Finding Attorneys in Contempt for Clients’ Actions in Divorce Case
No one wants to be held in contempt of court, and attorneys do their best to try and keep their clients from being held in contempt, but there are times when an attorney can be held in contempt of court for what his client does or does not do.
No one wants to be held in contempt of court, and attorneys do their best to try and keep their clients from being held in contempt, but there are times when an attorney can be held in contempt of court for what his client does or does not do. The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Farrell v. Farrell, No. 1424 WDA 2018 (Pa. Super), should serve as a cautionary tale for all attorneys to keep in mind when discerning how much involvement their clients should have in the drafting and serving of legal documents.
Farrell is a divorce matter that involved two represented parties, the husband and the wife. The husband initiated the divorce action against his wife who, for the first two years of the case, elected to proceed on a pro se basis. When it was time for the case to be advanced to a divorce master, the wife hired an attorney. In the months leading up to the divorce master’s hearing, the husband issued the wife informal discovery requests. The wife ignored the requests, which led to the husband issuing follow-up correspondence, to which, again, the wife provided no response. As a result, the husband filed a motion to compel the responses to the discovery requests. The trial court granted the motion, and gave the wife 20 days to comply with the discovery requests.
Instead of taking an active role in helping her client respond to the discovery requests, the wife’s attorney simply allowed her client to type up the responses herself, which the attorney then forwarded to the husband’s attorney, unedited. In her responses, the wife refused to disclose some information, declared some requests “N/A,” and leveled personal attacks upon the husband in others.
The wife’s pro se responses provoked the husband’s attorney to file a motion to compel, for sanctions and for attorney fees. The court scheduled a hearing on the husband’s motion three days after the responses were filed, as the master’s hearing was scheduled for four days after the responses were filed. As a response to the husband’s aforesaid motion, the wife’s attorney immediately filed her own motion to compel and for attorney fees.
At the motion hearing, the husband admitted that more documents were produced by the wife, but her responses were still inadequate. Furthermore, the wife’s attorney indicated that she had not prepared the discovery responses for the husband, but simply allowed her client to type up the responses where provided on her own. The court took note of when the wife filed her above-mentioned motion and found that it was filed for the sole purpose of trying to “equalize” the motion filed by the husband, and not for any actual legally cognizable purpose.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court dismissed the wife’s motion and granted the husband’s motion, ordering that the wife may not produce any documentation not already produced in support of her own case. The court also found the wife’s attorney to be in contempt, ordering her to pay the husband’s attorney fees. The wife’s attorney filed for reconsideration and appealed this ruling to the Superior Court.
The wife’s attorney argued in both her motion for reconsideration and the appeal that she cannot be personally found in contempt as she was never actually ordered to do anything (only her client was) regarding discovery. To this end, she maintained that no evidence was ever produced demonstrating that she, personally, had any court order directing her to do anything, therefore there is no evidence that she disregarded a court’s order. She further argued that there was no evidence belonging to the wife that she had in her possession that was requested to be produced; therefore, she did not personally withhold anything from being produced in discovery.
As an initial matter, the Superior Court first noted that the wife’s attorney cited to no authority for the proposition that she cannot personally be held in contempt for her client’s actions or inactions. As a result, under established case law, her arguments, on that issue, were deemed waived as unsupported by authority.
Regardless, the court cited to Pa.R.C.P. 4019(g)(1) which states that “the court on a subsequent motion for sanctions may, if the motion is granted, require the … attorney advising such conduct … to pay the moving party the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees …”
Based on Pa.R.C.P. 4019(g)(1), the court determined that the wife’s attorney’s decisions to allow the wife to personally produce deficient and attacking discovery responses without the attorney offering any input or edits, did not comply with the trial court’s order to compel, and her filing of what appears to be a retaliatory motion to compel are all adequate grounds to hold the wife’s attorney in contempt of court.
So, while it is rare, practitioners should always be cognizant of the fact that they could be held in contempt of court for the actions of their clients, even if they were not personally directed by the attorney and there is no order directing the attorney to do anything.
James W. Cushing is a senior associate at the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen and is a research attorney for Legal Research Inc.
Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on December 16, 2019 and can be found here.