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Peterson v. Peterson

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 26, 2016

Vineca Ann Peterson, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Robert Lee Peterson, Defendant and Appellant

         Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, North Central Judicial District, the Honorable Todd L. Cresap, Judge.

          Lynn M. Boughey, for plaintiff and appellee.

          James M. Cailao, for defendant and appellant.

          CROTHERS, JUSTICE.

         [¶ 1] Robert Peterson appeals from a district court order finding him in contempt of court for failing to pay spousal support. Robert Peterson argues the district court erred finding him in contempt, not modifying the spousal support obligation and awarding attorneys fees. The district court order is affirmed.

         I

         [¶ 2] Robert and Vineca Peterson divorced in 1996. The district court ordered Robert Peterson to pay spousal support of $1, 500 per month until Vineca Peterson either died or remarried. In January 2015 Vineca Peterson petitioned the district court to find Robert Peterson in contempt for failing to pay spousal support since September 2014. Robert Peterson filed a cross-motion seeking reduction or termination of his spousal support obligation. The district court found Robert Peterson in contempt for failing to pay spousal support, denied his request to modify or eliminate the support obligation and ordered him to reimburse Vineca Peterson's attorneys fees. Robert Peterson appeals.

         II

         [¶ 3] Robert Peterson argues the district court erred finding him in contempt for failing to pay spousal support.

"'In a civil contempt proceeding, a complainant must clearly and satisfactorily show that the alleged contempt has been committed. Civil contempt requires a willful and inexcusable intent to violate a court order. When reviewing a contempt sentence, the ultimate determination of whether or not a contempt has been committed is within the trial court's sound discretion. A trial court's finding of contempt will not be overturned unless there is a clear abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court acts in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or unconscionable manner or when it misinterprets or misapplies the law.'"

Montgomery v. Montgomery, 2003 ND 135, ¶ 18, 667 N.W.2d 611 (quoting BeauLac v. BeauLac, 2002 ND 126, ¶ 10, 649 N.W.2d 210).

         [¶ 4] The applicable standards for seeking sanctions for contempt are:

"A party seeking a contempt sanction under N.D.C.C. ch. 27-10 must clearly and satisfactorily prove the alleged contempt was committed. Under N.D.C.C § 27-10-01.1(1)(c), contempt of court includes intentional disobedience, resistance, or obstruction of the authority, process, or order of a court or other officer. To warrant a remedial sanction for contempt, there must be a willful and inexcusable intent to violate a court order. A court abuses its discretion when it acts in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or unconscionable manner or when it misinterprets or misapplies the law." Sall v. Sall, 2011 ND 202, ¶ 7, 804 N.W.2d 378 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         [¶ 5] We note that even if a party is unable to comply with the support order, it is not appropriate to simply ignore the order until, as here, the person to whom the support is ordered to be paid brings an action for contempt for failure to pay the court-ordered support. "Where a court has issued an order, even if erroneous, the party to whom the order was issued must obey it as long as it remains in force or until it is reversed, modified or set aside on appeal, and the failure to obey such an order is punishable as contempt of court." Flattum-Riemers v. Flattum-Riemers, 1999 ND 146, ¶ 11, 598 N.W.2d 499. If Robert Peterson believed he could no longer pay the court-ordered support, the appropriate procedure would have been to immediately move the court to abolish or reduce the court-ordered support based on change of circumstances, not, as Robert did, to unilaterally cease making the required payments.

         [¶ 6] "An inability to comply with an order is a defense to contempt proceedings, but the alleged contemnor has the burden to prove the defense." Prchal v. Prchal, 2011 ND 62, ¶ 5, 795 N.W.2d 693. The trial court has "broad discretion in deciding whether to hold a person in contempt...." Woodward v. Woodward, 2009 ND 214, ¶ 6, 776 N.W.2d 567. "Our review of a trial court's contempt decision is therefore limited to whether ...


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