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In re Estate of Bonham

February 20, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM2255-99) (Hon. Kaye K. Christian, Trial Judge)

Before Schwelb and Washington, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge

Submitted November 18, 2002

Marlene F. Bonham-Leonard appeals from a Superior Court order holding her in civil contempt and ordering her conditionally imprisoned for ninety days for nonpayment of counsel fees and costs awarded to opposing counsel by order of the trial court. Because contempt, and in particular imprisonment, are inappropriate remedies in such a case, we reverse.


This case began as a probate matter. The contemnor, Ms. Bonham-Leonard, has an interest in her late mother's estate. At the time when the original dispute arose, Ms. Bonham-Leonard was living in her mother's home. After her mother's death, Ms. Bonham- Leonard failed to comply with the requests of appellee Paschal La Padula, the former counsel for the personal representative, for access to the home. As a result, on September 29, 2000, the trial court, per Judge Cheryl M. Long, found Ms. Bonham-Leonard to be in violation of Super. Ct. Prob. R. 109. Judge Long ordered Ms. Bonham-Leonard to grant Mr. La Padula and his appraisers access to the home, and she granted Mr. La Padula's request for reasonable counsel fees and costs incurred in obtaining the order.

In accordance with Judge Long's decision, Mr. La Padula submitted a statement of fees and costs to the court. The matter then came before Judge Kaye K. Christian. On January 17, 2001, Judge Christian entered a second order in which she ordered Ms. Bonham- Leonard to pay Mr. La Padula fees and costs in the amount of $4,083.75. Ms. Bonham- Leonard filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court denied.

Notwithstanding the court's order, Ms. Bonham-Leonard failed to pay the fees and costs that the court found to be due and owing. On June 12, 2001, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the subject of Ms. Bonham-Leonard's noncompliance. At the conclusion of the hearing, and in written findings issued two days later, the judge found that Ms. Bonham-Leonard owned real property, including a large trailer in a resort campsite that could be "converted easily to cash"; *fn1 that Ms. Bonham-Leonard had regular monthly income; *fn2 and that she was able to pay her other bills. As a result, the court found that Ms. Bonham-Leonard had the ability to comply with the court's order but had failed to do so.

In light of these findings, the court held Ms. Bonham-Leonard in civil contempt and ordered that she be conditionally imprisoned for ninety days unless and until she paid Mr. La Padula $4,083.75 in counsel fees and costs. A timely appeal followed. Counsel for Ms. Bonham-Leonard filed an emergency motion for a stay of the order of imprisonment pending appeal. The trial judge denied the motion, but a motions panel of this court issued a stay pending appeal and ordered that Ms. Bonham-Leonard be released forthwith. Ms. Bonham-Leonard's appeal from the contempt order itself is now before us on the merits.

The parties submitted briefs in this matter, but did not address the question whether civil contempt, and in particular conditional imprisonment, is an appropriate remedy for the violation of an order directing the payment of counsel fees and costs. On November 27, 2002, this court issued an order directing Mr. La Padula and the personal representative to show cause, if any there be, why the judgment of civil contempt should not be reversed and why Mr. La Padula should not be remitted to the vindication of his rights by more conventional means of enforcing a money judgment.

Mr. La Padula filed a one-page answer in which he acknowledged that imprisonment was not an appropriate means of enforcement of the award of counsel fees and costs, but he maintained that the trial court did not err in holding appellant in contempt. He now requests instead that judgment be entered against Ms. Bonham-Leonard in the amount of $4,083.75. The personal representative adopted Mr. La Padula's answer to the show cause order. Ms. Bonham-Leonard's attorney likewise submitted a one-page reply in which he "request[ed] the [c]court to reverse the judgment of civil contempt and award [A]ppellant attorney's fees and cost[s]." *fn3


The proceedings in this case are reminiscent of the ancient but now largely discredited practice of imprisonment for debt. See generally 16B AM. JUR. 2d Constitutional Law §§ 627-33 (1998) ("Freedom from Imprisonment for Debt"). We hold that in the absence of statutory authority or exceptional circumstances, a money judgment cannot be enforced by incarceration of the debtor.

When the trial judge sentenced Ms. Bonham-Leonard to imprisonment for ninety days unless she paid Mr. La Padula $4,083.75 in counsel fees and costs, she exceeded her statutory authority. D.C. Code § 15-320 (c) (2001) provides: "Where a decree only directs the payment of money, the defendant may not be imprisoned except in the cases especially provided for." This provision has read much the same for more than a hundred years. *fn4 In McGrew v. McGrew, 59 App. D.C. 230, 233, 28 F.2d 541, 544 (1930), the court described an order directing the defendant to pay all but $100.00 of his monthly income to a receiver to satisfy a debt as "obnoxious in principle" to the prohibition against imprisonment for debt. "Necessarily ...

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