In its October 20, 2015 decision in El-Dehdan v. El-Dehdan, New York’s highest court restates the elements of civil contempt, the burdens of proof needed to support a finding, and the effect of the assertion of a Fifth Amendment privilege against incrimination. Doing so, the Court of Appeals affirmed a 2013 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, which in turn upheld the finding of civil contempt made by Kings County Supreme Court Justice Eric I. Prus.

In January 2010, an Order to Show Cause was signed to bring on the wife’s motion to hold the husband in contempt for having violated a 2008 order that supposedly restrained the transfer of assets. The husband had transferred certain parcels of realty. In addition to scheduling a hearing on the contempt motion, a Temporary Restraining Order was issued directing the husband to deposit immediately with the wife’s attorney the sum of $950,000.00 “which is the sum of money he purportedly received from the transfer of [the property] 171 Ainslie Street, Brooklyn, New York and 64-17 60th Road, Maspeth, New York, minus the money paid for [the] real estate broker, transfer taxes and payment of the underlying mortgage.” The husband was personally served with this Order to Show Cause.

As it turns out, the 2008 order did not, in fact, prohibit the transactions in which the husband engaged. However, here, the husband was not found in civil contempt for having violated the 2008 order, but for violating the Temporary Restraining Order contained in the January, 2010 Order to Show Cause that looked to preserve marital assets and the status quo while the court considered whether the husband violated the 2008 order.


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The Second Department used its December 18th decision in El-Dehdan v. El-Dehdan to clarify the parties’ relative burdens of proof on an application for contempt where the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination has been invoked. The court also harmonized inconsistencies in case law as to the elements of civil contempt. The court held that there was no element of willfulness which needed to be shown to establish civil contempt, and that an adverse inference could be drawn from the invocation of the privilege against self-incrimination.

It is not necessary that the disobedience be deliberate or willful; rather, the mere act of disobedience, regardless of its motive, is sufficient if such disobedience defeats, impairs, impedes, or prejudices the rights or remedies of a party.

In this matrimonial action, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Eric I. Prus had held the husband in contempt of court for disobeying a court order dated January 29, 2010, which required him to deposit with the wife’s attorney the proceeds of a certain 2009 real estate transaction. Justice Prus imposed a civil sanction which allowed him to purge the contempt to avoid incarceration.

The husband appealed, contending that the wife failed to satisfy her burden of proof and that the Supreme Court improperly drew an adverse inference against him for invoking his privilege against self-incrimination during the contempt hearing.


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