Anyone who has been through a contentious divorce case in California will tell you that one of the scariest things is the possibility of sanctions, that is, a fine — if the judge thinks that one of the parties has not been very cooperative.

That’s what happened in 2012 in San Diego, when a judge sanctioned the wife $70,000.00.  Now, within the past week, the Court of Appeal in San Diego has upheld the decision by a 3-0 vote.  The Court of Appeal’s decision, which was written by Justice Judith Haller, came in the case of Marriage of Bell.  The appeals court, however, did not authorize its decision to be published in the official reports of California cases, which means the logic of the court cannot be relied on in the future by other attorneys or judges as precedent.

Still, the facts of the case are interesting.  First, the Court of Appeal noted that the husband was represented by the same attorney thoughout the case, whereas the wife had a different attorney for three different stages of the case.  At other times, she represented herself.  This is the second time that I can remember a San Diego divorce court imposing sanctions, in part, because of the cost associated with new attorneys entering the case.

By June, 2012, the husband reported that he had spent $217,126.08 on attorney fees, and he requested that the wife pay him $112,500.00.  The judge awarded $70,000.00 instead, but he was not too happy with what the wife had done.  According to the judge, the wife had “frustrated efforts to minimize litigation”; used an “unnecessarily aggressive approach to the case thwarting the reduction of litigation and possibility of settlement”; and “unjustifiably and unnecessarily lengthened” the court proceedings.

Specifically, the court noted that the wife had withdrawn over $75,000.00 in community property money the same day she filed for divorce; had made frivolous objections to the husband’s interrogatories (which are questions one side gets to force the other side to answer in writing); refused to cooperate with admission into evidence of a report prepared by a court-appointed expert; failed to give requested documents to a “special master” (who is someone who is neutral to the case who helps the judge figure out what the facts are); withheld information about a 401k from the special master; failed to pay her share of fees owed to the special master and the court appointed custody expert; interfered inappropriately with the real property appraiser during his inspection of the parties’ home; and — get this — arrived at the trial two hours late and waited until her arrival to submit her voluminous trial brief and exhibits.

Folks, don’t do this.  Judges probably don’t like sanctioning people, but if one person’s conduct is causing the other side’s attorney fees to go up, that isn’t fair either.  It’s o.k. to take a hardline approach, but there is no tactical reason for being two hours late for trial and not submitting a trial brief on time.

As stated above, there were times when the wife represented herself.  The trial was one of those times.  Another big mistake.  That alone probably caused the trial to last longer than it should.

It is not surprising that the wife appealed.  Who wants to pay $70,000.00?  But as Justice Haller wrote, “the record supports the court’s conclusion that Catherine’s actions went beyond vigorous representation and fell into the category of unreasonable and uncooperative conduct that thwarts the policy of expeditious adjudication and promotion of settlement”.

The other justices on the case were the Hon. Terry O’Rourke and the Hon. Joan Irion.  The trial judge was the Hon. David Rubin.

Because he won, the husband gets to have the wife pay his “costs” on appeal.  Costs do not include the attorney fees, but interestingly, the husband did not have an attorney on appeal — in spite of the fact that he had lengthy dealings with one attorney throughout the case — so there were no attorney fees about which to be considered, from his perspective.  The wife was represented by an attorney on appeal, but obviously the attorney was not able to sway the Court of Appeal.