The phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction” is attributed to Mark Twain. There are occasions when an appellate case presents a conundrum. And while it might seem fitting to criticize the trial or appellate courts in case like these, the facts of Roy v. Roy are so bizarre that it’s tough to propose a solution.

The case starts out tamely enough in Northampton County, home of the 1758 Treaty of Easton between the British and Iroquois empires and Crayola crayons. In that locale Simone Roy sued John Roy for child support. The opinion informs us that John Roy had been employed for a decade as a construction manager. In June 2020 the Northampton Court ordered Mr. Roy to pay $1,841 a month in current support and arrearages for three children. The response of the defendant was to “disappear” during which time no support was paid.

We don’t know precisely how or when, but it seems that in 2023 the elusive Mr. Roy reappeared and was held in contempt. On March 14, 2023 he was sentenced to jail and directed to pay $2,500 as a condition for purge. He paid it instantly rather than face incarceration and was released. He again stopped any payment but did file a petition to reduce his support. One basis for that request was emancipation of a child. We don’t know whether his petition alleged a change in his earning capacity. The case says only that he was assessed the capacity of a construction manager in revising the order to pay $1,240 in current support plus $248 on arrears.

While the modification was pending another contempt was filed as the only money Simone Roy had received since June 2020 was $2,500; the amount he needed to pay to stay out of jail. His arrearage stood at $31,000. At his June 13, 2023 contempt hearing the court got some background on what happened after the June 2020 support hearing. Brace yourself.

After the June hearing Mr. Roy met a Philippine woman online.

He moved to the Philippines, married the woman and had a fourth child.

While in the Philippines, Mr. Roy started a telephone call center based in that country.

The new business he started put a crimp in his financial resources.

Mr. Roy was able to apply for and secure a $40,000 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan which he seems to have invested in opening a gymnasium in a place unspecified. It failed.

The contempt conference officer at the June 2020 hearing said Mr. Roy had invested $75,000 in the gym. Mr. Roy acknowledged that was true. He offered that he was looking for employment and thought he could make $18,000 a year, about 20% more than the prevailing U.S. minimum wage. Simone Roy indicated that while married to Mr. Roy he owned two rental apartments. We don’t know when that marriage ended or what became of these rental units.

Having endured this, the Court imposed a sentence of incarceration with a $9,000 condition of purge. It seems from the opinion that this was not $9,000 instantly but $1,500 a month for six months he would be on probation for his contempt.

The response of Mr. Roy was to fall to the floor of the courtroom floor and ask the sheriffs to shoot him so that his children could secure survivor’s benefits. Neither the trial judge nor the sheriffs acceded to this request. Bear in mind the defendant had just testified that he had a collection case scheduled for the next day in which he was plaintiff claiming $11,000. One would think he would have deferred his request to be assassinated for at least enough time to see if he could resolve his unspecified collection matter. But, we digress.

Faced with a sentence of incarceration and denied his request to be liquidated on the spot, the defendant did the next best thing pro se defendants can resort to. He filed an appeal and sought a writ of habeus corpus from the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court denied the request but ordered the trial court to review the matter. It did and denied the request.

As we are seeing in this age of “Do it yourself appellate advocacy” the brief filed by Mr. Roy pro se, did not conform to the Rules of Appellate Procedure. This, of course, redounds to the detriment of the court considering the appeal as well as those of us who read appellate cases. But the contempt penalty was reversed, nonetheless.

The appellate analysis can’t be faulted on its face. The opinion correctly notes the longstanding precedent that a person cannot be imprisoned for debt, even child support debt, unless the trial court finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the contemnor has the present ability to pay the purge amount. Barrett v. Barrett, 368 A2d. 616 (Pa. 1977); Hyle v. Hyle, 868 A.2d. 601 (Pa. Super. 2005).

This is a case which demonstrates just how a defendant can exploit the law to make the judicial branch look foolish. Ordered in 2020 to pay child support of $1,841 a month, the Appellant’s response was to skip the country, marry another woman and have another child, find the resources to open a call center in Asia and a gymnasium in parts unknown, then borrow $40,000 from a U.S. bank using a federal program to pay wages to employees in the United States. All of this was accomplished while paying not a farthing to support his three kids beyond $2,500 paid to keep himself out of jail in March, 2023. His effective contribution to his children living in Easton during this time was $2.26 a day over three years.

People in our world struggle with lots of problems that impede their ability to earn income. But there are more than 4,000 construction jobs in Northampton County and Pa Workstat informs us that entry level pay is $38,000 a year. Across the river in Warren County NJ, the prevailing wage for a journeyman carpenter is $45/hour or about $90,000 a year. Yet this obligor, a construction “manager”, elected to pay no support while pursuing “other interests” 8,500 miles away in a country where the average wage is $10,000 a year.

Perhaps Mr. Roy lost his mind. Certainly, his in-court conduct might suggest that. But is it not remarkable that this gentleman had the intellectual skill to start two businesses, borrow funds to finance them, at one time operate two rental units and prepare his own writ of habeus corpus while paying $60 a month to support his children.

The case is remanded. But what is the court to do? Unless the plaintiff can somehow prove the defendant a liar, any defendant can walk into a courtroom, put his wallet on the table and remind   the trial judge. “It is your responsibility to find beyond a reasonable doubt that I have more.”

Pennsylvania kids deserve better in a world where there are hundreds of cases telling us that child support is a priority obligation. And there is such a remedy in 23 Pa. C.S. 4354, a law that was once in the Crimes Code but migrated to Domestic Relations in 2008. That statute indicates that where the overdue support is more than 12 months of payments, “willful” failure to pay is a misdemeanor of the third degree, subject to imprisonment as a crime rather than a means to coerce payment. A criminal conviction does involve a possible jury trial and a unanimous response from the jury selected. But, there certainly seem to be cases where that standard is easily met.  

Roy v. Roy, 1869 EDA 2023  J-S02036-24m – 105865475258698608.pdf (