Did you know that in a California domestic violence case, a judge may order either side to pay attorney fees? In San Diego, the Court of Appeal may that abundantly clear in a decision that it ordered published earlier this month.
Ruling 3-0, the appeals court upheld a decision by the trial judge to award $5,000.00 in attorney fees to a woman who earlier had obtained a one year restraining order against an ex-boyfriend. Actually, the trial judge had been asked to award $12,500.00 in fees but decided instead on the lower amount.
This case involved a couple who dated two years and lived together part of that time. In 2013, one of the parties filed a request for a domestic violence restraining order. There is a place on the form used in these cases to request attorney fees, but the applicant, who did not have an attorney anyway, either didn’t see this part of the form or simply forget to check the area to make the request.
Because she forget to make the request on the one hand, but because she still ended up getting attorney fees on the other (after she had a lawyer representing her and in a separate hearing after the court granted the restraining order itself), the other side appealed the decision. Writing for the appeals court in downtown San Diego, Justice Judith Haller noted that attorney fees are authorized for the prevailing party in domestic violence cases. She further explained that the ex-boyfriend’s argument “fails because statutory attorney fees need not be pleaded and proved at trial and may properly be awarded after entry of judgment”. Summarizing its decision, the court stated “because the prevailing party attorney fees were statutorily authorized as an incident to the DVRO request (rather than an item of special damages related to the DRVO [sic] request), Faton’s failure to ask for them on a standard form DVRO petition prior to the evidentiary hearing did not constitute a forfeiture of her right to seek them after the court issued the DVRO in her favor”.
Attorney fee awards to the prevailing party are important in domestic violence cases, regardless of who wins. For a victim of domestic violence, a fee award helps finance the cost of a lawyer. Without a lawyer, a victim may end up losing rather than winning because, among other things, a lawyer can convince the judge of the danger of the other side; should know how to get evidence admitted; and should know what facts are important to the case and what facts are not.
On the other hand, for one falsely accused of domestic violence or at least undeserving of a restraining order, fees are important because they might discourage someone from bringing a meritless case to begin with, or because they may reimburse the person from having to hire a lawyer to defend against a restraining order that should not have been sought in the first instance. Domestic violence restraining orders in California may last up to five years.
The name of this case was Faton v. Ahmedo. Although the branch of the Court of Appeal that decided this case is based in downtown San Diego, the matter may be cited as precedent by courts throughout California because the Court of Appeal ordered the case “published”.