A trial judge has broad discretion to impose sanctions for failure to abide by its orders. In selecting contempt sanctions, a court is obligated to use the least possible power adequate to the end proposed.45.1
Potential sanctions for civil contempt include a fine, imprisonment and/or attorney’s fees.46 A fine is for remedial purposes, and so civil in nature, if it either coerces the contemnor into complying with the court’s order or compensates the complainant for losses sustained. If the fine is not compensatory, it is civil only if the contemnor is given the opportunity to avoid the fine by complying with the court’s order. Absent such opportunity, an unconditional fine is deemed to be punitive.46.1 A party that has suffered actual damages as a result of another party’s violation of a court order may also recover those provable damages.46.2
Imprisonment is for the purpose of coercing the contemnor to obey the order of the court, so that the term of imprisonment is indefinite, to end only when the defendant complies with the order. It is said that the defendant has the “keys to the jailhouse” and can set himself or herself free by agreeing to comply with the court’s order.47 However, once it appears that imprisonment has lost its coercive power, the legal justification for it ends. Once a judge is persuaded that there is no realistic possibility that continued confinement might cause the party to obey the order of the court, that party must be released. The person held in contempt has the burden of showing that the commitment, lawful when ordered, has lost its coercive impact and has become punitive.48
When the imprisonment is for a fixed term and imposed retrospectively for a past act of disobedience, and cannot be avoided or abated by subsequent compliance with the court’s order, such sanction is criminal, and not civil.48.1
Criminal contempt in the form of disorderly conduct, contemptuous or insolent behavior committed directly before a court is categorized as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,150, plus restitution and/or such other conditions as the court deems appropriate.49 All other statutory forms of criminal contempt are categorized as Class A misdemeanors, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,300, plus restitution and/or such other conditions as the court deems appropriate.50
Where a judgment in the Court of Chancery or of the Family Court directs a party to execute a conveyance of land, to deliver deeds or other documents or to perform any other specific acts and that party fails to comply, the court may direct that the act be done by some other person appointed by the court at the cost, of the disobedient party. Alternately, if real or personal property of the disobedient party is within the jurisdiction of the court, the court may enter a judgment divesting the title of that party and vesting it in others with the effect of a conveyance executed in due form of law.51
Apart from these sanctions, a party to an action who has been found in contempt of an order of the court may be prohibited from appealing the underlying action while that party acts in defiance of the order.52
Even if a finding of contempt is made, a court need not impose sanctions for failure to comply with an order if it perceives that the contemnor is making a good-faith effort to remedy the problems which necessitated the contempt action.53
45.1. Gallagher v. Long, No. 383, 2007, Jacobs, J. (Del. Nov. 6, 2007), disposition reported at 940 A.2nd 945 (Del. 2007) (TABLE); Aveta Inc. v. Bengoa, 986 A.2d 1166, 1188 (Del. Ch. 2009), app. dismissed mem., 991 A.2d 17 (Del. 2010).
46. Wayman Fire Protection, Inc. v. Premium Fire & Security, LLC, C.A. No. 7866-VCP, slip op. at 84, Parsons, V.C. (Del. Ch. Mar. 5, 2014); Mother African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church v. Conference of African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church, C.A. Nos. 12055 & 1674, slip op. at 28, Jacobs, V.C. (Del. Ch. 1995); Miller v. Stellar Enterprises, C.A. No. 5717, slip op. at 8, Brown, V.C. (Del. Ch. Dec. 22, 1982). See also Wilmington v. General Teamsters Local Union, 321 A.2d 123, 125 n.5 (Del. 1974).
46.1. DiSabatino v. Salicete, 671 A.2d 1344, 1350 (Del. 1996).
46.2. Hynson v. Drummond Coal Co., C.A. No. 7904-NC, Balick, V.C. (Del. Ch. Nov. 24, 1997).
47. DiSabatino v. Salicete, 671 A.2d 1344, 1350 (Del. 1996); State ex rel. Buckson v. Mancari, 223 A.2d 81, 82 (Del. 1966).
48. In re Grand Jury Investigation, 600 F.2d 420, 424.25 (3d Cir. 1979).
48.1. DiSabatino v. Salicete, 671 A.2d 1344, 1350 (Del. 1996).
49. 11 Del. C. §§ 1271, 4206(b).
50. 11 Del. C. §§ 1271, 4206(a).
51. Ch. Ct. R. 70(a); Fam. Ct. Civ. R. 70(a).
52. Schmidt v. Schmidt, 610 A.2d 1374, 1377 (Del. 1992).
53. Aveta Inc. v. Bengoa, 986 A.2d 1166, 1182 (Del. Ch. 2009), app. dismissed mem., 991 A.2d 17 (Del. 2010); State v. Atlas Sanitation Co., C.A. No. 9864, slip op. at 8, AlIen, C. (Del. Ch. Aug. 17, 1988).
© 2014 David L. Finger