California Woman Files in Wrong Court and Has to Pay $90,000.00 in Family Law Case
Sometimes people have to go back to court when their divorce case is over. When this occurs, they need to go back to the court which decided the divorce — not some other court, or some other courthouse.
A California woman, who was divorced in Los Angeles County, found out the hard way. After getting divorced, she decided to sue her ex-husband in a civil court in Orange County, claiming that he had siphoned off assets that were subject to the divorce judgment. In other words, she filed in a different county and in a different type of court (civil vs. family) in that county.
Taking advantage of a provision in the divorce judgment that said if there was further litigation after divorce, the prevailing party would be responsible for attorney fees, the former husband first got the case dismissed by Orange County on the long-standing theory that family law cases should not be allowed to spill over into family court and that if there is fraud in the divorce case, you cannot sue the wrongdoer in civil court. The ex-husband then got the divorce judge in Los Angeles County to order the ex-wife to pay $90,000.00 in attorney fees. That’s a lot of money, but the lawyers who the ex-husband hired to help him out had hourly rates that went up to $800.00 per hour.
Naturally, the ex-wife appealed, saying that the family law judge should not have imposed a punishment for something she did in civil court in another county. She also said that the $90,000.00 award was not reasonable. But the Court of Appeal ruled against her this month in a case called Pont v. Pont.
But the problem was that the divorce judgment, which was achieved after the parties reached an agreement, stated that if any party was forced to seek “Court intervention to enforce any provision of this Stipulated Further Judgment, the prevailing Party shall be entitled to all of her or his reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in connection therewith.”
The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court, stating that the ex-husband no doubt had “prevailed” when he got the court in Orange County to dismiss the civil case. After all, getting a case dismissed is about the best thing that can happen to you when you are the defendant in a civil suit.
As to the amount of the fees, the ex-wife said that multiple attorneys performed the same task. But the appeals court countered that the ex-wife did not specify which billing entries in invoices submitted to the court were duplicative.
As to the $800.00 an hour rate, the Court of Appeal noted that this was a lot of money but that the charges were still “within the range of rates charged by firms of this capacity in this area.” And $90,000.00 did not even cover all of the bills that the ex-husband had incurred.
The Court of Appeal spent a lot of time discussing the legal basis for the fee award, which was “the prevailing party” doctrine contained in Code of Civil Procedure section 1717. Note that this basis is different than the basis that most people familiar with the family law system are familiar with, namely Family Code section 2030, which awards fees if there is a disparity in wealth between the parties.
After determining that a fee award could be made, pursuant to the language in the judgment, based on the prevailing party statute, the court next concluded that the ex-husband was indeed a “prevailing party” because he got a case (albeit, a different case) dismissed and because the family court in Los Angeles ultimately concluded that it had continuous exclusive jurisdiction over the case.
After these determinations, the ex-wife was a dead duck. That’s because trial courts have wide discretion in determining the amount of attorney fees. As stated by the Court of Appeal
attorney fees are determined under the lodestar method, “ ‘ “calculated by first multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate of compensation.” ’ ” (Calvo Fisher & Jacob LLP v. Lujan (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 608, 619.) “ ‘ “ ‘The “experienced trial judge is the best judge of the value of professional services rendered in [the] court, and while [the trial judge’s] judgment is of course subject to review, it will not be disturbed unless the appellate court is convinced that it is clearly wrong”—meaning that it abused its discretion.’ ” [Citations.]’ Indeed, . . . the ‘only proper basis of reversal of the amount of an attorney fees award is if the amount awarded is so large or small that it shocks the conscience and suggests that passion and prejudice influenced the determination.’ [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 620.) “The party opposing the fee award can be expected to identify the particular charges it considers objectionable.” (Gorman v. Tassajara Development Corp. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 44, 101.)
In ruling in the ex-husband’s favor, the trial court –and then the Court of Appeal– noted that the husband’s fee request was supported by his lawyers’ detailed declarations, which included timesheets and billing records. For each attorney, the records displayed an hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours spent, consistent with a lodestar analysis.
The Court of Appeal decision was authored by Justice Helen Bendix. She was joined by Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild and Justice Victoria Chaney. The trial judge was the Hon. Richard J. Burdge, Jr. of Los Angeles County.
The Court of Appeal authorized publication of the case, which means it is binding precedent on trial judges and lawyers throughout California.