Court Dismisses Appeal of Litigant Who Disobeys Court Orders

In a fascinating case, the Appellate Division, as a punishment, dismissed the appeal of a litigant who deliberately and continuously disobeyed court orders.

In the case Wechsler v. Wechsler, a husband was ordered to pay to his wife $22,770,623 as equitable distribution. The husband filed an appeal and refused to pay any part of the judgment, despite repeated court orders requiring his immediate compliance.

As a result of the husband’s willful disobedience of court orders, the husband was found to be in contempt of court. The court issued an arrest warrant and ordered the husband, who resided in Colorado,  to appear in Court. The husband, claiming ill health, disobeyed this order as well.

The Court applying the doctrine of fugitive disentitlement, dismissed the husband’s appeal of the underlying judgment.

"The fugitive disentitlement doctrine permits a court to dismiss an appeal if the party seeking relief is a fugitive while the matter is pending' (Degen v United States, 517 US 820, 824 [1996]; see Ortega-Rodriguez v United States, 507 US 234, 242 [1993]). The doctrine is based on the inherent power of courts to enforce their judgments (see Degen v United States, supra at 823), and it has long been recognized and applied to those who evade the law while simultaneously seeking its protection (see Bonahan v Nebraska, 125 US 692 [1887]; Smith v United States, 94 US 97 [1876])" (Matter of Skiff-Murray v Murray, 305 AD2d 751, 752 [2003]). The doctrine applies in civil cases provided there is a nexus between the appellant's fugitive status and the appellate proceedings (id. at 753). The nexus requirement is satisfied where the appellant's absence frustrates enforcement of the civil judgment (id.). The principal rationales for the doctrine include: (1) assuring the enforceability of any decision that may be rendered against the fugitive; (2) imposing a penalty for flouting the judicial process; (3) discouraging flights from justice and promoting the efficient operation of the courts; and (4) avoiding prejudice to the non-fugitive party (Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield v Finkelstein, 111 F3d 278, 280 [2d Cir 1997]). . .

Here, appellant, having been adjudicated in contempt of court and made the subject of an arrest warrant, is a fugitive (see Skiff-Murray, supra; Finkelstein; supra). That appellant is a resident of Colorado is immaterial; he is wanted in New York pursuant to a warrant and refuses to return to this State. Furthermore, there is a nexus between appellant's fugitive status and the appellate proceedings. Appellant's fugitive status resulted from his failure to comply with an order enforcing the judgment of divorce requiring him to transfer to respondent substantial assets, and his refusal to return to New York. Indeed, appellant's counsel acknowledged to Supreme Court at the hearing on appellant's motion to reduce the amount of money he owed respondent that he did not appear in court as directed because he was afraid of being arrested and incarcerated pursuant to the warrant. Appellant's appeal is from the judgment of divorce, the underlying charter of his financial obligations to respondent, and all post-judgment proceedings before Supreme Court and this Court have revolved around that charter. Appellant's absence from the State owing to his fugitive status has, as evidenced by the multiple motions and applications made before both Supreme Court and this Court, frustrated respondent's enforcement of the judgment of divorce. Moreover, under these circumstances, the principal rationales for the doctrine — imposing a penalty for flouting the judicial process, discouraging flights from justice and promoting the efficient operation of the courts, and avoiding prejudice to the non-fugitive party — would be vindicated by dismissing the appeal.

At bottom, appellant has willfully remained outside of New York in order to avoid the jurisdiction and authority of the courts of this State (James, 27 AD2d at 814), and we will not afford him review of the judgment of divorce since he has evaded court mandates

In short, the Appellate Division simply had enough and held that it would not aid a litigant who flagrantly and deliberately disregarded its orders.

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