Violation of a Divorce Judgment in New York is Serious Business, Even for Mugrabis

A New York judgment of divorce is a court order. Failing to comply with a court order can result in a finding of contempt of court, which can carry serious penalties. Every part of a judgment of divorce can be enforced, and every provision can carry a penalty if ignored.

The seriousness of court orders was recently shown to be true in the contentious divorce between David and Libbie Mugrabi. David, age 47, is part of the Mugrabi art-collecting family. He finalized his divorce from his wife, Libbie, age 45, in 2020. The couple has recently been back in court for violating the judgment of divorce.

The Mugrabi Divorce

David and Libbie married in 2005, and Libbie said she planned to stay married until their children, now reported to be 12 and 14, reached the age of 18, but a fateful morning changed things. Libbie told the New York Times that she walked in on her husband with another woman in her home to find them both naked. She said she sold her engagement ring for $100,000 and retained a divorce attorney.

David then filed for divorce in 2018. Libby reportedly sought $100 million in art, real estate, assets, and spousal support. They had no prenuptial agreement, a major mistake that could have saved them a lot of money and a lot of public embarrassment. The divorce has been very public, with Libbie complaining that David was denigrating her to his friends, and so she refused to agree to a gag order, pointing out that the Mugrabi family’s publicists would then assassinate her character, leaving her unable to respond.

The Mugrabi family is considered to have the world’s largest private collection of Warhols (containing more than 1,000 pieces valued at over $5 billion) as well as ownership of art by well-known artists such as Richard Prince, Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Kondo, and KAWS. The art was and is a primary issue in the divorce.

As in any divorce, a complete accounting of assets is necessary and many speculated that this would lay bare to the world the holdings of the family who are considered so influential in setting global art prices that they have been called the art world equivalent of the Dow Jones. In 2019 the New York Times reported that Libbie alleged David had removed $200 million of art from their home and placed it overseas in what she called an attempt to hide assets during the divorce.

The couple also owns a $72 million townhome in Manhattan and a Water Mill, Long Island property. Libbie was reportedly very pleased with the undisclosed settlement that was eventually reached in November 2002, with sources reporting she received real estate, art, child support, and alimony as part of the package for the divorce, which was finalized in December 2020.

Violation of the Court Order

The couple returned to court recently when David alleged that Libbie had violated the order of the court. David’s position was that as part of the property settlement, the court had ordered Libbie to turn over 16 pieces of art, a Porsche 911 and a 1974 Ferrari to David and that she had failed to do so. David’s attorneys explained that the order stated that in exchange, David would give certain works of art to her that the court had determined would be hers, including some Warhols. The exchange was supposed to occur by November 30, 2020.

David’s attorneys alleged that he had attempted to exchange the artwork with Libbie who told him she didn’t have the pieces in her possession and that David had them. The judge ordered the couple to exchange the necessary art and the cars by a specific date and ended the hearing, although the couple managed to bicker even as the judge was drawing the proceedings to a close.

What is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court is a determination by a judge that one of the parties has violated or failed to comply with an order of the court. In a divorce case, contempt of court can be issued for a failure to comply with any order in the case, including child support, spousal support, property division, and more. For contempt of court to apply, there are four requirements:

  • The court issued a clear order or judgment
  • The spouse it applies to was aware of it
  • The order was disobeyed or disregarded
  • Violating the order created harm to the other spouse.

Contempt of court can be civil or criminal. In general, in a divorce case, contempt is most likely to be civil but criminal can be used if there is dangerous behavior involved.

In the Mugrabi case, the court issued its judgment which included the property distribution terms. Libbie was aware of the order but violated it. Because she ignored or failed to comply with the order, David suffered harm (not receiving the property he was due). Libbie was not found to be in contempt of court, however.

Instead, the judge simply re-emphasized what the court’s order was and directed the parties to comply with it. This is a common response unless there has been some sort of egregious and flagrant behavior (such as violating an order of protection). Courts usually will give the parties another chance to follow through on what is required.

Penalties for Contempt of Court

Contempt of court can result in fines, or it could even result in jail time. The amount of a fine is related to the amount of financial harm caused to the other party. So, for example, if a spouse was ordered to pay tuition for the couple’s child and failed to do so that the other parent had to pay it to keep the child in school, the fine could equal the amount of the tuition. There was no fine or jail time in the Mugrabi case since the court did not find Libbie in contempt of court.

One could imagine, however, that if the case returns to court again and the art and vehicles have not been returned that the judge could become irritated with the noncompliance, and at that point, contempt of court could become a possibility. If that were to happen, Libbie’s attorneys would most certainly come to court with a legal argument that somehow calls into question the order, the facts, the property division, or even the value or nature of the art involved so as to make it appear there are facts in dispute and their client is not just simply ignoring the court order.

Violation of a court order is a serious mistake. Even people as influential as the Mugrabis are required to comply with the terms of a judgment of divorce. Failing to comply with a court order can result in serious consequences.

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Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel founded and leads Bikel & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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