December 28, 2014
Jail Solves Nothing In Payment Dispute
Jail Solves Nothing In Payment Dispute
I went to debtors’ court, aka Magistrate Harris T. Lifshitz’s family court in Hartford, to see how a man could end up in jail because he’s broke.
Recall the story of Gerald Frazee, the former CEO now living in Simsbury who, when his business career in California imploded, failed to make disputed support payments to his ex-wife and ended up in Lifshitz’s courtroom.
Frazee says he doesn’t owe his wife any money and points to a court ruling in California that supports his case. I don’t know the answer to this, but state law is clear that we don’t send people to debtors’ prison. Incarceration should be used only for brief periods for nonpayment of child or spousal support.
This isn’t a problem for Lifshitz, who has a habit of throwing real and alleged deadbeats in the slammer for weeks and months. A judge once found him “clearly erroneous” for jailing a man because he couldn’t pay the full child support he owed. Others told me similar tales about appearing before Lifshitz.
“Connecticut case law is clear that a civil contempt order must be remedial and coercive, and not punitive,” Superior Court Judge Richard Dyer ruled in 2008 after Lifshitz jailed a man who couldn’t come up with $56,353.
“The issue here is not an inability to pay. It’s a refusal to pay,” Lifshitz chided Frazee one afternoon in court recently, when he explained that he had carefully reviewed Frazee’s finances and found evidence of ability to pay. “That’s why this called for incarceration.”
“You have resources other than a job,” Lifshitz said.
Frazee, who is 63, has been out of work since 2008. He claims no income and no assets.
Suspecting that Frazee was hiding cash or other financial resources, Lifshitz sent Frazee to jail from Dec. 23 until late February, finally freeing him because of a chronic blood-clotting condition that threatens the Simsbury man’s life. The two-month jail stay — including five days at Dempsey Hospital at taxpayer expense — produced no new money from Frazee.
Instead, Frazee sat in jail and was unable to work or look for employment. He could not respond to a job offer from a Philadelphia company that would have provided him with the income he needed to make the payments that landed him in court in the first place.
“The magistrate believes Mr. Frazee is hiding assets,” Frazee’s tax attorney, Richard Convicer, wrote state Rep. Linda Schofield, D-Simsbury, recently. “While such a conclusion is possible, I know of no evidence supporting it.”
“The fact that a citizen can be locked up for nearly two months based on an unsupported suspicion lacking any factual basis is deeply disturbing and a situation which our judicial system should not tolerate,” Convicer wrote.
When Lifshitz freed Frazee, he issued a “confinement order,” remanding him to the “custody” of his present wife and forbidding him from leaving his home for anything other than to search for a job and to go to church. Lifshitz joked that there would be “bed checks every night” before sending Frazee home with his wife.
When Lifshitz sent Frazee to jail in December, it was for his failure to come up with $85,000 of the $167,000 he owes stemming from a long dispute with his ex-wife in California. Frazee and his lawyer, Oliver Dickins, say Lifshitz has been unwilling to consider the possibility that Frazee is broke.
“This is such a frustrating thing,” Frazee told me. “The problem is how do you prove you don’t have something?”
“I paid $124,000 in child support. If I was trying to get out of that, why would I do that? It was up to 2003, that was until my son turned 18.”
Frazee and his lawyer are now appealing to Superior Court to intervene and dismiss the entire matter. Frazee hopes to start work soon for a Philadelphia lighting company that still has an executive-level job for him. Although he disputes owing his ex-wife any money, Frazee said he would start making payments to her in order to satisfy the court — and stay out of jail. However, he says he does not have the tens of thousands of dollars in back payments and interest that Lifshitz wants immediately.
Lifshitz, meanwhile, is up for appointment by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for another three-year term. For now, debtors’ court remains in session.