Husband is Punished in California Divorce case for Way he Reacted to Judge’s Orders
I don’t write a lot of blogs about property issues –sure, occasionally, I do—because some of the decisions from the California Court of Appeal are dry. I mean, let’s face it; issues regarding custody, domestic violence, misbehavior by attorneys or judges, or orders to pay attorney fees all make for good reads.
But a decision from the appeals court in Marriage of Gutierrez , issued this week, lays out a property dispute in simple terms and shows how difficult people can be in a divorce.
In this case, the husband (“Alberto”) and his wife (“Mayela”) got married in 2001 and separated in 2008. It was in 2008 that the trial judge, the Hon. Frederick C. Shaller of Los Angeles County, ordered Alberto to sell property (“Havasupai”) that the parties had acquired for $135,000.00 during their marriage. The proceeds from the sale were to be split between the two parties.
Alberto did not sell the property until 2011, three years after the judge’s order, and did not mention the sale to Mayela at that time. But Mayela found about this in 2015, seven years after the judge’s order, and took Alberto back to Court. Alberto claimed that in the interim he had paid the property taxes on the property and asked for $3,578.00 in reimbursement. Mayela, of course, wanted the trial judge to deny the reimbursement claim, to grant her half of the equity in the property, and to sanction Alberto for the attorney fees that she incurred.
Alberto testified that the $135,000.00 home only sold for $38,000.00. The judge found this hard to believe but all he could do was award each party half of that amount, or $7,761.37. The judge also imposed interest on that amount retroactive to his September 2015 decision.
Alberto’s argument on appeal was that nothing the judge said in 2008 required him to sell the property immediately. This argument was shot down. The Court of Appeal said it was unreasonable to argue that “the 2008 order envisioned him selling the Havasupai property in secret, keeping proceeds entirely for himself until Mother discovered what he had done, and then paying Mother her share only upon a further order of the court”. As the three-judge panel noted, “parties to a martial dissolution must act in good faith. If there is legitimate uncertainty about a court order, the proper response is to seek the court’s clarification, not to ‘interpret’ the order in a self-serving and unreasonable way and then cover your tracks”.
The decision was certified for publication, meaning it is binding on all trial courts and attorneys in California and may be cited as precedent. The unanimous decision was written by the Hon. John Wiley, who was joined by the Hon. Patricia Bigelow and the Hon. Elizabeth Grimes.
The decision was filed on May 6, 2020, two days ago.