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[U] Thompson v. Robinson

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 11, 2014

GENEANE S. THOMPSON, Appellee
v.
LAMONT D. ROBINSON, Appellant BROOKE THOMPSON, Appellee
v.
LAMONT D. ROBINSON, Appellant IVEY M. WILLIAMS, Appellee
v.
LAMONT D. ROBINSON, Appellant BARBARA THOMPSON, Appellee
v.
LAMONT D. ROBINSON, Appellant BETTY WILSON, Appellee
v.
LAMONT D. ROBINSON, Appellant

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Order entered April 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Domestic Relations, at No(s): 2010-63361 (S) (407112037), 1988-61987 (S) (041002304), 2002-61336 (S) (937104450), 1986-60536 (S) (618002322), 1989-60583 (S) (17002310)

BEFORE: BENDER, P.J., OTT, J. and STRASSBURGER, [*] J.

MEMORANDUM

STRASSBURGER, J.

In these consolidated appeals, Lamont D. Robinson (Appellant) appeals from the April 30, 2013 order finding him in civil contempt for failure to pay child support. We affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with this memorandum.

Appellant is subject to support orders in each of the five cases captioned above, and was in arrears on all of them at the time of the hearing for a total of $32, 891.48. In each of the cases from the 1980s, Appellant was ordered to make monthly payments on arrears of approximately $43.40. In the 2010 case, Appellant was subject to an order to pay monthly $50.00 in support and $5.00 on arrears. In the 2002 case, the respective monthly payments were to be $130.36 and $21.73.

Appellant had not made a single payment in any of these cases for more than a year when he appeared pro se for contempt proceedings on April 30, 2013. The trial court found Appellant in contempt in each of the five cases and sentenced him to five consecutive sentences of six months of imprisonment, with a purge amount of $750.00 on each case.

Appellant, through counsel, timely filed a motion for reconsideration of the contempt sentences, claiming that he did not have the present ability to pay the purge amounts. On May 20, 2013, the trial court entered an order scheduling a hearing on the motion to take place on June 10, 2013. On May 30, 2013, Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court. The following day, the trial court entered an order cancelling the hearing on the motion for reconsideration.

Both Appellant and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925. Appellant presents the following questions on appeal, which we have renumbered for ease of disposition.

[1.] Whether Appellant at a civil contempt hearing for failure to pay child support was denied his constitutional right to counsel when he was not provided counsel for the hearing?
[2.] Whether the trial court abused its discretion in finding the Appellant in contempt, where the Appellant's failure to pay support was not willful but due to his indigency?
[3.] Whether the evidence was insufficient to establish the Appellant had the present ability to comply with the trial court's orders to pay the purge amounts?

Appellant's Brief at 5 (trial court answers and some capitalization omitted).

We first address Appellant's argument that he was denied his constitutional right to counsel at the contempt hearing. Appellant relies upon the United States Supreme Court's decision in Turner v. Rogers, 131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011), to establish the claimed constitutional right. Therein, the Court held as follows.

We … hold that the Due Process Clause does not automatically require the provision of counsel at civil contempt proceedings to an indigent individual who is subject to a child support order, even if that individual faces incarceration (for up to a year). In particular, that Clause does not require the provision of counsel where the opposing parent or other custodian (to whom support funds are owed) is not represented by counsel and the State provides alternative procedural safeguards equivalent to those we have mentioned (adequate notice of the importance of ability to pay, fair opportunity to present, and to dispute, relevant information, and court findings).
We do not address civil contempt proceedings where the underlying child support payment is owed to the State, for example, for reimbursement of welfare funds paid to the parent with custody. … Neither do we address what due process requires in an unusually complex case where a defendant can fairly be represented only by a trained advocate.

Id. at 2520 (citations and quotations omitted; emphasis in original).

Appellant claims that there is no record that he received notice that his ability to pay was a critical issue, or that he was asked to provide relevant financial information. "Without these procedural safeguards, " he argues, "Appellant should have been provided with counsel." Appellant's Brief at 24. Further, Appellant argues that this case was complex because it "involved five orders, five plaintiffs, and subjected Appellant to two and one-half years [of] incarceration." Id.

The Bucks County District Attorney, as Title IV-D counsel, [1] notes that none of the plaintiffs in the cases appeared or was represented by counsel, and the Commonwealth did not make any argument at the hearing.[2] The Commonwealth also argues that this case was not complicated: "Appellant owed money and had not paid in over a year. The question was why he failed to comply with the court orders, and Appellant was certainly capable of answering that question and presenting evidence on the issue without the assistance of an attorney." Commonwealth's Brief at 10.

Based on our review of the record, we cannot conclude that Appellant was denied a constitutional right to counsel in this case. We agree with the Commonwealth that the cases and issues were not complicated at all: (1) why did Appellant not pay, and (2) how much money did Appellant have the ability to pay at the time of the hearing. The other parties were not represented by counsel. Most importantly, procedural safeguards sufficient to satisfy due process do appear of record in this case. The March 13, 2013 order of court scheduling the contempt hearing provided as follows, in relevant part.

Legal proceedings have been brought against you alleging you have willfully disobeyed an Order of Court.

1. A critical issue in the contempt proceeding is your ability to pay and comply with the terms of the support order. If you wish to defend against the claims set forth in the attached Petition for Contempt, you may, but are not required to, file in writing with the Court your defenses or objections.
** *
3. If the Court finds that you have willfully failed to comply with its order you may be found in contempt of court and committed to jail, fined, or both.
You will have the opportunity to disclose income, other financial information and any relevant personal information at the conference/hearing so that the Court can determine if you have an ability to pay. You may also tell the Court about any unusual expenses that may affect your income. Fill out the enclosed Income and Expense Statement form and bring it with you.
** *
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO A LAWYER, WHO MAY ATTEND THE CONFERENCE/HEARING AND REPRESENT YOU. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A LAWYER, GO TO OR TELEPHONE THE OFFICE SET FORTH BELOW. THIS OFFICE CAN ...

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