CENTRAL STATES, SOUTHEAST AND SOUTHWEST AREAS HEALTH AND WELFARE FUND, and ARTHUR H. BUNTE, JR., Trustee, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
BEVERLY LEWIS and DAVID T. LASHGARI, Defendants-Appellants
Argued February 19, 2014.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 11 C 4845 -- Joan Humphrey Lefkow, Judge.
For CENTRAL STATES, SOUTHEAST AND SOUTHWEST AREAS HEALTH AND WELFARE FUND, ARTHUR H. BUNTE, JR., Trustee, Plaintiffs - Appellees: Rebecca Kate McMahon, Attorney, CENTRAL STATES FUNDS, Law Department, Rosemont, IL.
For BEVERLY LEWIS, DAVID T. LASHGARI, Defendants - Appellants: Arnold H. Landis, Attorney, LAW OFFICES OF ARNOLD H. LANDIS, P.C., Chicago, IL.
Before POSNER, RIPPLE, and KANNE, Circuit Judges.
Posner, Circuit Judge.
The defendants appeal from an order of the district court holding them in contempt. Beverly Lewis was injured in an automobile accident in Georgia, and her health plan (the principal plaintiff in this case) paid $180,000 for the cost of her medical treatment (we round off all dollar figures to the nearest thousand). Represented by the other defendant in the present suit, Georgia lawyer David T. Lashgari, Lewis brought a tort suit in Georgia state court against the driver of the car involved in the accident (her son-in-law), and obtained a $500,000 settlement. The plan had--and Lashgari knew it had--a subrogation lien: that is, a right, secured by a lien, to offset the cost that the plan had incurred as a result of the accident against any money that Lewis
obtained in a suit arising out of the accident.
The lien was thus a secured claim against the proceeds of the settlement. But when Lashgari received the settlement proceeds in June 2011, instead of giving $180,000 of the $500,000 to the plan he split the proceeds between himself and his client. He claimed that the plan was owed nothing because the settlement had been intended solely to compensate Lewis for the driver's " post-accident tortious conduct" against her. That's nonsense; the settlement agreement states that it " encompass[es] all claims and demands whatsoever that were or could have been asserted... [for] damages, loss, or injury... which may be traced either directly or indirectly to the occurrences set forth in the aforesaid civil action [the personal injury suit arising from the accident]... no matter how remotely they may be related to the aforesaid occurrences." Even the check that Lashgari wrote to Lewis for her share of the proceeds says it's " for settlement of all 10/08/08 claims" --and October 8, 2008 was the date of the accident.
Lashgari's refusal to honor the subrogation lien precipitated the present suit, filed in July 2011, a suit under ERISA to enforce the lien. See 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). The defendants argued in the district court that because the settlement funds have been dissipated, this really is a suit for damages--that is, a suit at law rather than in equity--and therefore not authorized by 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). But the defendants are wrong. The plan wasn't required to trace the settlement proceeds. Its equitable lien automatically gave rise to a constructive trust of the defendant's assets. Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U.S. 356, 363-64, 126 S.Ct. 1869, 164 L.Ed.2d 612 (2006); Gutta v. Standard Select Trust Ins. Plans, 530 F.3d 614, 621 (7th Cir. 2008); Longaberger Co. v. Kolt, 586 F.3d 459, 469 (6th Cir. 2009).
In February 2012 the plan moved the district court for entry of a preliminary injunction against the defendants' disposing of the settlement proceeds until the plan received its $180,000 share. The district judge granted the motion in May and also ordered the defendants to place at least $180,000 in Lashgari's client trust fund account pending final judgment in the case. The defendants complied with neither order. They said they couldn't pay $180,000, which if true would be at least a partial defense. In re Resource Technology Corp., 624 F.3d 376, 387 (7th Cir. 2010). (It would not be a complete defense unless they couldn't pay any part of the $180,000.) A year later, with the defendants having neither placed any part of the $180,000 in a trust account as ordered nor produced any evidence of their inability to pay, the judge held them in civil contempt, ordered them to produce records that would establish their financial situations, and ordered Lashgari to submit a variety of documents relating to the contempt to the General Counsel of the State Bar of Georgia for possible disciplinary proceedings against him. The financial records that the defendants had submitted up to that point were, as we'll see, absurdly inadequate. We do not know whether the defendants have since produced detailed records, or if Lashgari ever submitted anything to the State Bar of Georgia.
A finding of civil contempt of a judicial order is appealable, even when it is interlocutory as in this case, if but only if the underlying order is appealable. E.g., Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 673 F.2d 628, 635-36 (3d Cir. 1982) (en banc); Thomas J. André, Jr., " The Final Judgment Rule and Party ...