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Contempt Order Extends Life of Georgia Jail Settlement Agreement

Georgia's Third Division Court of Appeals has held that the
failure to purge a contempt finding was sufficient to extend the duration
of a settlement agreement. The Georgia trial court found that Dekalb
County and various county officials had failed to purge a finding that
they were in contempt of an order of the court, which incorporated a
settlement agreement involving medical care at the county jail.

On March 26, 2001, Dekalb County jail prisoners and Dekalb County entered
into a settlement agreement that required the county to implement certain
policies and procedures to improve the medical care provided to jail
prisoners. The agreement provided Dr. Robert Greifinger would visit the
jail regularly, at the county's expense, to monitor the county's
compliance with the agreement. The agreement also provided that the term
of this settlement and release agreement shall be for eighteen months from
the date of execution." In an order dated March 26, 2001, the trial court
adopted the agreement and ordered the parties to comply with it.

Three months later, the prisoners moved the court to find the county in
contempt, arguing the conditions at the jail had worsened, rather than
improved. After a hearing, the court granted the motion and held the
county in civil and criminal contempt. The contempt order, dated November
30, 2001, set forth various conditions that the county must meet to purge
itself of the civil contempt, including pay Dr. Greifinger to make bi-
monthly inspections of the jail until he determined that the county was in
substantial compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement on two
consecutive inspections. With respect to the finding of criminal
contempt, the order expressly reserved ruling on punitive sanctions. The
county appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed. See: Dorsey v.
Adams, 255 GA. App. 257, 564 S.E. 2d 847 (2002).

On September 11, 2002, the county filed a motion to purge contempt. Two
days later, the court held an evidentiary hearing, at which Dr. Greifinger
testified that he had seen tremendous improvement" in the medical care at
the jail during his most recent inspection and the sheriff was
now utilizing his best efforts in good faith" to enforce the terms of the
settlement agreement. Dr. Greifinger, however, also testified that there
remained serious deficiencies" in medical care at the jail and that the
county still was not close" to complying with most of the conditions of
the November 2001 contempt order.

When the court addressed the agreement's expiration date, the county took
the position that it would expire on September 26, 2002, 18 months after its
execution. To allow the parties to brief the court, it postponed ruling
on whether the county had purged itself of contempt, and on when the
agreement would expire.

On October 9, 2002, the Dekalb County Attorney sent Dr. Greifinger a
letter stating that because the settlement had expired, the county no
longer needed--and would no longer pay for--Dr. Greifinger's monitoring
visits to the jail. The prisoners then filed another motion for contempt,
arguing the county's refusal to permit Dr. Greifinger's inspections was
a willful, intentional, and blatant flouting" of the court's authority.
After holding a hearing, the court issued an order on November 1, 2002,
finding that Dekalb County had not complied with the remedial measures set
forth in the November 2001 contempt order and therefore had not purged
itself of civil contempt. The court said it had authority to enforce its
November 2001 contempt order and directed the county and various county
officials to use their best efforts to comply fully with all of the terms
of the settlement agreement" and imposed new remedial sanctions. Once
again, the court reserved ruling on punitive sanctions for criminal

On appeal, the county argued the trial court cannot enforce the settlement
agreement because it had expired on September 26, 2001, and that, in any
event, they had made a reasonable, good faith effort to comply with its
terms. The Court of Appeals said the trial court did not alter the
settlement agreement, as the defendants contended, but its practical
effect did extend the settlement's life. That extension occurred
because rather than purge, the county appealed." Hence, responsibility
for the delay associated with concluding the settlement agreement lies
with the county.

The November 2002, order was simply the trial court's effort to enforce
its earlier, lawful contempt order. The Appellate Court held the inherent
power of courts to enforce their orders is grounded in both the
constitution and Georgia's official code. The trial court's order was
affirmed. See: Dekalb County v. Adams, 262 GA. App. 243; 585 S.E. 2d 178
(GA. App. 3rd Div. 2003).

Once the matter returned to the trial court, the prisoners moved for an
award of attorney fees. The court awarded them $47,454, plus interest.
The county appealed.

