June 19, 2019

Colorado Supreme Court: In re Marriage of Weis

on June 7, 2010.

Civil and criminal contempt — bankruptcy automatic stay — domestic support obligation — effect of bankruptcy on contempt proceedings — property that is not property of the estate — findings necessary for criminal contempt

In her separation agreement, Melanie Bergeron agreed to pay credit card debts jointly owed with her former spouse, Greg Weis. When she failed to pay them, creditors instituted collection actions against Weis, who then sought contempt citations against Bergeron. The trial court found Bergeron in contempt.
Bergeron sought to vacate the contempt order based on the fact that she had filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy while the contempt proceedings were pending and that therefore the bankruptcy automatic stay barred the proceedings. The trial court found that the contempt proceedings fit within two exceptions to the automatic stay, one that applies to criminal proceedings, see 11 U.S.C. § 362(b)(1), and one that applies when payment is sought for a domestic support obligation from property that is not part of the bankruptcy estate, see 11 U.S.C. § 362(b)(2)(B). The trial court imposed a sixty-day sentence. We vacate the trial court’s order and make the rule absolute.
First, while the credit card debts were properly classified as domestic support obligations, there is no evidence that payment of the debts could be collected from non-estate funds. In fact, while imposing the sentence, the trial court found Bergeron was not then able to pay. Second, the contempt proceedings did not fit within the exception for criminal proceedings, as they were primarily civil, rather than criminal, in nature. The contempt could have been purged; the proceedings were primarily designed to vindicate the interests of a third party, rather than the dignity of the court; and findings necessary to a criminal contempt, as required by In re Marriage of Nussbeck, 974 P.2d 493, 498 (Colo. 1999), were not made. Thus, the automatic stay applied.

Summary and full case available here.

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