In civil litigation, contempt is the most severe sanction available because it can subject the offender to fine or imprisonment. A motion for civil contempt was the subject of a recent decision by Westchester Commercial Division Justice Linda S. Jamieson in Matter of Prisco v. L’Aquila Realty LLC, Index No. 58654/2018, a case concerning the breakup of a family business that we discussed in an earlier post.

The Facts

On July 8, 2019, the parties appeared before Justice Jamieson and read into the record a stipulation, in which they agreed to several buyouts that would end their business relationship (“Stipulation of Settlement”). The parties ordered the transcript and submitted it for the Court to So-Order.

On July 22, 2019, the parties privately agreed to amend the Stipulation of Settlement and executed an “Amendment to Stipulation” (“Amendment”), adding several terms to the original agreement, including that Angela Prisco “shall remove the Prisco TV name from its business.”

On September 16, 2019, Justice Jamieson So-Ordered the Stipulation of Settlement, but not the Amendment, which was not presented to the Court.

On December 16, 2019, John Prisco moved to hold Angela Prisco in contempt, arguing that she continued to use the Prisco TV name and in so doing failed “to comply with the so-ordered Stipulation.”

The parties’ agreement concerning the use of the Prisco TV name, however, was not part of the So-Ordered Stipulation of Settlement – only the (private) Amendment.

Applicable Legal Principles

Judiciary Law § 753 gives courts the power “to punish, by fine and imprisonment, or either, a neglect or violation of duty, or other misconduct by which a right or remedy of a party to a civil action or special proceeding, pending in the court may be defeated, impaired, impeded, or prejudiced.” Id. The purpose of a civil contempt order is “vindication for individuals who have been injured or harmed by a contemnor’s failure to obey a court order.” Town of Southampton v. R. K.B. Realty, LLC, 91 A.D.3d 628, 630, 936 N.Y.S.2d 228 (2d Dep’t 2012). As such, “[c]ivil contempt fines must be remedial in nature and effect and awards should be formulated not to punish an offender, but solely to compensate or indemnify private complainants.” Id. (citations omitted).

A party seeking an order of contempt must meet a high standard: “[t]o prevail on a motion to punish a party for civil contempt, the movant must demonstrate that the party charged violated a clear and unequivocal court order, thereby prejudicing a right of another party to the litigation.” Pathak v. Shukla, 164 A.D.3d 687, 688, 81 N.Y.S.3d 549, 551 (2d Dep’t 2018) (citations omitted). “To satisfy the prejudice element, it is sufficient to allege and prove that the contemnor’s actions were calculated to or actually did defeat, impair, impede, or prejudice the rights or remedies of a party.” Pathak, 164 A.D.3d at 689, 81 N.Y.S.3d at 551 (citations omitted). “[T]he movant bears the burden of proving the contempt by clear and convincing evidence.” Savel v. Savel, 153 A.D.3d 872, 873, 61 N.Y.S.3d 97 (2d Dep’t 2017).

Finally, “[w]hile a Court has the power to punish a party for Civil Contempt under Judiciary Law § 753(A) the invocation of this extraordinary relief is narrowly and strictly construed.” Kelly J.A. v. Robert F.A., 2007 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5429, *1 (Sup. Ct. Queens County July 16, 2007) (emphasis added).

In this case, the movant didn’t get the memo.

The Court Denies the Motion

Citing Pathak, Justice Jamieson denied the motion. “In this case, the only document that absolutely forbids [Angela] from using the Prisco name is the parties’ amendment to their stipulation of settlement,” the Court held. “It is not a Court-ordered document, and thus not ‘a clear and unequivocal court order’” (emphasis added). Justice Jamieson then cautioned, inter alia: “Should movant make another motion, he must take care to cite law in support of the relief he seeks.”

With that admonition, the movant may have gotten off easy. In Pathak, where the non-movant did not violate a court order (like Angela Prisco here), the movant was sanctioned for frivolous conduct and the non-movant was awarded his attorney’s fees incurred in opposing the motion.

Takeaway: Courts insist on strict and literal construction of contempt statutes, so motions for civil contempt should be used sparingly.

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