`

Split COA affirms denial of court employee's contempt motion, awards appellate fees

December 12, 2018

A split Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a drug court coordinator’s claims that an auditor was in contempt of court, finding the coordinator’s claims were frivolous and her excessive filings were unreasonable. As such, the majority awarded appellate attorney’s fees to the auditor.

In 2016, Kelly Sickafoose was hired by the Adams Superior Court as an independent contractor to be the court’s drug court coordinator, eventually becoming an employee of the court per Judge Patrick Miller’s request. Then in June 7, 2017, Miller ordered the county auditor to pay certain tax and retirement benefits “for the benefit of the ‘Adams Superior Court/Adams County Drug Coordinator’” within 48 hours.

Sickafoose’s federal taxes and benefits were ultimately paid, but Sickafoose moved for a rule to show cause in the instant case – which Miller had earlier filed for Sickafoose’s benefit and had initially presided over – alleging the auditor was in indirect criminal contempt of court, civil contempt of court and had “failed and refused to comply with the Honorable Judge Miller’s Order issued June 7, 2017.”

The auditor moved to dismiss and argued that Sickafoose’s motion was moot as the benefits had been paid, adding that Sickafoose did not have standing to file the motion as she was not a party to the lawsuit and had not sought to intervene. A special judge ultimately denied Sickafoose’s motions and, finding them frivolous, awarded the auditor attorney’s fees in the amount of $16,463.50.

On appeal, Sickafoose contended the Adams Superior Court erred in denying her motion and in awarding attorney’s fees. The appellate court disagreed, finding that Sickafoose’s claims that Indiana Trial Rule 71 granted her standing to join were misplaced.

“Pursuant to the plain language of the rule, the enforcement powers provided for by Trial Rule 71 extended only so far as to allow Sickafoose to enforce obedience with the June 7, 2017 order. Thus, any enforcement power Sickafoose may have had was extinguished by the Auditor’s compliance with Judge Miller’s order,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote.  “The record demonstrates that the Auditor complied with Judge Miller’s order in July of 2017. Sickafoose did not file her motion to show cause until August of 2017. As such, by the time Sickafoose filed her motion to show cause, no enforcement power remained as the funds at issue had been paid.”

The appellate panel also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in the award of attorney’s fees, noting Sickafoose’s continued filings and “unreasonable actions” had “cost the citizens of Adams County unnecessary financial resources and warrant an award of attorney’s fees to the Auditor.” It thus added an additional award of appellate attorney’s fees to the auditor.

“Sickafoose has continued to pursue this matter, at great taxpayer expense, even after her actions had been deemed frivolous,” Braford continued. “We therefore remand to the trial court for a hearing to determine the appropriate appellate award of the attorney’s fees.”

The case was remanded for a determination of the proper amount of appellate attorney fees. 

Judge Mark Bailey dissented with a separate opinion and argued the appeal should be dismissed. He said the appeal was not properly before the court because Sickafoose was the subject of the litigation but not a party to it, and therefore lacked standing to bring the appeal in Kelly Sickafoose v. Mary Beery, Auditor of Adams County, 18A-MI-1549.

 

ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Katie Stancombe