Child Custody, Visitation & Relocation
REPEATED, FLAGRANT AND ONGOING CONTEMPT OF CHILD CUSTODY ORDERS REQUIRES SANCTIONS
The trial court correctly held that mother was in contempt of the court’s order but erred in not imposing sanctions for mother’s repeated, flagrant and ongoing contempt of orders related to child custody because no sanctions for flagrant abuse of court orders was an abuse of discretion and father could challenge the order as a collateral order.
Parents contested custody of children for years before court awarded sole legal custody and primary physical custody to father and partial physical custody to mother. Father filed a contempt petition against mother alleging violations of court orders with respect to attendance at religious events and interference with education and his custodial time. Father alleged that mother refused to take child to religious school for a service, prevented father from attending a student led parent-teacher conference and interfered with father’s custody at child’s sports events. The trial court found that mother was in contempt but did not impose sanctions. Father challenged the lack of sanctions.
Father argued the trial court’s failure to enforce its contempt orders against mother was a “de facto denial of contempt” without redress because mother could continue to be in contempt and the trial court could choose to do nothing and father could not appeal. The court noted that the trial court had found mother in contempt for violating its orders multiple times over a period of almost ten years but had never imposed sanctions. Consequently, the court found that the order appealed in this case was a collateral order and was appealable as of right.
The court found that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to impose any sanctions on mother despite her flagrant and ongoing contempt of court orders that had been continuing for ten years. The trial court’s refusal to impose sanctions rewarded mother for disobeying court orders and allowed her to determine custody matters without regard to father’s rights and without adverse consequences. In failing to impose sanctions, the trial court exercised its discretion without reason which was an abuse of discretion.
Reference: N.A.M. v. M.P.W., PICS Case No. 17-1299 (Pa. Super. Aug. 2, 2017), Digest of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 40 PLW 820 (September 5, 2017)
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