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State v. Sims

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

December 7, 2017


          Lawrence-Berrey, A.C.J.

         Courts are authorized to impose two types of statutory sanctions, remedial or punitive. Remedial sanctions may be summarily imposed for the purpose of coercing a person to perform an act that is yet in the person's power to perform. Punitive sanctions, however, are meant to punish a past contempt of court. By statute, unless the contemptuous act occurred in the court's presence, courts may not summarily impose punitive sanctions. We hold that where a court imposes summary sanctions for contempt that did not occur in its presence, statutory sanctions are limited to remedial sanctions.

         In determining whether monetary sanctions are remedial, we focus on the date the trial court made its contempt finding, even if the finding was not then reduced to a written order or judgment. Only monetary sanctions that accrue from the date of the contempt finding are remedial, because only to this extent is the act that the court seeks to coerce within the person's power to perform.

         The State must consent to being held to interest on its debts, including postjudgment interest on monetary statutory sanctions. A waiver of sovereign immunity for purposes of postjudgment interest can be either express or implied. A waiver may be implied in those situations where the legislature has enacted a statute that provides for comprehensive relief. By enacting the contempt of court statute, chapter 7.21 RCW, the legislature authorized full compensation to parties injured by contemptuous acts. We, therefore, hold that the State has impliedly waived its sovereign immunity from postjudgment interest on statutory sanctions.

         Here, the trial court summarily imposed monetary sanctions against the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) for not timely completing mental health evaluations for criminal defendants. We reverse the sanctions only to the extent they are punitive, but affirm the award of postjudgment interest.


         The parties agree that the facts associated with Anthony Sims's appeal serve as a template for the other appeals. We limit our discussion of the facts accordingly.

         The State charged Mr. Sims with second degree burglary. A question concerning Mr. Sims's competency arose, and on October 14, 2014, the criminal case was stayed pending a competency evaluation. On November 13, Mr. Sims filed a motion to compel his competency evaluation. On November 20, the trial court heard argument concerning the motion. During argument, DSHS noted that Mr. Sims was and always had been scheduled to have his evaluation on December 15. At the conclusion of the November 20 argument, the trial court ordered DSHS to perform Mr. Sims's competency evaluation by December 2. The trial court's order was not reduced to written form.

         On November 26, 2014, Mr. Sims filed a motion asking the trial court to order DSHS to show cause for its failure to schedule his evaluation in compliance with the court's November 20 order. Mr. Sims asked the trial court to impose remedial sanctions of $500 per day against DSHS for every day past December 2 until he received his competency evaluation.

         On December 10, DSHS filed a response. In addition to other objections, DSHS argued that portions of the requested sanctions were retroactive punitive sanctions and, thus, were unable to be adjudicated in the current action.

         On December 11 and 12, the trial court heard Mr. Sims's motion together with motions filed by five other similarly situated defendants. On December 12, the trial court orally ruled that the sanctions would be $200 per day from the ordered deadline until the contempt was purged by DSHS completing Mr. Sims's competency evaluation. The court explained that the sanctions were remedial sanctions ordered in accordance with RCW 7.21.030, rather than in accordance with its inherent authority. The court directed the funds to go to the registry of the court, pending a later final disposition; but compensation to the defendants for actual losses was not contemplated.[1] Mr. Sims's competency evaluation occurred as originally scheduled, on December 15, 2014.

         The trial court did not enter a written contempt order with findings until January 16, 2015. The written order discussed the court's reasoning that high level governmental and budgetary decisions drove the intentional violation of the court's order, by way of lack of resources for DSHS services in eastern Washington. The court found DSHS in contempt for violating its November 20 order, and sanctioned DSHS $200 per day from December 2 through December 14.

         The trial court held several other hearings in a similar fashion, where groups of defendants whose competency evaluations were not completed timely sought sanctions. At the conclusion of each hearing, the court-usually weeks later-entered a written order of contempt supported by findings.

         The principal amounts of the sanctions were set forth in 28 individual orders of contempt and total $337, 500. Each judgment also includes interest at 12 percent per year.

         DSHS timely appealed the orders imposing sanctions and the judgments in each of the 26 cases. We consolidated the appeals because they all presented similar legal issues.



         DSHS first argues that the sanctions must be stricken to the extent they are punitive. We agree with this portion of DSHS's argument.

         I. The trial court did not comply with the procedures for imposing punitive sanctions and, therefore, it had no authority to impose such sanctions

          This court reviews de novo a trial court's authority to impose contempt sanctions. In re Dependency of A.K., 162 Wn.2d 632, 644, 174 P.3d 11 (2007). There are two forms of statutory contempt sanctions, remedial and punitive. A remedial sanction is "a sanction imposed for coercing performance when the contempt consists of the omission or refusal to perform an act that is yet in the person's power to perform." RCW 7.21.010(3). A remedial sanction is sometimes referred to as coercive, because the goal of the sanction is to coerce a party to comply with a court order. In re Pers. Restraint of King, 110 Wn.2d 793, 800, 756 P.2d 1303 (1988). A remedial sanction must contain a purge clause or it loses its coercive character and becomes punitive. In re Rapid Settlements, Ltd., 189 Wn.App. 584, 613, 359 P.3d 823 (2015), review denied, 185 Wn.2d 1020, 369 P.3d 500 (2016).

         A punitive sanction is "a sanction imposed to punish a past contempt of court for the purpose of upholding the authority of the court." RCW 7.21.010(2). Such sanctions do not afford the party an opportunity to purge the contempt. State v. Buckley, 83 Wn.App. 707, 711, 924 P.2d 40 (1996). A court may punish the past contemptuous act with a fine and/or imprisonment. RCW 7.21.050(2). Because of due process concerns, RCW 7.21.040 provides a procedure to ensure that a person facing such a sanction actually committed the contemptuous act. In re M.B., 101 Wn.App. 425, 453, 3 P.3d 780 (2000). Unless the contemptuous act occurred in the presence of a judge certifying the same, the procedure requires the county prosecutor or city attorney to file a complaint or an information, and for a trial to occur before a neutral judge. RCW 7.21.040(2), .050(1); see also In re Mowery, 141 Wn.App. 263, 276, 169 P.3d 835 (2007).

         Here, the trial court did not afford DSHS the procedures required under RCW 7.21.040(2). For this reason, the trial court was without authority to impose punitive sanctions.

         The respondents put forth various arguments, mostly citing federal authorities, why the sanctions should be deemed remedial. For instance, they discuss the intent of the sanctions, the need for sanctions against DSHS, and the arguable compensatory nature of the sanctions. We are unpersuaded by their arguments.

         The legislature defined the distinction between remedial and punitive sanctions. The legislature defined a remedial sanction as a sanction imposed "for the purpose of coercing performance when the contempt consists of... an act that is yet in the person's power to perform." RCW 7.21.010(3) (emphasis added). When the trial court, for example, found DSHS in contempt on December 12, 2014, DSHS could not perform Mr. Sims's competency evaluation any earlier than that date. To the extent the sanctions punish DSHS for its failure to perform Mr. Sims's competency evaluation prior to December 12, 2014, those sanctions were punitive and we order the trial court to strike them

          2. RCW 7.21.030(2)(b) authorizes a limited forfeiture for each day the contempt of court ...

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