In Department of Revenue Child Support Enforcement v. Grullon, 485 Mass. 129 (2020), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) (Cypher, J.) vacated the trial court’s judgment of contempt, holding that both the trial judge and the Department of Revenue (“Department”) failed to afford the defendant, the non-custodial father (“Father”), the procedural due process safeguards to which he was entitled under federal and state law and under the Department’s own policies. The opinion sets forth the procedural safeguards that a defendant in a child support contempt proceeding must be provided. It also reaffirmed that a defendant’s ability to pay remains the critical inquiry when determining whether a defendant is in contempt and facing possible incarceration.
Mother, the custodial parent, filed a pro se complaint for civil contempt alleging that Father was in arrears on his child support obligation. The complaint was served by the Department on behalf of Mother and marked “DOR full service case,” indicating the Department’s involvement and assistance in the matter. Father, also appearing pro se, filed an answer and counterclaim for modification, claiming that he was unable to meet his obligation due to his past incarceration and subsequent difficulty finding employment. Accordingly, he requested a reduction in his child support obligation.
At a hearing, the Department argued that Father was in contempt and sought a period of incarceration of the Father subject to a $500 purge amount. Without making any factual findings, the Judge entered a judgment, found Father in contempt and sentenced him to ten days in the house of correction, subject to the $500 purge amount. Because Father was unable to pay the purge amount, he was taken into custody and incarcerated for ten days.
Father appealed and the SJC granted an application for direct appellate review.
The SJC’s Decision
Looking first to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431 (2011), the SJC identified four safeguards that needed to be provided to a defendant in a contempt proceeding: “(1) notice to the defendant that his ‘ability to pay’ is a critical issue in the contempt proceeding; (2) the use of a form (or the equivalent) to elicit relevant financial information; (3) an opportunity at the hearing for the defendant to respond to statements and questions about his financial status…; and (4) an express finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.” Id. at 447-48.
The SJC then turned to the federal regulations that were enacted to reflect the Turner requirements, which include screening whether defendants have the ability to pay; providing information to the court about defendants’ ability to pay; and providing defendants with clear notice that their ability to pay constitutes the critical question in civil contempt actions. 45 C.F.R. §303.6(c)(4).
Finally, the SJC noted that the Department has adopted the federal guidance in a civil contempt policy and procedures memorandum, which states that “[i]t is the [Department’s] obligation to ensure that there is sufficient evidence that the parent has a present ability to pay before…assisting with service of a pro se customer’s complaint for contempt.” Grullon, 485 Mass. at 135. Further, “[a] parent’s present ability to pay is the key issue at every step of the contempt process—from screening through court hearings.” Id.
In vacating the judgment of contempt, the SJC held that the failure of both the trial judge and Department to afford Father with the Turner safeguards or their equivalent, or to comply with federal regulations, state law or the Department’s own policy, resulted in Father being wrongfully found guilty of civil contempt and incarcerated for ten days.
First, the Court concluded that the Department did not provide Father with notice that “his ‘ability to pay’ [was] a critical issue in the contempt proceeding.” Id., quoting Turner, 564 U.S. at 447.
Second, the Court could not determine whether the trial judge or the Department ever assessed Father’s financial disclosure form, which clearly indicated Father’s inability to pay. Id. at 136. Accordingly, the SJC held that the Department should not have requested that Father be incarcerated. Further, the SJC opined that “[b]ased on the lack of discussion at the hearing of the contents of the financial disclosure form and the assertion by counsel for the Department that [Father] should be incarcerated, it appears the [Father’s disclosure] form, although complete, was not used in any meaningful manner[.]” Id.
Third, the Court concluded that the trial judge denied Father “an opportunity to ‘respond to statements and questions about his financial status[.]’” Id. at 136, quoting Turner, 564 U.S. at 448. Once the trial judge decided to sentence Father, she failed to inquire whether he had the present ability to pay his child support.
Finally, the SJC noted that the trial judge did not make an express finding that Father had the ability to pay the child support arrearages or the purge amount. Id. at 137. Rather, the SJC highlighted that the transcript “reveal[ed] that the judge decided to find the defendant in civil contempt not because of an assessment of his ability to pay, but because of his ‘poor attitude.’ This decision by the judge was error, as it disregarded the procedural safeguard of ability to pay.” Id.
Of note, although briefed, the SJC left unanswered the question of whether an indigent non-custodial parent who received these procedural safeguards must be provided with counsel. Id. at 138.
In Grullon, the SJC set forth a roadmap for the procedural due process safeguards that courts and the Department must follow before a defendant can be found in contempt and incarcerated for failing to pay child support. As the late Chief Justice Gants alluded to in his concurring opinion, how and whether these safeguards will be implemented in the future is unknown. Thus, family law attorneys should familiarize themselves with these safeguards to ensure that a defendant is not found in contempt or incarcerated without having been afforded the full panoply of these protections and without a judge’s explicit finding of a defendant’s ability to pay.
Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP. Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation. Andrea is a current member of the Boston Bar Journal.
Kelly A. Schwartz is an associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP. Her practice is in family law, which includes matters involving divorce, child custody, alimony, child support, and asset division.