Trial court improperly imposed sanctions pursuant to Fam C §271 against mother and her attorney for litigation conduct the court disagreed with. . .
In a reversal, the Second District held that trial court erred by ordering sanctions pursuant to Fam C §271 [court may impose fee order based on conduct of party or attorney that frustrates settlement] sua sponte against mother and her attorney on the grounds that mother argued that father should not have overnight visits until child turns two years old, mother filed a motion to disqualify trial judge, mother submitted a proposed judgment with errors, and mother argued that father's video calls with child should be recorded.
Featherstone v. Martinez
(December 21, 2022)
California Court of Appeal 2 Civ B316280 (Div 5) 86 Cal.App.5th 775, 302 Cal.Rptr.3d 619, 2023 FA 2064, per Baker (Moor, J., and Kim, J., concurring). Los Angeles County: Horan, J., order reversed. For Annaquite Featherstone and Crystal Hill (Appellants): James Decker. For Brian Martinez (Respondent): Pro Per. CFLP §A.18.3.1.
Annaquite Featherstone and Brian Martinez had one child together in 2019. Two months after their child was born, Annaquite filed a parentage petition requesting primary physical and joint legal custody of their child. In her supporting declaration, Annaquite acknowledged that Brian was an involved father but that he traveled frequently for work and was in town only three to four days a month. Annaquite requested that Brian's initial visitation with their child last only three to four hours at a time and take place at her home and that Brian provide two weeks' advance noticed before each visit. Brian, in turn, requested that his overnight visits begin once their child turns two years old. Brian filed a response and, in his proposed visitation schedule, requested each visit last eight hours and that overnight visits begin when child turns six months old.
At a December 2019 hearing in which Annaquite appeared pro per, the trial court commented on Annaquite's parentage petition stating that "'[T]he way you wrote it, it was along the lines of, I control everything, I'm the boss, and, you know, I'll do him a favor and let him see his child.'" When the trial court asked Annaquite if she was breastfeeding, the trial court said "'[d]on't…lie'" and "'don't exaggerate'" before Annaquite answered. The trial court finally commented "'I'm going to side completely with [Brian] today, and I think in the future you're going to have a really hard time, because although I've tried to explain it, emotionally-and I understand-you do not feel like he's an equal parent and you feel like you need to drag this out and make it slow.'"
After this hearing, Annaquite retained counsel, Crystal Hill. In March 2019, Crystal filed a motion to disqualify the judge under CCP §170.1 [challenge of trial judge for cause] based on purported bias that the judge demonstrated during the first hearing. The trial court stated that the motion was "'almost by definition untimely under these circumstances.'" Crystal responded that she received the transcript from the December 2019 hearing only a few days ago. The trial court struck the motion as untimely and during argument on visitation issues during the same hearing, the trial court stated that Crystal was not directly answering its questions and warned that, without improvement, they would "'start talking about sanctions.'"
In July 2020, Annaquite submitted a proposed judgment, to which Brian objected on the grounds that it contained several errors, including misstatements of the trial court's ruling. The trial court rejected the proposed judgment.
In February 2021, Brian filed a trial brief in which he requested Annaquite pay $7,000 in attorney's fees pursuant to Fam C §271(a) [disso court may impose fee order based on conduct of party or attorney that furthers or frustrates settlement] due to Annaquite's purported unreasonable litigation, including the motion to disqualify the judge, the proposed judgment containing misstatements of the trial court's ruling, and her general refusal to settle.
At a hearing on February 24, 2021, the trial court recounted its concerns regarding Annaquite's litigation conduct. Regarding Annaquite's motion to disqualify the judge, the trial court commented "'[Annaquite] has the right to believe I was biased. She always has that right, and I can't sanction her for that…. [But] she does not have the right to file late, improperly noticed, and/or out of context motions.'" In response to Crystal's argument that Brian has not properly noticed a motion for sanctions under Fam C §271, the trial court stated "'I think I noticed [Annaquite] for sanctions on my own motion at one of the earlier hearings when things were not proceeding as well…. It's the court's own motion.'"
At a June 21, 2021, hearing, while the parties were discussing their agreement that Brian would have video calls with their child, Annaquite interjected that she agreed to use Zoom only and not any other platforms, since Zoom calls may be recorded. When the trial court inquired why Annaquite wanted to record these video calls, Annaquite said she would like to record the calls because she and Brian had disagreed in the past about whether certain statements were made. With regard to Annaquite's insistence that Brian use Zoom, the trial court stated Annaquite had a controlling mindset and that although it was prepared to give "'just the tiniest sanctions…now sanctions are back, thoroughly back, on the table[.]'"
