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Court tosses use of contempt as way to order debt payment

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The Indiana Court of Appeals says that a southern county’s local rule permitting the use of contempt powers to enforce civil judgment payments violates the Indiana Constitution.

In a unanimous 14-page decision today in Deidre Carter v. Grace Whitney Properties,  No. 82A04-1003-SC-177, the appellate court reversed and remanded a small claims case that had come from Vanderburgh Superior Court.

The appeal involved a small claims complaint that Grace Whitney Properties had filed against Carter back in October 2003 and a post-trial judgment against the woman in the amount of $401.60 plus $44 in court costs and interest. The company later filed proceedings supplemental and in March 2004 the small claims court entered a personal order of garnishment against Carter pursuant to Vanderburgh County Local Rule 1.23(C) and Local Rule 1.05(E).

Those rules detailed how she’d be garnished the lesser of either: 25 percent of the defendant’s maximum disposable earnings, or the amount by which that person’s disposal earnings for the week exceed 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage.

Following that order, Grace Whitney Properties filed a dozen contempt notices against Carter and the small claims court made various orders about how she should make payments on the debt and at one point ordered Carter serve 30 days in jail. She contended that she’d been on disability since early 2004 and had a fixed income, and she requested the garnishment order be rescinded in part because it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The small claims court denied that request, leaving the garnishment order in place and pushing Carter to appeal.

One of the arguments Carter makes is that Article 1, Section 22 of the Indiana Constitution prohibits the court from using its contempt power to force a payment for a debt because that falls under imprisonment for a debt.

The appellate panel agreed.

“We conclude that (the Vanderburgh local rules), as applied here, violate Article I, Section 22 of the Indiana Constitution because they contemplate the use of contempt to enforce an obligation to pay money even where, as here, the debt does not involve child support or fraud,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote for the court. “Although a ‘personal order of garnishment’ is permitted under Indiana proceedings supplemental statutes, the small claims court erred by continuing the personal order of garnishment where Carter presented evidence that she had no non-exempt assets or income available to pay the judgment and that her circumstances were unlikely to change.”

Also referencing the many “fishing expeditions” initiated by Grace Whitney Properties in this matter, the appellate court noted that future proceedings supplemental against Carter in this case must be supported by a showing that new facts justifying a new order or examination have come to the court’s knowledge.
 

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  1. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

  2. Mazel Tov to the newlyweds. And to those bakers, photographers, printers, clerks, judges and others who will lose careers and social standing for not saluting the New World (Dis)Order, we can all direct our Two Minutes of Hate as Big Brother asks of us. Progress! Onward!

  3. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  4. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  5. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

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