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June 5, 2012

A court order must be “clear and unequivocal” in order to hold a party in contempt for its alleged “failing to comply”

A court order must be “clear and unequivocal” in order to hold a party in contempt for its alleged “failing to comply”
Storman v New York City Dept. of Educ., 2012 NY Slip Op 04217, Appellate Division, First Department

Supreme Court granted, among other things, a motion to hold the New York City Department of Education (DOE) in contempt for its alleged failure to comply with a judgment.

The Appellate Division unanimously reversed the Supreme Court’s action, commenting that it was acting “In the interest of justice, we nostra sponte* [in granting] DOE leave to appeal from the contempt order … which was "made in a proceeding against a body or officer pursuant to article 78" and therefore was not appealable as of right” (see CPLR 5701[b][1]).

The court explained that Supreme Court's “judgment to remand for ‘further proceedings’ was not a ‘clear and unequivocal’ mandate, and thus DOE should not have been held in contempt for allegedly disobeying it.” The remedy, if any, said the Appellate Division “lies in seeking to clarify the … order, which will allow the court to issue a clear and unequivocal mandate.”

Considering a related aspect of the appeal, the Appellate Division noted that the administrative hearing conducted by the Chancellor's Committee "was not determinative but merely advisory" to the Chancellor and thus the "arbitrary and capricious" standard of judicial review applies, not the "substantial evidence" standard.

Accordingly, said the court, “Applying the proper standard, DOE's determination was not arbitrary and capricious, but was rationally based in the record, which included the investigator's report and the testimony of the investigator and principal at the administrative hearing,” citing Murane v Department of Education, 82 AD3d 576.

* Nostra Sponte - an action by a court undertaken on its own inherent authority.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2012/2012_04217.htm

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