In September 2021, the trial court held a hearing to impose sanctions. At the beginning of the hearing, the trial court stated that the motion for sanctions has been "'noticed, re-noticed, and repeatedly noticed.'" The trial court again recounted its issues with Annaquite's conduct. First, the trial court stated that Annaquite's declaration was misleading and her attempt to prevent Brian from having overnights for two years while also limiting his visits to three or four hours at a time was "'in and of itself, sanctionable.'" Second, the trial court stated that Annaquite's motion to disqualify the judge was untimely and procedurally deficient and "'was written out of context in an intentionally inflammatory and dishonest manner.'" Third, the trial court noted the proposed judgment prepared by Annaquite that the trial court rejected "'because it was replete with errors and omissions[.]'" And finally, the trial court stated that Annaquite's request to use only Zoom for video calls was "'alarming, outrageous, unbelievable, tone deaf, counterproductive…'" and that when the trial court attempted to note its problem with Annaquite's request, Crystal interrupted "'in a rude and abrupt manner.'" At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court (Los Angeles County's Horan) sanctioned Annaquite in the amount of $10,000 and separately sanctioned Crystal in the amount of $10,000. Annaquite appealed and the Second District reversed.
Sanctions were not proper as to Annaquite's attorney. . .
The justices first held that the trial court's order compelling Crystal to pay $10,000 in sanctions was improper and must be reversed. Fam C §271 permits sanctions only against a party, not a party's attorney. Specifically, Fam C §271(c) provides that "[a]n award of attorney's fees and costs as a sanction pursuant to this section is payable only from the property or income of the party against whom the sanction is imposed, except that the award may be against the sanctioned party's share of the community property." Moreover, Fam C §271(b) provides sanctions shall be imposed "only after notice to the party against whom the sanction is proposed to be imposed and opportunity for that party to be heard." Noting the "ample precedent" supporting position, the justices cited Shenefield v. Shenefield (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 619, 290 Cal.Rptr.3d 641, which noted that "including attorneys in sanctions provisions under section 271 would be redundant because attorneys are subject to sanctions for behavior under Code of Civil Procedure 128.5."
Sanctions were not proper as to Annaquite. . .
As to Annaquite, the panel held that the sanctions award against her was error too, "even if a marginally less obvious one." The justices took each of the grounds upon which the trial court based its award of sanctions and noted that individually or collectively, Annaquite's litigation conduct did not merit sanctions. First, with regard to Annaquite's early declarations as well as her insistence to use Zoom, behavior in which the trial court found she demonstrated a "controlling 'mindset,'" the justices noted that Fam C §271 provides for sanctions where the conduct of a party or attorney frustrates the policy of the law to promote settlement. Here, the justices found that the trial court sanctioned Annaquite not for frustrating settlement offers but "for taking litigation positions with which the court disagreed." Second, the justices turned to Annaquite's motion to disqualify the judge and her renewed objection to the purported bias at the February 2021 hearing, finding neither were sanctionable. The justices noted that although the trial court announced it knew it cannot sanction Annaquite for her belief that the trial judge was biased, the court "was unable to hold to that standard." And finally, the justices turned to Annaquite's proposed judgment that contained errors, holding that the errors in question "were not so significant as to merit sanctions anyway."
For these reasons, the Second District reversed the trial court's order imposing sanctions against Crystal and Annaquite.
The panel opened its discussion of the case by noting that there is a question whether Fam C §271 even authorizes a trial court to issue sanctions on its own motion, as the trial court did in this case. The justices, however, refrained from deciding the issue since they determined that the sanctions were meritless. But in a footnote, the justices compared Fam C §271 with other statutes authorizing sanctions. Fam C §271(c) provides "[i]n order to obtain an award under this section, the party requesting an award of attorney's fees and costs is not required to demonstrate any financial need for the award." But see CCP §128.5 [expenses may be imposed pursuant to section "on the court's own motion"]; CCP §128.7(c)(2) [court may enter order describing sanctionable conduct "on the court's own motion"]; and CCP §177.5 [court may impose sanctions under section "on the court's own motion."].
11 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2022) Marriage, §25
Hogoboom & King, Cal. Practice Guide: Family Law (The Rutter Group) ¶¶14:230 et seq.