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Arkansas Department of Human Services v. Jones

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

May 31, 2017

ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES APPELLANT
v.
JONATHAN JONES APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE CLARK COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 10JV-15-39] HONORABLE RANDY WRIGHT, JUDGE REVERSED

          Mary Goff, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellant.

          No response.

          Harrison and Vaught, JJ., agree.

          WAYMOND M. BROWN, Judge

         Appellant Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) appeals the October 19, 2016 amended order by the Clark County Circuit Court finding it in contempt of court and ordering it to pay $1000 in attorney's fees to appellee Jonathan Jones's attorney. On appeal, DHS makes two arguments: (1) that there was no evidence that DHS was in contempt and (2) that ordering DHS to pay attorney's fees violates the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because there was neither a valid criminal-contempt finding nor a valid civil-contempt finding, we reverse the fee award and the trial court's "contempt" designation.

         The pertinent facts are as follows. There was an open dependency-neglect case concerning Jones. As part of the case plan, he was ordered to complete domestic-violence classes. In a review order filed on August 31, 2015, the court ordered DHS to "pay for the domestic violence classes for Jonathan Jones, Sr." DHS had problems securing Domestic Violence Prevention, Inc., as an appropriate vendor because the tax ID number found on the W9 submitted by the company was incorrect. As a result, no payments were initially made on Jones's behalf. Jones paid for the classes out of his own pocket and sought reimbursement from DHS. On January 20, 2016, Jones's attorney sent an email to DHS, stating the following:

My client still has not been paid for his class expense. Additionally, the program is threatening not to allow him to continue classes if they are not paid.
I am respectively asking that my client receive his check no later than 5 pm this Friday, January 22, or I will be forced to file a motion for contempt against the department for failure to comply with orders of the court.

         DHS responded on January 28, 2016 stating:

DCFS has informed me they have received Mr. Jones' W9 and should have a vendor number within 48 hours. At that point a number will be issued, he will need to sign an invoice, a purchaser order will be keyed and he will then be reimbursed. I'm staying on them about this as I feel it should have already been done. I will keep you posted. Sorry for the delay.

         Jones filed a motion for contempt on February 29, 2016, contending that DHS had failed to reimburse him after being court-ordered to do so. Jones asked that he be awarded a "reasonable attorney's fee" for having to file the motion. DHS filed a response on March 21, 2016, asking that the motion be dismissed. In a review order filed on July 5, 2016, the court closed the dependency-neglect case against Jones; however, it left open the motion for contempt.

         The court held a hearing on September 12, 2016, on Jones's motion. By that time, Jones had received his reimbursement from DHS. At the hearing, DHS explained that this was an unusual circumstance because they had to pay for classes on Jones's behalf, and reimburse Jones for payments he had already made. According to DHS, there were errors made on both ends; however, it denied intentionally prolonging the process. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated the following:

All right. Thank you, Counsel, both of you did a good job. I certainly don't find that Ms. Andres or Ms. Hrable or Ms. Rankin, anyone that's working, just trying to do what they're supposed to do. It seems like they were trying to do what they were supposed to do. But it's kind of like I hate to use this, but I'm going to, as an example. I went fishing one time, and the fishing trip ended up catching an alligator. I didn't want to be on that boat that caught the alligator. But as it was explained to me, if you're in the boat, you get the alligator. Because of the other person, we had to catch the alligator. It ruined our fishing trip for a while. But eventually we caught fish. And that's kind of what happened here. We're on the boat of getting these children back to reunification with their parents, and we get an alligator. Nobody's fault. But it's not Mr. Jones' fault, because he was doing everything he was supposed to do. It's not our local office's fault, because I believe they attempted in good faith to do what they were supposed to do. But it's all within the systemic nature of where we are today. We've got this alligator that we can't deal with special cases we can't deal with little special problems and make them happen quickly. This should've happened quickly. It could've resulted and it may have resulted in a longer time that the children were not back with the parents. I don't know. I don't have an opinion about that. But it may not have either. But it could've ended in a worse situation. Again, no fault of the people working the case. I truly believe, having been up here on many occasions, that this office of the Department of Human Services is a ...

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