A Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas judge has attempted to strike a balance between finding a delinquent father in contempt for willfully violating a child support order and being lenient because the payments exceeded the father’s earnings.
In an opinion regarding a contempt order in Coffey v. Behl issued March 17, Judge Bradford H. Charles sent defendant Christopher D. Behl, a father of two, to jail for 30 days and remanded the case back to the domestic relations master with the instruction to “transcend” an analysis of the payment recommendation based on the higher earning capacity of the father’s previous job.
“How do we reconcile the tension between earning capacity and ‘willful violation’ needed for a contempt finding? The answer to this dilemma can be excruciatingly difficult to discern,” Charles said. “Of necessity, the court’s decision must be driven by the exigencies and equities of each specific fact pattern. Often, compromise decisions that please neither the plaintiff nor the defendant will become necessary.”
According to Charles, Behl and Lisa K. Coffey are the parents of two young children, and Coffey sought child support in August 2010. Behl was working at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, earning $14.52 per hour, and the domestic relations office recommended he pay $600 in child support per month.
Behl later motioned for a modification of support, indicating that he had been fired and could no longer pay the child support. Coffey noted that Behl had been fired for absenteeism, and that he had been warned before being fired. Behl only responded that he could not afford to get to work; however, that excuse was rejected.
The domestic relations master recommended that, based on Behl’s previous earnings, he pay $876 per month.
On appeal, Behl argued that he had not been able to afford gas to drive to work; however, the court said it suspected Behl of spending money on “unnecessary indulgences such as drugs and gambling.” Behl denied the accusations, but the payments were not reduced.
At another modification hearing, Behl showed that he had started working as a waiter at Outback Steakhouse, earning $7.50 per hour, and that he took home $632 in wages and tips in the first three weeks.
The domestic relations master, however, did not lessen the recommended payment determination, and instead based it upon the earnings Behl made while working at the medical center. The domestic relations master also noted that Behl had not diligently sought jobs more commensurate with his previous wage and work experience, and that he had paid $6,000 in future rent for his apartment, admittedly because he did not want the money to be seized by the court.
“Not to anyone’s surprise,” Charles said, Behl failed to pay the child support, and a petition for contempt was filed. Behl’s arrears totaled more than $4,600, Charles said.
Behl made a payment of $3,000, but, at the contempt hearing, stated that the support orders exceeded his total income as a waiter, and that he had drained his pension. Behl told the court, Charles said, that he was “tapped out” and that he had “nothing more that I can give toward support.”
According to Charles, contempt decisions are typically rendered in open court soon after arguments; “however, much about the above-referenced case troubled this jurist to the point where it could not have been appropriate to render an immediate ‘off the cuff’ decision.”
Charles noted that willful noncompliance presupposes that the obligor has the ability to pay his obligation. He further noted that the state Superior Court’s 1985 decision in Commonwealth ex rel. Cochran v. Cochran shows that obligors can’t avoid contempt by choosing to prioritize other financial needs over their children’s needs. Under 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 1910.16-2(d)(1), he said, reductions also won’t be granted if there is a voluntary reduction of income.
Charles said that Behl fabricated an excuse for his termination at the medical center, and that he has taken multiple steps to avoid paying child support, including challenging paternity and paying his rent several months in advance. Behl’s financial situation was of his own choosing, Charles said; however, he also determined that the $876 monthly child-support payments were too great.
Charles said that the domestic relations master’s previous determinations did not include an analysis of all the earning capacity factors outlined in the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines. Charles sent the case back to the domestic relations master and urged it to consider more than Behl’s former earnings and the $6,000 he paid in future rent.
“As much as the equities of this case must be analyzed against [Behl], we are forced to also recognize that a child support order of $876 per month against [Behl] is neither sustainable nor enforceable on a long-term basis,” Charles said. “Any decision we render today must account for this recognition.”
Along with sending the case back to the domestic relations master, Charles decided to send Behl to jail for 30 days and impose a $2,000 purge payment.
A call to the Domestic Relations Office seeking comment was not returned. Behl represented himself pro se in the matter.
(Copies of the 19-page opinion in Coffey v. Behl, PICS No. 14-0496, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •