When someone is injured by a contempt, a civil suit for money damages (could be coming).
by Andrew R. Korn, Esq.
April 7, 2020
The Wrong. Violating a court order is a contempt, for which the violator can be fined and imprisoned. In re Daugherty, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 4447, at *12 (Tex. App.—Dallas June 19, 2018, orig. proceeding) (“A judge can impose a fine or imprisonment or both in a criminal contempt order.”); Ex parte Hayes, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 6276, at *6-7 (Tex. App.—Dallas July 7, 2017, orig. proceeding) (“A court may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both in a civil contempt order so long as the imprisonment is conditional. A civil contempt order can impose a determinate sentence as long as the order contains a ‘purge clause.’”).
These judicial actions serve to maintain the dignity and authority of the Court. See Ex parte Kilgore, 3 Tex. Ct. App. 247, 256 (1877) (Trial court’s contempt proceedings was a “commendable endeavor to uphold and maintain the dignity and authority of the court over which he presided.”)
Fining and jailing the person who violated a court order does not compensate any party harmed by the contemnor’s disobedience. See Howard v. Durand, 36 Ga. 346, 359 (1867)
the defendant was enjoined from using or selling the property in litigation. This injunction, the plaintiff alleges, has been violated by defendant. Suppose the Court had “committed defendant for said contempt,” would this afford any remedy to Howard? Would it restore the property sold? Do not the facts show that the only effect of the punishment, would be to vindicate the authority of the Court, and not furnish any remedy for the plaintiff?
This leads to the question: What rights and recourse does a victim of a contempt have against the contemnor?
The Overlooked Remedy. In addition, or as an alternative to seeking to have a violator held in contempt, a victim of a contemnor’s disobedience may be entitled to recover damages against the contemnor. The 4th Court of Appeals-San Antonio (1 of Texas’ 14 courts of appeals) has recognized a civil action for damages caused by a violation of a Court Order. See Green Oaks, Ltd. v. Cannan, 749 S.W.2d 128, 131 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1987), writ denied per curiam sub nom. Cannan v. Green Oaks Apts., Ltd., 758 S.W.2d 753 (Tex. 1988) (Citations omitted) (“It is true that a court may punish a contempt by fine or imprisonment in order to vindicate its authority. But in addition, a litigant injured by a contempt may file a civil suit for damages. Though such private civil suits are rare, they are necessary…).
In Green Oaks, the Court of Appeals held as a matter of law that a party has a cause of action for money damages against a violator of a court order. Id.
The Supreme Court of Texas determined the case assuming a cause of action existed for, but did not reach the issue. See 758 S.W.2d 753, 755 (“We do not reach the question of the existence of such a cause of action [civil remedy for violation of a court order]”).
The Takeaway: When considering whether to file a motion for contempt when someone violates a court order, those who’ve been harmed by that violation should evaluate the feasibility of filing a separate lawsuit for recovery of money damages resulting from the contempt.