Family court affirmed in finding of contempt, but erred in order seeking to punish future contempt – Published Opinion from Supreme Court of Kentucky

Pink Piggy Bank

Crandell v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, et al.

Bullitt Circuit Court

In 1997, a California court ordered Gregory Crandell to pay child support for his two minor children. 20 years later, the California order was registered in Kentucky. After multiple summonses accompanied by failures to appear, Crandell was arrested on a bench warrant. While incarcerated, Crandell moved for work release, stating that though he was disabled, he believed he could get a job. During the two decades of child support obligation, Crandell had accrued $115, 760.20 in arrearages. A contempt hearing was held on the matter, in which Crandell alleged that he could not pay the arrearage due to his physical disability. As proof, Crandell presented the testimony of two employers affiliated with the housing program where Crandell resided. The testimony confirmed that the facility was restricted to individuals who had been verified as  homeless, disabled, and low-income, and that Crandell qualified for the program. This, alongside observations by the family court of Crandell’s use of a cane at hearings, was the only indication of his disability. Ultimately, the court held Crandell in contempt, with him owing $126,691.25 in child support obligations after applying interest. The family court ordered that Crandell make monthly payments of $251, due the 11th of each month, and if he failed to make a payment, he was to serve 20 days incarceration. Crandell appealed the family court’s finding of contempt and its ordered remedy.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the family court’s order of contempt but declined to review the remedy due to lack of preservation—Crandell moved for discretionary review, and the Court granted his motion.

First, the Court affirmed the finding of contempt. After weighing Crandell’s initial statements that he could get a job for work release against his “vague hearsay and implications” concerning his disability preventing him from paying child support, the Court saw no clear error in the family court’s factual findings. The remedy for said contempt, however, suffered from deficiencies. The family court’s order jailed Crandell if he missed a payment, making Crandell’s future conduct the subject of the contempt order. This meant the order bypassed the required notice, new hearing, and finding that Crandell had the ability to comply at that future point in time. Citing case law, the Court clarified that a contempt order’s remedies must pertain to a present inability to pay and cannot be used to punish future contempt. Accordingly, the Court found this was an abuse of discretion, reversing the Court of Appeals decision affirming the remedy portion of the order and vacating the family court’s order in part. 

Additionally, the Court highlighted the impracticality of the ordered remedy – it would have required Crandell to search for, apply to, acquire, and receive a paycheck from a job in a very short amount of time. Every failure to do so would have caused him to be incarcerated 20 days, giving him only 8-11 days to repeat the cycle, depending on the month. The Court noted that this created a “Sisyphean cycle” that made compliance near impossible and all but guaranteed the arrearage would remain unsatisfied.

K. Spencer Pierson

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