In the first New York appellate decision to rule on the issue, the Appellate Division, Second Department held in its February 28, 2018 opinion in Spencer v. Spencer, that violations of matrimonial action “Automatic Orders” can be grounds for a finding of civil contempt, but an application for that relief must be made before the entry of the judgment of divorce.
The facts are straightforward. Following the entry of her November, 2015 divorce judgment, the wife discovered that while the divorce action was pending, her husband sold a warehouse in Brooklyn, without the knowledge or consent of the wife or the court. He netted $300,000.00.
Under Court Rule 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a, the listed orders are binding upon a plaintiff upon commencement of the matrimonial action and upon a defendant upon service of the summons or summons and complaint (see Domestic Relations Law § 236[B][b]). Automatic Orders seek to preserve the status quo while the action is pending, by prohibiting the transfer or encumbrance of real and personal property and retirement funds, the accumulation of unreasonable debt, and changes in beneficiaries on existing health and life insurance policies.
The wife, then, sought to hold the husband in civil contempt (Judiciary Law §753). After a hearing, Richmond County Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico granted that motion. Justice DiDomenico directed that, unless the defendant purged the contempt by immediately paying $150,000 to the wife, the husband would be incarcerated every weekend for a period of six months. The husband appealed.