Monday, January 19, 2015

On contempt in Juvenile Court in Virginia

There was a seminar put on for the Richmond Bar Association in October 2013, with a discussion about the enforcement of orders in Juvenile Court, that included these materials. It included an article dated July 1, 2013, by Peter Vieth published in the Virginia Lawyers Weekly, about what is or was the practice in some Virginia courts of allowing the non-lawyer non-custodial parent to serve as the prosecutor in criminal contempt cases against the custodial parent related to visitation. Almost simultaneously, as a coincidence or not, the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee considered and approved Proposed Opinion 217, which addressed this particular scenario. The proposed opinion concludes that the non-custodial parent as an extremely interested party is particularly unsuited to fulfill the ethical obligations of the prosecutor to pursue the public interest, and not merely to advocate one side of a dispute, citing In re: Richland County Magistrate's Court, 699 S.E.2d 161 (S.C. 2010). The State Bar Council never approved Proposed Opinion 217, for reasons that may have related to Va. Code § 19.2-265.01, which allows an exception to the rule on excluding witnesses for the "victims" of criminal offenses. "Victim" is a defined term under Title 19.2. Proposed Opinion 217 was sent back to the UPL committee for "further study."

In the usual visitation case, fines or imprisonment would only be "criminal" contempt sanctions, because they are neither prospective nor remedial. As the United State Supreme Court explained in the Bagwell case (that went from Southwest Virginia to the highest court), "a 'flat, unconditional fine' totalling even as little as $50 announced after a finding of contempt is criminal if the contemnor has no subsequent opportunity to reduce or avoid the fine through compliance." Sending someone to jail for what happened in the past is a criminal punishment. The classic civil remedial measure in the context of missed visitation would seem to be "make-up" visitation, which is not much discussed in the Virginia cases. In Florida, by contrast, there is an express statutory provision for makeup visitation: "When a parent refuses to honor the time-sharing schedule in the parenting plan without proper cause, the court . . . [s]hall, after calculating the amount of time-sharing improperly denied, award the parent denied time a sufficient amount of extra time-sharing to compensate for the time-sharing missed, and such time-sharing shall be ordered as expeditiously as possible in a manner consistent with the best interests of the child and scheduled in a manner that is convenient for the parent deprived of time-sharing." Florida Statutes 61.13.
There is no Virginia case law that suggests that the non-custodial parent can be made whole by way of money damages for lost time with the child. It seems to me, anyway, that Virginia law does not permit compensatory damages for lost visitation time in any kind of case. The statute barring claims for alienation of affections, Va. Code § 8.01-220, applies to emotional distress damages. See McDermott v. Reynolds, 260 Va. 98, 103, 530 S.E.2d 902, 904 (2000). Virginia law bars a civil action against the custodial parent for money damages on account of missed visitation. See Wyatt v. McDermott, 283 Va. 685, 701, 725 S.E.2d 555, 563 (2012) (such claims “would be used as a means of escalating intra-familial warfare”). Compensatory damages in civil contempt claims are limited to "pecuniary loss," see Deeds v. Gilmer, 162 Va. 157, 262, 174 S.E. 37, 79 (1934), which some courts have held to not include emotional distress damages. See, e.g., McBride v. Coleman, 955 F.2d 571, 577 (8th Cir. 1992) (overturning civil contempt award of emotional distress damages); In re Walters, 868 F.2d 665, 670 (4th Cir. 1989) (same). The only case where such an award was enforced in Virginia that I have seen was with respect to a judgment entered by a Tennessee court under Tennessee law. Lutes v. Alexander, 14 Va. App. 1075, 421 S.E.2d 857 (1992).
It is even less likely that such damages can be awarded in Juvenile Court. Juvenile Court practice is constrained by statute. There are statutes which authorize "civil" and "criminal" contempt  sanctions in Juvenile Court. Reference to the right statute should make a difference, since it is the first and perhaps the only indication at the beginning of the case as to the nature of the proceeding. A show cause summons citing Va. Code § 18.2-456 or Va. Code § 16.1-69.24 would seem to be the start of a criminal contempt case. See Storozum v. Chernin, Record No. 1073-03-4 (Va. Ct. App. Nov. 23, 2004) (contempt case was "criminal" where the motions filed in juvenile court cited Va. Code § 18.2-456). The somewhat gratuitous reference to section 16.1-69.24 as providing for the appeal of "judgments for civil contempt" in a footnote to Justice Mims's dissenting opinion in DRHI, Inc. v. Stanback, 765 S.E.2d 9 (Va. 2014) probably does not trump the reference by the Court to section 18.2-456 as a "criminal contempt statute" in a footnote in Singleton v. Com., 278 Va. 542, 685 S.E.2d 688 (2009), even though section 16.1-69.24 does no more than to make section 18.2-456 applicable in the district courts. A summons citing Va. Code § 16.1-278.16 or Va. Code § 16.1-292 could be civil or criminal. One source that explains the difference between civil and criminal contempt is this page posted on behalf of the Juvenile Court in Lynchburg. There is a much more elaborate discussion of contempt in the District Courts in the District Court Judges' Benchbook, at pages 274 through 301. The Benchbook is perhaps the best resource on law and practice in the district courts.

In 2011, the United States Supreme Court decided Turner v. Rogers, which deals with the right to counsel in cases against parents who are hailed into to court in civil contempt cases for failure to pay child support. The Supreme Court held that there was no constitutional right to counsel as such, despite the risk of significant incarceration as a civil contempt sanction to coerce the payment of support. One of the considerations on which the decision was based was the simple fact that "sometimes, as here, the person opposing the defendant at the hearing is not the government represented by counsel but the custodial parent unrepresented by counsel." (Emphasis in the original.) The Court observed that giving a lawyer to the non-custodial parent to fight the civil contempt case would create an "asymmetry of representation" that would bog down the enforcement of the child support enforcement laws. A similar asymmetry results where visitation is enforced by criminal contempt. The custodial parent is entitled to counsel, and to all the rights of the criminal defendant, in a criminal contempt case - including a different and higher burden of proof, the testimonial privilege against self-incrimination, and at some level the right to trial by jury. The remedy for this imbalance is to funnel the cases toward civil rather than criminal contempt proceedings, instead of depriving persons charged criminally of their important statutory and constitutional rights.

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