The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a civil contempt order lodged against a man who refused to detail for a Monongalia County Circuit Court judge what he'd done with a $374,000 inheritance.
Brian A. Lee had told the court he didn't have the means to pay $500,000 in damages awarded in 2005 to a woman who'd alleged he infected her with HIV. But when he inherited money from his mother's estate eight months later he refused to turn it over, instead telling the court he'd made anonymous donations to 3,997 charities.
Records show Lee repeatedly refused to detail for the court what he'd done with the money, and in June 2008 the trial judge held him in civil contempt. A capias warrant was issued for his arrest in November 2009, at which point he was ordered to remain in custody until he complied with the court's order. He remained in jail until 2012 when health issues dictated he be put under home confinement in order to receive treatment for his HIV infection.
The circuit judge denied Lee's motion to dissolve the contempt order, prompting him to appeal on the grounds that neither the contempt order or his incarceration were appropriate.
In a memorandum decision released Dec. 16, however, the high court pointed out Lee had been incarcerated "with the provision that he would be released when he paid" the woman.
"Petitioner 'holds the keys to his own cell,'" the justices said. "This order was in place for the benefit of respondent in an attempt to secure her rights to the judgment and assist her in her effort to recover the money. Unlike a criminal contempt order, the contempt order did not involve an affront to the dignity of the court, nor was petitioner denied an opportunity to secure his immediate release."
"(He) was told on numerous occasions to provide proof," they added, pointing out Lee was cited only after he repeatedly ignored the court's orders.
"It is evident the trial court did not abuse its discretion," the justices said. "Records show (Lee) has frustrated respondent's attempts to collect evidence on two occasions. He also stated on a few occasions he did not intend to comply.
"The order was within the court's discretion. The court has presided over this case for eight years. Given the circuit court's history and the history between the two parties, the trial court used reasonable judgment."