The Appellate Court held the appeal's expiration argument was not
substantially groundless, or substantially vexatious." Thus, the county's
assertion of the expiration argument cannot support the fee award, and the
trial court's order failed to identify other justification, with
particularity, to justify the award. According, the award was vacated
with leave to make express findings of fact and conclusions of law" to
make the award authorized under Georgia statutes. See: Dekalb County v.
Adams, 263 GA. App. 201; 587 S.E. 2d 302 (GA. App. 3d. Div. 2003).

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Related legal cases

Dorsey v. Adams

Dorsey v. Adams, 255 Ga.App. 257, 564 S.E.2d 847 (Ga.App. 05/03/2002)

[1] Georgia Court of Appeals

[2] No. A02A1075

[3] 255 Ga.App. 257, 564 S.E.2d 847, 2002.GA

[4] May 03, 2002


[6] Blackburn, C. J., Johnson, P. J., Miller, J.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Johnson, Presiding Judge.

[8] The trial court found DeKalb County in contempt for violating a settlement agreement, which had been adopted as the order of the court, to provide medical care to inmates at the county jail. DeKalb appeals, *fn1 arguing that it can not be held in contempt for duties which belong exclusively to the sheriff, that it was not afforded due process, and that there is insufficient evidence that it wilfully violated the settlement agreement. The arguments are without merit, and we therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.

[9] Inmates at the DeKalb County Jail sued DeKalb County, the DeKalb sheriff and others, alleging inadequate medical care at the jail. On March 26, 2001, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, and presented the agreement to the trial court. The court adopted the agreement as its judgment and ordered the parties to comply with the terms of the agreement.

[10] Among other things, the agreement provides that when inmates arrive at the jail, they must be screened for contagious diseases, that inmates who enter the jail on medications for chronic illnesses shall be continued on such medications, that inmates will have access to emergency medical care, that medical request forms will be reviewed daily, that complete medical records must be maintained, and that medical grievances shall be responded to within ten days. The settlement further provides that DeKalb County is responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with all provisions of the agreement.

[11] On May 4, 2001, attorneys for the inmates sent a letter to the county's attorneys claiming that DeKalb County was not yet complying with the settlement agreement. The letter notified the county that unless it immediately began meeting the terms of the agreement, the inmates would move for contempt of the court order requiring the parties to comply with the agreement.

[12] Two-and-a-half months later, Dr. Robert Greifinger, whom the parties had agreed to use as a consultant to assess the county's compliance with the settlement agreement, inspected medical conditions at the jail. On July 22, 2001, Dr. Greifinger issued his report finding that the county was not complying with the agreement. In the report, he cited numerous violations of the agreement, concluding that screening is inadequate, that inmates are not receiving adequate medical care, that there is no continuity of care or coordination with outside specialists, that medical records are incoherent, and that basic public health safeguards are being ignored. He found no improvement since he had visited the jail in September and October of 2000, and no progress toward meeting the settlement agreement terms.

[13] After Dr. Greifinger's report, the inmates moved to enforce the agreement and for contempt of court. DeKalb County and the other defendants responded to the motion. The trial court notified the parties that an evidentiary hearing on the motion would be held on November 7, 2001.

[14] At the scheduled hearing, the court heard testimony from, among others, Dr. Greifinger. He testified that the county is not in compliance with the settlement agreement, and that two inmates died due to poor care and poor oversight by the county. An inmate with human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) died because he was denied medication for months, and another inmate died after his condition was mis-diagnosed and a needed neurologic examination was not performed.

[15] Dr. Greifinger further testified that there is a backlog of many months in medical records and mountains of unfiled material, that a sample of new inmates showed no documentation of required tuberculosis and syphilis testing, that tuberculosis isolation rooms are not working, that diabetic inmates are at risk because they are not getting up-to-date care, that sick call was not being performed as required by the settlement, that grievances were not being timely responded to, and that many aspects of the settlement could not even be assessed due to inadequate records or documentation.

[16] After the hearing, the court found DeKalb County to be in both civil and criminal contempt for failing to comply with the court order enforcing the terms of the settlement agreement. The court held that the county could purge the civil contempt by complying with various remedial sanctions. The court reserved ruling on punitive sanctions for the criminal contempt. The county appeals from the contempt order.

