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Legal Memorandum: Definition of Civil Contempt

Issue: What is the definition of civil contempt?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Civil contempt; Definition
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 28 F.3d 396; 318 F.3d 545; 47 F.3d 1311
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 03/01/2007

“The imposition of contempt is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard and will only be disturbed if there is an error of law or a clearly erroneous finding of fact.”  Harris v. City of Philadelphia, 47 F.3d 1311, 1321 (3d Cir. 1995).

It is settled in the Third Circuit that in order to prove civil contempt, the court must find that (1) there was a valid court order; (2) the contemnor knew of the order; and (3) the contemnor disobeyed the order.  John T. v. The Del. County Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545, 552 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Harris, 47 F.3d at 1326).  A contempt of court decision may not stand absent a finding of the alleged contemnor’s knowledge.  United States v. Phillips, 562 F. Supp. 726, 728 (E.D. Pa. 1983).  But although proof beyond a reasonable doubt of actual knowledge is necessary for finding of criminal contempt, id., at 728, the courts have allowed proof of constructive knowledge to support a finding of civil contempt, McGoff v. Rapone, 78 F.R.D. 8, 30-31 (E.D. Pa. 1978) (stating “actual or constructive knowledge” required; finding that the defendants “knew or should have known” that the decree was enforceable by a contempt remedy).  See Phillips, 562 F. Supp. at 728 (observing that proof of actual notice is required to support a finding of criminal contempt, and suggesting that “mere constructive notice” would suffice to support a finding of civil contempt).  See also John T., […]

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