“Reliance on Counsel” Defense Had No Merit in Contempt Motion

In a Connecticut Superior Court case, an ex-husband won a contempt motion against his ex-wife after her reliance on counsel defense failed in court. In 2011 a court ordered the parties to contribute money into a joint bank account for the benefit of their daughter and her living expenses. At the time of trial in 2013 the plaintiff husband had contributed almost $21,000 while the defendant wife owed the account around $27,000 in missed payments. In more than two years she had only contributed around $4,000 to the account. At trial the plaintiff established that during the period the defendant was not in compliance with the court’s order, she was treating family members to restaurant outings, as well as paying for car washes and cell phones for her children from prior relationships. He clearly showed that she had the ability to pay but that she just didn’t do so.

When testifying on why she missed so many payments, the defendant’s testimony was inconsistent. She testified that she thought her attorney had already addressed the payment issue with the court, and that she didn’t have to pay “for him” amongst other things. Finding she was in contempt, the court noted: “the defendant does not argue that either order was ambiguous, nor would such a claim have merit. To the extent the defendant claims that she relied on her counsel to deal with the payment issue, the court finds that defense unconvincing. A party who is charged with civil contempt for failure to comply with a court order walks a precarious path by claiming reliance on advice of counsel.”

When discussing this path the court cited Rocque v. Light Sources, Inc., where the Judge stated “that reliance on counsel is [not] necessarily a defense to a finding of contempt, but . . . it is a factor to consider in the assessment of whether a court order was willfully violated.” In the case at hand, the defendant had no factual support for the bare claim that she believed her attorney had addressed the fact of her noncompliance with a court order and because of this the court found her willfully in contempt. The court ordered her to once again make payments and ordered that the $27,000 she owed would come out of her share from the sale of the marital residence.

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Written by: Kyle M. Buonocore.

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