[17] 1. DeKalb County contends that although it is obligated to allocate funds to enable the sheriff to perform his duties, under Georgia law the ultimate obligation to maintain the county jail and furnish medical care to inmates belongs to the sheriff. And because it has allocated money to the sheriff to provide inmate medical care, the county reasons that it has met its obligation and can not be held in contempt for failing to perform duties that fall exclusively to the sheriff.

[18] DeKalb County is correct that the sheriff's statutory duties include maintaining the jail. *fn2 But the county's argument ignores the settlement agreement that it entered into, and the court order requiring the county to abide by the agreement. That agreement, which was signed by the DeKalb County Attorney as the county's authorized representative, plainly provides: "DeKalb County shall be responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with all provisions of this Settlement and Release Agreement and for ensuring that adequate funding is appropriated to carry out the terms of this Settlement and Release Agreement." Thus, pursuant to the agreement, the county is responsible not only for funding medical care at the jail, but also for monitoring that care and ensuring that it meets the settlement terms.

[19] Contrary to DeKalb's argument, the court's finding that the county is in contempt is not somehow based on the sheriff's statutory duty to maintain the jail, but is properly based on the county's own violations of the terms of the settlement agreement, which has been adopted by the court. Contempt means disregard for or disobedience of a court order. *fn3 And the discretion of judges in matters pertaining to contempt of their authority will not be controlled unless grossly abused. *fn4 Because the trial court did not grossly abuse its discretion in finding the county in contempt for disobeying the terms of the settlement agreement, we affirm the contempt finding.

[20] 2. The county contends that it was not afforded due process because it did not receive notice that contempt would be an issue at the evidentiary hearing and because the judge was biased. We have reviewed the record, and find no evidence that the judge was biased against the county. *fn5 And the county's lack of notice claim is disingenuous as it is apparent from the record that the county was on notice that contempt would be an issue at the hearing.

[21] The motion filed by the inmates was plainly labeled as a motion for contempt, and the county filed a response to that motion. After the inmates amended their motion, the court issued notice to the parties setting the date for the evidentiary hearing on the motion. At the outset of the hearing, the judge told the parties that it was a contempt matter. The county did not object or claim that it did not know contempt would be an issue at the hearing. Instead, the county proceeded to defend itself at the evidentiary hearing on the matter of contempt, cross-examining witnesses for the inmates, presenting its own witnesses and arguing its case.

[22] Not only did the county fail to claim lack of notice before participating in the contempt hearing, but the record does not support such a claim since a party that voluntarily appears and defends against contempt proceedings need not be served with a rule nisi. *fn6 Because the county's due process claims of insufficient notice and bias are not supported by the record, we find no error.

[23] 3. The county claims there is no evidence it wilfully violated the settlement agreement. "If there is any evidence in the record to support a trial judge's determination that a party either has or has not wilfully disobeyed the trial court's order, the decision of the trial court will be affirmed on appeal." *fn7 Having reviewed the evidence presented at the contempt hearing, including Dr. Greifinger's testimony about the county's non-compliance with the terms of the settlement, we find sufficient evidence to support the trial court's finding that DeKalb County wilfully disobeyed the court order that the parties must comply with the settlement agreement.

[24] Judgment affirmed. Blackburn, C.J., and Miller, J., concur.


Opinion Footnotes


[25] *fn1 Sheriff Thomas Brown has also filed an appeal brief. But as both Sheriff Brown and the inmates note, the trial court did not hold the sheriff in contempt. Rather, the court held only the county in contempt. Because there was no finding of contempt against the sheriff, we will not consider his brief in this appeal from the contempt order against the county.

[26] *fn2 See OCGA § 15-16-10; Chaffin v. Calhoun, 262 Ga. 202, 203 (415 SE2d 906) (1992).

[27] *fn3 In re Brant, 230 Ga. App. 283, 284 (1) (496 SE2d 321) (1998).

[28] *fn4 R. R. R. Ltd. v. Recreational Svcs., 267 Ga. 757, 758 (3) (481 SE2d 225) (1997).

[29] *fn5 See Barnes v. State, 269 Ga. App. 345, 348-349 (5) (496 SE2d 674) (1998).

[30] *fn6 See In re Brant, supra at 285 (3).

[31] *fn7 City of Cumming v. Realty Development, 268 Ga. 461, 462 (1) (491 SE2d 60) (1997).

Dekalb County v. Adams

Dekalb County v. Adams