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Justices: Woman who had co-worker committed not in contempt of court

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A Clark Circuit judge lacked statutory authority to find a nurse in indirect civil contempt for completing an application for emergency detention of her co-worker, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Sara Townsend and A.S. worked as nurses in a hospital in Louisville. Townsend completed the emergency detention application, alleging that A.S. was mentally ill and dangerous or gravely disabled, claiming that she threatened suicide. A warrant was issued and A.S. was detained for emergency treatment, but released the next day after doctors at the hospital determined there was no reason to continue keeping her.

Judge Daniel Moore ordered Townsend to appear to show cause why she shouldn’t be held in contempt for making false and inaccurate statements. She tried to have the issue dismissed, but Moore denied it and found her in indirect civil contempt. He ordered her to pay the hospital bill A.S. incurred, fined her $500, ordered her to pay $1,000 in A.S.’s attorney fees, and to write apology letters to A.S. and the treating hospital.

But Townsend’s conduct did not rise to meet indirect contempt pursuant to I.C. 34-47-3-2, the justices held in In re Mental Health Actions for A.S., Sara Townsend, 10S01-1402-MH-113.  

“The factual basis for the trial court’s finding of contempt was that Townsend made false statements in the application for emergency detention, and that those false statements were used as the basis for the warrant issued to detain A.S. But the plain import of the statutory language is that the contemptuous misconduct is in the resisting, hindering, or delaying in execution of an existing process or previously issued court order,” Justice Steven David wrote. “And here, as Townsend argues, there was no such lawful process or court order in place when she acted — rather, her actions initiated the lawful process or court order. It is axiomatic that she could not resist, hinder, or delay the execution of something that did not yet exist. Thus, the trial court acted outside of its statutory authority in finding Townsend in indirect contempt and its judgment to that effect is reversed.”

And without a basis to find the party in contempt, the trial court does not have the inherent power to impose sanctions.

The justices found Townsend’s role not much different than that of one who calls 911 to report a person on the street is acting dangerously.

“A trial court cannot simply otherwise hale a citizen into court and sanction him or her. The inherent power of the judiciary to impose sanctions, while flexible and significant, begins and ends with the courtroom and the judicial process. Thus, because we conclude that the trial court here lacked authority for its contempt finding, and because Townsend otherwise committed no misconduct once the legal proceedings were initiated, she is outside the trial court’s inherent power to impose sanctions,” David wrote.
 

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  1. If real money was spent on this study, what a shame. And if some air-head professor tries to use this to advance a career, pity the poor student. I am approaching a time that i (and others around me) should be vigilant. I don't think I'm anywhere near there yet, but seeing the subject I was looking forward to something I might use to look for some benchmarks. When finally finding my way to the hidden questionnaire all I could say to myself was...what a joke. Those are open and obvious signs of any impaired lawyer (or non-lawyer, for that matter), And if one needs a checklist to discern those tell-tale signs of impairment at any age, one shouldn't be practicing law. Another reason I don't regret dropping my ABA membership some number of years ago.

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  3. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

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  5. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

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