Hall v. Njoku
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-12-01385-CV (March 26, 2015)
Justices Bridges, Fillmore, and Brown (Opinion)
Don’t talk back—especially when the trial judge is telling you to sit down and be quiet. During the trial of this breach of contract case, the trial judge admonished plaintiff’s counsel several times to quit arguing with the court after the court issued its rulings. Apparently, the arguing continued, and during the second and final day of trial, plaintiff’s counsel continued to object to a line of questioning even after the court had overruled similar objections. The court instructed counsel to “Be seated and don’t say another word or I will hold you in contempt.” When the lawyer attempted to discuss the issue further, the court excused the jury and cited plaintiff’s counsel for contempt, ordering the lawyer to pay a $500 fine and stating that if the lawyer argued with him further, he would put the lawyer in jail. From that point on, plaintiff’s counsel made no further objections, declined to question witnesses, and declined to make a closing statement, citing “the Court’s ruling and the threat of being arrested.”

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the trial court had improperly retrained his counsel’s speech, but the Dallas Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the judge was engaged in appropriate courtroom management. The appellate court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the trial court’s order prevented his counsel from making appropriate objections and arguments, noting that the trial court had invited counsel to respond to certain offers of evidence and to present a closing statement but that plaintiff’s counsel chose not to do so.

Finally, plaintiff argued that the trial court abused its discretion by sanctioning his attorney. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument as well on the grounds that plaintiff was really complaining about a contempt order—as opposed to a sanctions order—and a contempt order is not reviewable on direct appeal. Contempt orders that do not involve confinement may only be reviewed by mandamus.