June 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Sanctions Reversed for Lack of Notice and Hearing

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Melot on Friday, September 26, 2014.

Katherine Melot (plaintiff) and her husband Billy owe the government millions of dollars in federal taxes, and Billy is serving a prison sentence for tax crimes. The tax debt led the government to foreclose on the Melots’ properties. The Melots tried to stop the foreclosures using fraudulent methods — namely, by asserting liens on the property in the name of Stephen Byers, an incarcerated and destitute person. The liens and Byers’ motion to intervene in the foreclosure proceedings were signed by Mrs. Melot and they were mailed from the address of a friend of the Melots. The government suspected fraud and, at the hearing on the motion to intervene, presented evidence tending to show the scheme between Melot and Byers.

At the hearing, Mrs. Melot’s counsel requested notice prior to the imposition of any sanctions, and the magistrate noted that the Melots would be noticed on any hearing regarding the contempt. The magistrate certified criminal contempt by the Melots. More than a year later, the district court issued an order addressing the contempt certifications, and, recognizing the costs of prosecuting a criminal contempt matter, declined to order contempt, instead imposing the following sanctions: (1) removal of Mrs. Melot and her children from the property; (2) reimbursement of the government’s costs for the hearing; (3) striking the Melots’ pending motions, responses to motions, and requests for stays; and (4) imposing filing restrictions.

Mrs. Melot appealed the sanctions, arguing the district court violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause by imposing sanctions without giving the Melots notice and an opportunity to be heard. The Tenth Circuit agreed. Sanctions cannot be imposed without notice that sanctions are being considered by the court and a subsequent opportunity for the defending party to be heard. Although the magistrate had provided notice of the possibility of criminal contempt, there was no notice of the imposition of sanctions. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s sanction order and remanded for further proceedings, noting that the district court was not barred from re-imposing sanctions after proper notice and hearing.

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