and awarded the father's counsel additional attorneys’ fees totaling $4,500. The mother appeals from both orders.

" ‘A motion to punish a party for civil contempt is addressed to the sound discretion of the court, and the movant bears the burden of proving the contempt by clear and convincing evidence’ " ( Matter of Herbst v. Palange, 193 A.D.3d 859, 860, 142 N.Y.S.3d 387, quoting Matter of Hughes v. Kameneva, 96 A.D.3d 845, 846, 946 N.Y.S.2d 211 ). "In order to prevail on a motion to hold another party in civil contempt, the movant is required to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, (1) that a lawful order of the court was in effect, clearly expressing an unequivocal mandate, (2) the appearance, with reasonable certainty, that the order was disobeyed, (3) that the party to be held in contempt had knowledge of the court's order, and (4) prejudice to the right of a party to the litigation’ " ( Board of Mgrs. of Brightwater Towers Condominium v. M. Marin Restoration, Inc., 206 A.D.3d 605, 607, 169 N.Y.S.3d 136, quoting Matter of Mendoza–Pautrat v. Razdan, 160 A.D.3d 963, 964, 74 N.Y.S.3d 626 ). "The movant need not establish that the disobedience was deliberate or willful" ( Board of Mgrs. of Brightwater Towers Condominium v. M. Marin Restoration, Inc., 206 A.D.3d at 607, 169 N.Y.S.3d 136 [internal quotation marks omitted]). " ‘Once the movant establishes a knowing failure to comply with a clear and unequivocal mandate, the burden shifts to the alleged contemnor to refute the movant's showing, or to offer evidence of a defense, such as an inability to comply with the order’ " ( Board of Mgrs. of Brightwater Towers Condominium v. M. Marin Restoration, Inc., 206 A.D.3d at 608, 169 N.Y.S.3d 136, quoting El–Dehdan v. El–Dehdan, 114 A.D.3d 4, 17, 978 N.Y.S.2d 239, affd 26 N.Y.3d 19, 19 N.Y.S.3d 475, 41 N.E.3d 340 ). "Wilfulness is not an element of civil contempt, however, the party alleged to be in contempt may offer as a defense evidence of his or her inability to comply with the order or judgment" ( Bauman v. Bauman, 208 A.D.3d 624, 626, 173 N.Y.S.3d 604 ).

Here, the Family Court had the authority to award attorneys’ fees in the April 2021 order pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 237(b) and Family Court Act § 651(b) (see generally Matter of Ross v. Ross, 96 A.D.3d 856, 858, 946 N.Y.S.2d 598 ; Matter of Belle v. DeMilia, 19 A.D.3d 691, 798 N.Y.S.2d 104 ). The court did not improvidently award the father's counsel attorneys’ fees based upon its determination, in effect, that the mother had engaged in frivolous conduct (see 22 NYCRR 130–1.1 [a]; Matter of Lebron v. Lebron, 101 A.D.3d 1009, 956 N.Y.S.2d 125 ; Matter of Miller v. Miller, 96 A.D.3d 943, 947 N.Y.S.2d 541 ). Despite the mother's contention to the contrary, a hearing with respect to the award of attorneys’ fees was not necessary under the instant circumstances, since the father requested the imposition of attorneys’ fees and sanctions in his motion papers (see Rhodes v. Rhodes, 169 A.D.3d...

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    ...that showing or to offer evidence of a defense, such as an inability to comply with the order (see id. at 35; Matter of Coward v Biddle, 210 A.D.3d 1083, 1083-1084). Here, the father failed to sustain his burden because the evidence at the hearing did not establish that the mother's actions......

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