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In re Carolina M.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 28, 2016


          Session October 14, 2015

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2014113 Joseph A. Woodruff, Judge

          Connie Reguli, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellants, Debra M. and Michael N.

          Raquel A. Abel, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellee, Anne Best.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Andy D. Bennett, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The present case arises out of a dependent and neglect proceeding initiated by DCS in the Juvenile Court of Williamson County, Tennessee. On January 17, 2014, the juvenile court entered an order finding Carolina M., daughter of Debra M. ("Mother") and Michael N. ("Father"), dependent and neglected. Mother and Father then appealed to the Circuit Court of Williamson County where they were represented by Connie Reguli, a licensed attorney practicing family law in Middle Tennessee.

         A. The Contempt Petitions

         A discovery dispute arose when Ms. Reguli, on behalf of Mother and Father, subpoenaed investigative records from Anne Best, a volunteer with Williamson County CASA ("CASA")[1] who had been appointed by the juvenile court to work with the child throughout the dependency and neglect proceedings. On June 24, 2014, the circuit court heard several motions, including a motion filed by CASA to quash the subpoena and limit discovery. In its order, the court outlined the limitations on which records CASA was required to produce. The order states in relevant part:

The Court finds that CASA . . . is subject to deposition and discovery of their records and communications. . . . [A]ny internal communication that involved only the CASA administrators or other volunteers seeking advice on the case or how to proceed are not discoverable; but all communications with other attorneys, witnesses, or other persons are subject to disclosure to the parents. CASA . . . will redact the names and identifying information of any person who made a disclosure of abuse, however everything else, including the nature of the allegations and the surrounding circumstances is discoverable.
. . . .
If CASA has certain records or information that they believe would be harmful to the child if disclosed to the parents, they may file it with the Court and seek an in camera review. . . .

         At the hearing on the discovery motions, Ms. Reguli served CASA with a new subpoena ordering Ms. Best to appear for deposition and produce the requested documents just six days later, on June 30, 2014. Ms. Best appeared for the deposition and produced CASA records, including over 100 pages of written notes. In reliance on the discovery order, certain portions of the records that CASA believed to contain privileged information were redacted. Following the deposition, Ms. Reguli contacted CASA and demanded the documents be produced without redactions. In response, CASA's counsel explained to Ms. Reguli that, due to the short notice of the subpoena, CASA did not keep copies of the documents as redacted. CASA asked her to identify the specific redactions she was disputing so that they could be submitted to the court for in camera review if the issue could not be resolved.

         On July 9, 2014, rather than responding to CASA's request, Ms. Reguli filed a motion for civil contempt and sanctions against Ms. Best alleging that she did not produce properly redacted documents as required by the court's discovery order.[2] The same day, CASA filed a motion for in camera review of the three documents identified in the petition for civil contempt. On July 22, 2014, the circuit court held a hearing on the civil contempt petition and CASA's motion seeking in camera review. The court found the documents in question were properly redacted and sustained CASA's objection to producing the redacted material. The court took no action with respect to the civil contempt petition.

         Then, on August 6, 2014, Ms. Reguli filed a petition for criminal contempt against Ms. Best based on the contents of two e-mails obtained during discovery. The petition claimed that, during the pendency of the juvenile court proceedings, Ms. Best sent the emails in question to Carolina's elementary school teacher, both of which included information Ms. Best was allegedly prohibited from disclosing by statute. The first e-mail included a proposed set of interrogatories, which were drafted by CASA. The other included, as an attachment, a motion filed by the child's guardian ad litem seeking a forensic interview of Carolina. According to the e-mail, the guardian ad litem provided Ms. Best with a copy of the motion, which Ms. Best then shared with the teacher. According to Ms. Reguli, Ms. Best's actions violated Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-153(d), which provides that "it is an offense for a person to intentionally disclose or disseminate to the public the files and records of the juvenile court, " and a violation of that subsection is punishable "as criminal contempt of court as otherwise authorized by law." Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-153(d)(1), (2) (2014).

         The circuit court held a hearing on the criminal contempt petition, and in its order, entered September 18, 2014, the court found Ms. Best not guilty and dismissed the petition. The court noted in its oral findings that it remained unconvinced that the attachments to the e-mails were records to which the confidentiality statute applies. Even so, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Ms. Best knowingly and intentionally committed a violation.

         B. Motions for Rule 11 Sanctions

         In response to the contempt petitions, CASA filed two separate motions for sanctions against Ms. Reguli under Rule 11 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.[3] CASA served her with a copy of the first motion after she filed the civil contempt petition regarding the redacted discovery documents. Ms. Reguli did not withdraw the petition despite CASA's motion for in camera review of the documents, and on August 25, 2014, CASA filed its first Rule 11 motion with the court, seeking the imposition of sanctions against Ms. Reguli for filing the civil contempt petition. That same day, in response to her criminal contempt petition, CASA served Ms. Reguli with a copy of the second motion. Ms. Reguli failed to withdraw the petition. CASA then filed the second Rule 11 motion with the court on September 30, 2014.

         On October 28, 2014, the circuit court held a hearing on both Rule 11 motions. The court's order, entered December 30, 2014, required Ms. Reguli to complete three hours of continuing education in legal ethics in connection with her petition for civil contempt. It reasoned that the appropriate remedy for the dispute over the redacted documents was to seek an in camera review and that filing the civil contempt petition "was intended for improper purpose and to cause needless expense and delay in the litigation, in violation of Rule 11.02."

         The circuit court also ordered that Ms. Reguli pay CASA $3, 145.50[4] in attorneys' fees stemming from the representation of Ms. Best in connection with the criminal contempt petition. Noting Ms. Reguli's failure to make a reasonable inquiry before signing, the court found the petition was presented for improper purposes, contained claims not warranted by existing law, and contained factual allegations without evidentiary support. Regarding the decision to grant monetary sanctions, the order states that Ms. Reguli's actions "caused CASA, a not-for-profit, tax exempt organization, to incur significant expense including attorneys' fees to defend against the unmerited and improper Criminal Contempt Petition."[5]

         Though the record does not contain a transcript of the hearing, the court also presumably considered that Ms. Reguli filed two other contempt petitions in connection with the present case in addition to the petitions filed against Ms. Best.[6] The order states that the sanctions also functioned "to deter her from continuing in her demonstrated habit and practice of ...

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