Contempt

Civil Contempt, Generally

Except as indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the court’s opinion.

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

 

Lazaroff v. Lazaroff, No. M2022-01004-COA-R3-CV, p. 4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2023). 

Regarding contempt matters specifically, “[a] trial court’s use of its contempt power is within its sound discretion and will be reviewed by an appellate court under an abuse of discretion standard.” McLean v. McLean, No. E2008-02796-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 2160752, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 28, 2010) (citing Outdoor Mgmt., LLC v. Thomas, 249 S.W.3d 368, 377 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007)).

Grande v. Grande, No. E2022-00981-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2023).

With regard to civil contempt, our Supreme Court has instructed:

Civil contempt claims based upon an alleged disobedience of a court order have four essential elements. First, the order alleged to have been violated must be “lawful.” Second, the order alleged to have been violated must be clear, specific, and unambiguous. Third, the person alleged to have violated the order must have actually disobeyed or otherwise resisted the order. Fourth, the person’s violation of the order must be “willful.”

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After determining that a person has willfully violated a lawful and sufficiently clear and precise order, the court may, in its discretion, decide to hold the person in civil contempt. See Robinson v. Air Draulics Eng’g Co., 214 Tenn. 30, 37, 377 S.W.2d 908, 912 (1964). The court’s decision is entitled to great weight. Hooks v. Hooks, 8 Tenn. Civ. App. (Higgins) 507, 508 (1918). Accordingly, decisions to hold a person in civil contempt are reviewed using the abuse of discretion standard of review. Hawk v. Hawk, 855 S.W.2d 573, 583 (Tenn. 1993); Moody v. Hutchison, 159 S.W.3d 15, 25- 26 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004). This review-constraining standard does not permit reviewing courts to substitute their own judgment for that of the court whose decision is being reviewed. Williams v. Baptist Mem’l Hosp., 193 S.W.3d 545, 551 (Tenn. 2006); Eldridge v. Eldridge, 42 S.W.3d 82, 85 (Tenn. 2001).

Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton Cnty. Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 354-55, 358 (Tenn. 2008) (footnotes omitted). In Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515 (Tenn. 2010), the Tennessee Supreme Court discussed the abuse of discretion standard at length, stating:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. Beard v. Bd. of Prof’l Responsibility, 288 S.W.3d 838, 860 (Tenn. 2009); State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives.Overstreet v. Shoney’s, Inc., 4 S.W.3d 694, 708 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999). Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below, White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 223 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999), or to substitute their discretion for the lower court’s, Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, 479 (Tenn. 2003); Myint v. Allstate Ins. Co., 970 S.W.2d 920, 927 (Tenn. 1998). The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny. Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d 203, 211 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002).

Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 358 (Tenn. 2008); Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d 652, 661 (Tenn. 1996). An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. State v. Lewis, 235 S.W.3d 136, 141 (Tenn. 2007). A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. State v. Ostein, 293 S.W.3d 519, 526 (Tenn. 2009); Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d at 358; Doe 1 ex rel. Doe 1 v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, 154 S.W.3d [22,] 42 [(Tenn. 2005)].

To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a lower court’s discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the lower court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the lower court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions. Flautt & Mann v. Council of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting BIF, a Div. of Gen. Signal Controls, Inc. v. Service Constr. Co., No. 87-136-II, 1988 WL 72409, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 1988) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed)). When called upon to review a lower court’s discretionary decision, the reviewing court should review the underlying factual findings using the preponderance of the evidence standard contained in Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d) and should review the lower court’s legal determinations de novo without any presumption of correctness. Johnson v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 146 S.W.3d 600, 604 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004); Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d at 212.

Beecher, 312 S.W.3d at 524-25.

Stooksbury v. Varney, No. E2021-01449-COA-R3-JV, p. 4-5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar 27, 2023).

Regarding contempt matters specifically, “[a] trial court’s use of its contempt power is within its sound discretion and will be reviewed by an appellate court under an abuse of discretion standard.” McLean v. McLean, No. E2008-02796-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 2160752, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 28, 2010) (citing Outdoor Mgmt., LLC v. Thomas, 249 S.W.3d 368, 377 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007)).

Seybold v. Metz, No. M2022-00290-COA-R3-CV, p. 3 (Tenn. Ct App. Dec. 21, 2022). 

This Court reviews a trial court’s decision to hold an individual in civil contempt under the abuse of discretion standard. Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton Cty. Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 358 (Tenn. 2008) (citing Hawk v. Hawk, 855 S.W.2d 573, 583 (Tenn. 1993); Moody v. Hutchison, 159 S.W.3d 15, 25-26 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004)). “An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the framework of the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide that discretionary decision.” Id. (citing State v. Lewis, 235 S.W.3d 136, 141 (Tenn. 2007)). Such “[d]iscretionary decisions must take the applicable law and relevant facts into account.” Id. (citing Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d 652, 661 (Tenn. 1996)). Therefore, “reviewing courts will set aside a discretionary decision only when the court that made the decision applied incorrect legal standards, reached an illogical conclusion, based its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or employs reasoning that causes an injustice to the complaining party.” Id. (citing Mercer v. Vanderbilt Univ., 134 S.W.3d 121, 131 (Tenn. 2004); Perry v. Perry, 114 S.W.3d 465, 467 (Tenn. 2003)).

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