Contempt motion not appropriate after non-payment, Conn. SC rules

By Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro | May 2, 2017

HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) – A decision denying a Connecticut hospital’s motion for contempt of court for non-payment was recently affirmed by the state's high court recently.

HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) – A decision denying a Connecticut hospital’s motion for contempt of court for non-payment was recently affirmed by the state's high court recently.

In an opinion officially released May 2, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled against a hospital that says it is owed close to $6,000 from a plaintiff who filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against it.

Intially, Robert Pease sued Charlotte Hungerford Hospital and employee, Kateri Veillette (who was later excluded), claiming medical malpractice. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital prevailed and later filed for associated costs. The court granted $5,965 for expert fees and other expenses, but allegedly Pease did not pay.

After final judgment, Charlotte Hungerford Hospital filed a civil motion for contempt of court claiming Pease violated a court order and asked the court to enforce payment. 

Charlotte Hungerford Hospital did not utilize any other legislative avenues to enforce payment, including judgment for a lien on Pease’s estate. The trial court denied the claim, saying a decision for a standard monetary judgment was not an order, and not enforceable under a motion for contempt. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital appealed.    

The Supreme Court first determined if the motion’s denial was even within its jurisdiction to peruse. Citing several precedents, including the State v. Curcio’s two-tier test, the court concluded it was reviewable. The court found that this contempt motion, which required a separate proceeding, did not impede litigation while it was ongoing or affected the lawsuit’s original timeline, and the case had already concluded when it was filed.

The hospital claimed the trial court did not examine if Pease’s non-compliance was intentional, that it had the power to enforce the payment and elicit his acquiescence, and that using the motion for contempt was an appropriate legal avenue of enforcement.

The court looked to previous appellate cases to examine what the consequences of willful disregard and contempt for standard non-payment were. Though there were sanctions in the past, it was no longer widely practiced and laws restricted the use of a motion of contempt. Charlotte cited three cases to support finding Pease in contempt but the court found them non-applicable.

Finally, the court sought other federal courts' and neighboring states’ case law for guidance. It found that outside of exceptional situations, the common practice was to only enforce contempt authority for non-payment in “family law” events, such as child support arrears.

The court said a motion for contempt was not a collections method, that such a motion should only be used in dire circumstances, and that there were other legal methods to seek debt-collection. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital also failed to prove why these methods didn’t work. The trial court judgment was upheld.

Justices Chase Rogers, Richard Palmer, Dennis Eveleigh, Andrew McDonald, Carmen Espinosa, Richard Robinson and Christine Vertefeuille presided over the case. Michael Rigg represented Pease, and Michael Conroy was the attorney for Charlotte Hungerford Hospital.

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