Parties to a lawsuit are required to submit evidence in support of their claim. Depending on the piece of evidence, the court may demand very specific evidence; and in such circumstances, complying with the mere spirit of the order to produce evidence may not be enough for the court. A party who does not provide the evidence requested by the court may be held in contempt as one Louisiana plaintiff recently found out the hard way.
The case arose from a dispute regarding the right to harvest particular tracts of timber. The plaintiffs in the original case were the owners of the land, Paradise Land and Lake, LLC, and Paradise Rod and Gun, Inc. (“Paradise”). In 1998, an Act of Exchange was executed between Paradise and Roy O. Martin Lumber Company, Inc. (“Martin”). According to the document, Martin bought the merchantable timber, but with a limitation of one harvest during a twenty-five period. In 2008, as a result of a pair of Timber Rights Agreements between Martin and Louisiana Hardwood Products, LLC and Louisiana Hardwood Forestlands, LLC (“Louisiana Hardwood”), Martin’s right to harvest timber was transferred to Louisiana Hardwood for the remainder of the twenty-five years stipulated by the original agreement.
Before transferring rights to Louisiana Hardwood, Martin had harvested timber on two portions of the property. Per the terms of the original agreement, Louisiana Hardwood did not have the right to harvest timber from either of these two areas; however, when Louisiana Hardwood attempted to harvest timber from other portions of the property, timber from the disallowed area was taken.
Paradise thereafter filed a petition for injunctive relief and declaratory judgment, along with damages, against Louisiana Hardwood and Martin. Paradise also filed a partial motion for summary judgment to have the areas that had already been harvested removed from the timber agreement. Paradise included a map of the property, with the areas that had already been harvested marked by Robert Ziegelasch, Louisiana Hardwood’s corporate representative. While the trial court agreed to order a release of the particular areas from the agreement, it found the map confusing, and therefore could not determine which areas should be released.
When both parties submitted their respective proposed judgments, the maps submitted along with the proposals still conflicted with one another. As such, the court ruled that Ziegelasch should prepare another map, which would be clearer regarding which areas Louisiana Hardwood had the right to cut. However, Louisiana Hardwood no longer employed Ziegelasch at the time the order was issued. Instead, Louisiana Hardwood had a map prepared by Norman Davis, who had been Ziegelasch’s supervisor during his tenure at the company. Davis therefore prepared both the map and an affidavit explaining why he had prepared the map instead of Ziegelasch. In response, the trial court found Louisiana Hardwood to be in contempt of court for failing to submit a map prepared by Ziegelasch, as dictated by the court order. Louisiana Hardwood appealed, asserting a single assignment of error for holding it in contempt of court.
An appellate court may only reverse a trial court’s judgment of contempt when the appellate court determines that an abuse of the trial court’s discretion has occurred. There are two types of contempt. The first is constructive contempt, which occurs when the accused intentionally and purposefully violates an order of the court. The second is civil contempt, which arises from a preponderance of the evidence. Since this case involves a civil contempt, the appellate court looked to the trial court’s record to determine whether or not it had made a decision that was manifestly erroneous in light of the evidence.
The appellate court found that the court had properly requested the map prepared by Ziegelasch from Louisiana Hardwood, and that Louisiana Hardwood had responded with the map prepared by Davis and an explanation regarding the lack of involvement from Ziegelasch. Louisiana Hardwood contended that since Ziegelasch no longer worked for the company, submitting a map by Davis was justifiably excused. However, the appellate court disagreed, stating that there were other procedural avenues that could be pursued by Louisiana Hardwood – including contacting the court. Furthermore, the trial court pointed out that Paradise had not had the opportunity to question Davis about the map he prepared. Had Paradise agreed with the map prepared by Davis, the trial court would be fine with the substituted map, but Paradise responded that it did not agree with the map.
Although Louisiana Hardwood claimed that they were complying with the spirit of the court order, the court found that substituting their judgment for the court’s constituted an impermissible violation of the order. As a result, the appellate court found that Louisiana Hardwood had properly been found in contempt of court. This case demonstrates that it is important to produce the exact piece of evidence that the court is requesting even if it is more difficult to obtain.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Rebecca Kaplan
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