Monday, September 11, 2006
Court of Appeal Voids Contempt Orders Against Local Attorney
Second District Says Orders’ Failure to Mention Prior Order Upon Which Contempt Was Based Critical
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A contempt order which fails to mention the prior order upon which the contempt is based is void, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Five Friday granted Northridge attorney Nina Ringgold’s petition for writ of habeas corpus and annulled two orders of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff finding Ringgold guilty of contempt.
Ringgold was a beneficiary and former trustee of a family trust, the record showed. The successor trustee, Sherman Oaks attorney Myer J. Sankary, obtained an order from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard G. Kolostian dated December 16, 2005, requiring Ringgold to turn over to Sankary within 48 hours all documents and keys necessary to transfer possession of personal property of the trust located in a public storage facility.
On December 19, Ringgold filed a notice of appeal of the order, but did not post a bond or obtain a stay.
Order to Show Cause
At a May 19, 2006 status conference, Encino attorney Mary-Felicia Apanius, representing a trust beneficiary, informed Hoff that Ringgold had yet to sign the necessary document to allow Sankary access to the stored property. Apanius pointed out that due to Ringgold’s delay, the trust beneficiary to whom the property in storage was bequeathed had passed away without ever receiving it.
Hoff issued an order to show cause re contempt against Ringgold and set it for hearing on June 2. Ringgold appeared on June 2, refused to sign the necessary document, and argued that the OSC was improper because it was not based on an affidavit, and that the matter was subject to an automatic stay.
Hoff told her:
“I’m going to find you in contempt, sentence you to five days in jail. You get a three-day stay, pursuant to the code, so that would be the 7th. . . .
“So come up here on the 7th of June ready to surrender for your five days. And you can cure that anytime you want by signing that document.”
The court’s minute order stated:
“The Court orders Ms. Nina Ringgold to sign the [document] that would allow counsel Mary-Felicia Apanius to transfer possession of the personal property of decedents . . . located in a storage unit . . . . Ms. Nina Ringgold indicates, in open court, her refusal to review and sign said [document].
“The Court finds Nina Ringgold in direct contempt of the Court’s order. Nina Ringgold is sentenced to the County Jail for five (5) days. Execution of sentence is stayed until June 7, 2006. Court states that Nina Ringgold may cure this contempt by signing said order.
“The matter is continued to June 7, 2006 at 9:00 a.m. in this department for execution of sentence.”
Ringgold appeared on June 7 and was handed a written order dated June 6, erroneously entitled, “Order to Show Cause Re Contempt,” which set forth a statement of the events but made no reference to Kolostian’s December 16 order.
Ringgold expressed confusion as to what the June 6 order was and was told by Hoff that it was a “recitation of what transpired the other day.”
Hoff gave Ringgold several more opportunities to sign the storage document, and she refused each time saying she needed assistance of counsel. Eventually Hoff remanded her, saying he was “sorry.”
That same day, Ringgold filed a writ of habeas corpus and this district issued a temporary stay order of the jail sentence, and later issued an OSC.
Presiding Justice Paul Turner, writing for the Court of Appeal, concluded:
“The question before us is whether the contempt orders in this case contain sufficient facts to show Ms. Ringgold’s conduct was contemptuous. We find they do not.”
“The orders do not recite that on December 16, 2005, Ms. Ringgold was ordered to cooperate and turn over all documents and keys that would allow the trustee to transfer the property in the storage unit to those entitled to possess it. That Ms. Ringgold was ordered to sign a document and she refused to do so are insufficient facts by themselves to satisfy the jurisdictional requirements . . . [for contempt], as construed by the Supreme Court. The lawfulness of the June 2, 2006 oral order to sign the document was premised on the December 16, 2005 order. As a result, the contempt order is void and must be annulled.”
The justice explained that “had the contempt orders referred with the requisite particularity to the December 16, 2005 order, they would have been valid.”
Turner offered the following advice to judges:
“On an even more practical level, the California Supreme Court has only invalidated written contempt orders because they said too little. Our Supreme Court has never invalidated a written contempt order because it said too much.”
Turner also had a warning for Ringgold:
“In the event there are future violations of orders, the trial court retains the power to refer Ms. Ringgold to the State Bar of California. If she is again held in contempt for violation of a lawful court order, it is mandatory that she be referred to the State Bar of California.
“Finally, nothing in this opinion should be construed as a statement of views that future efforts to compel Ms. Ringgold to execute appropriate documents would be unlawful. All we are holding is that the written orders under review cannot sustain the June 2, 2006 contempt determination. Her conduct on that date can serve as a basis of a contempt order. The order to sign the document allowing access to the storage unit is otherwise lawful. Future efforts can be made to compel her to obey court orders including the use of contempt powers with the application of the incarceration option.”
Justices Orville A. Armstrong and Paul Boland, sitting on assignment, concurred in the opinion.
Calls to Ringgold, Sankary and Apanius were not returned.
The case is In re Ringgold, B191471.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company