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United States v. Thornton

United States District Court, District of Minnesota

March 27, 2015

United States of America, Petitioner,
John K. Thornton, Respondent.

D. Gerald Wilhelm, Assistant United States Attorney, for Petitioner

John K. Thornton, Pro Se.


SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung dated January 29, 2015 [Doc. No. 73] regarding the Court’s December 29, 2014 Order to Show Cause why Respondent John K. Thornton should not be held in contempt for failing to comply with multiple court orders [Doc. No. 69]. The R&R recommended the following: (1) that Thornton be found in constructive civil contempt of court for failure to comply with the Court’s August 1, 2014 Order [Doc. No. 23]; (2) that a bench warrant for his arrest be stayed until March 31, 2015 to permit Thornton time to comply or substantially comply with the August 1, 2014 Order; (3) that the Government file a declaration on or shortly after March 31, 2015 regarding Thornton’s compliance or substantial compliance with the August 1, 2014 Order; and (4) barring Thornton’s compliance or substantial compliance, the bench warrant for Thornton’s arrest will automatically be issued and he will be directed to pay $1, 000 to the Clerk of Court, to be remitted to the Government for reasonable costs and attorney’s fees. (R&R at 10 [Doc. No. 73].) On February 12, 2015, Thornton filed a document entitled “Motion in Opposition to Sanctions and Motion to Vacate Continued” [Doc. No. 76]. The Court construes portions of this document as his timely-filed objections to the R&R, and therefore refers to these portions herein as “Objections.” For the reasons set forth below, Respondent’s Objections are overruled and the Court adopts the R&R, with a slight extension to the deadline for compliance.


The facts of this matter are set forth in detail in the R&R [Doc. No. 73], as well as the Court’s August 1, 2014 Order [Doc. No. 23]. In brief, IRS Revenue Officer Jeffrey Wagner (“Wagner”) is conducting an investigation into the tax liability of Respondent for the years 2001–2012. On July 25, 2013, and August 13, 2013, Wagner issued and personally served on Thornton and his wife two IRS administrative summonses, directing Thornton and his wife to appear at the IRS office located in Bloomington, Minnesota, and to testify and produce records, books, and other related information. (See Order of 8/1/14 at 2 [Doc. No. 23].) After Respondent and his wife refused to comply, the Government initiated this action, seeking enforcement of the two summonses. (Petition [Doc. No. 1].)

Following a hearing to show cause why the Thorntons should not be compelled to obey the summonses, Magistrate Judge Leung recommended that they be enforced. (R&R of 4/9/14 [Doc. No. 21].) This Court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendations in the August 1, 2014 Order, requiring the enforcement of the summonses. Mrs. Thornton substantially complied with the IRS summons and is not subject to the matters addressed herein. (R&R at 3, n.2 [Doc. No. 73].)

Following a November 4, 2014 hearing, Magistrate Judge Leung gave Respondent until December 8, 2014 to respond to the summons, or risk a recommendation that he be held in contempt of the Court’s August 1, 2014 Order. (Minute Entry of 11/4/14 [Doc. No. 46].) The Government filed a letter and supporting affidavit on December 8, 2014, indicating that Thornton had failed to substantially comply. (Letter of 12/8/14 [Doc. No. 62]; Wagner Decl. [Doc. No. 63].) The Court issued another Order to Show Cause [Doc. No. 66] and heard argument from Respondent and counsel for the Government on January 27, 2015. (R&R at 3-5 [Doc. No. 73].) On January 29, 2015, Magistrate Judge Leung issued the R&R containing the recommendations noted above. In light of Thornton’s pro se status, the magistrate judge granted him additional time – until March 31, 2015 – in which to comply with the Court’s August 1, 2014 Order. (Id. at 10, n.4.)


The district court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which an objection is made and “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); accord D. Minn. LR 72.2(b). As noted, the Court construes portions of Respondent’s “Motion in Opposition to Sanctions and Motion to Vacate Continued” as objections to the R&R. (Objections at 26-42 [Doc. No. 76].) The Court gives Respondent’s Objections the most liberal construction possible in light of his pro se status. Even the most liberal construction, however, cannot cure the inherent flaws in Respondent’s Objections.

District courts have the authority to enforce compliance with orders through civil contempt proceedings. Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364, 379 (1966). And, as the magistrate judge noted, courts possess the inherent power to punish for contempt. (R&R at 5 [Doc. No. 73]) (citing Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44 (1991); Chicago Truck Drivers Union Pension Fund v. Bhd. Labor Leasing, 207 F.3d 500, 504 (8th Cir. 2000)). Moreover, 26 U.S.C. § 7604(b) specifically gives this Court the authority to enforce its orders concerning summons enforcement by means of contempt proceedings.

For a party to be held in contempt, it must be shown that (1) a valid order existed, (2) the party had knowledge of the order, and (3) the party disobeyed the order. Reliance Ins. Co. v. Mast Constr. Co., 159 F.3d 1311, 1315 (10th Cir. 1998). A party seeking civil contempt must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the alleged contemnor violated a court order. Chicago Truck Drivers, 207 F.3d at 505 (citation omitted). Once the movant produces such evidence, the burden shifts to the contemnor to demonstrate an inability to comply. Id. A party defending a contempt motion on the ground of present inability to comply must establish the following: (1) that they were unable to comply, explaining why ‘categorically and in detail;’ (2) that their inability to comply was not ‘self-induced;’ and (3) that they made ‘in good faith all reasonable efforts to comply’” Edeh v. Carruthers, No. 10-cv-2860, 2011 WL 4808194, at *3 (D. Minn. Sept. 20, 2011) (quoting Chicago Truck Drivers, 207 F.3d at 506). The Court agrees with the magistrate judge that the Respondent has failed to demonstrate a present inability to comply.

Thornton raises several grounds of objection to the R&R. First, he appears to present substantive argument about whether certain terms and language in the IRS Code apply to him and whether certain administrative procedures have been followed. (Objections at 26-30 [Doc. No. 76].) These arguments, however, are not relevant to the proceedings before this Court, which concern solely the enforcement of an IRS summons pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7402(b). Nor do they relate to the specific issue before the Court in the context of civil contempt – that is, whether Thornton is presently unable to comply with the Court’s August 1, 2014 Order.

Thornton’s second ground of objection, however, appears to arguably address the present inability to comply, although he frames it in the offensive: “Why is Inquisitor Wagner allegedly empowered to force someone to Swear and give Testimony when Thornton can’t get Inquisitor Wagner in this Court on the Stand under Oath to Swear and provide testimony?” (Objections at 31 [Doc. No. 76].) While the issue specifically couched by Thornton is irrelevant to the question of present inability to comply, Thornton also quotes a statement apparently made by him to ...

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