Fourth District, Division One Sustains $3,000 Award Against Husband.
In our category “Cases: Family Law Awards,” we have reviewed past decisions discussing Family Code section 271, which allows a family judge to award fees as a sanctions against a litigant or counsel who frustrates the policy of encouraging settlement or cooperation in family law disputes. Under this provision, the court does have to take into effect a party’s ability to pay such sanctions. The next case illustrates that the amount of the sanctions does not have to be precisely tethered to the offensive conduct.
In re Marriage of Straus, Case No. D052826 (4th Dist., Div. 1 Jan. 15, 2009) (unpublished) involved a $3,000 sanctions award (out of a $3.193.21 request) assessed against a husband who failed to voluntarily respond to letters seeking information about his retirement benefits. Wife had to file a discovery motion, which prompted husband to start cooperating. The sanctions award was justified because husband forced wife to file a motion and serve discovery to obtain cooperation. Although he argued that a similar situation did not result in sanctions in In re Marriage of Aninger, 220 Cal.App.3d 230, 244-246 (1990), the appellate court observed that it arose under a different statute and that “Aninger does not set a bright-line rule establishing that the failure to respond to two letters will never warrant the imposition of sanctions under section 271.” (Slip Opn., at p. 8 n. 5.)
Husband also challenged the $3,000 sanctions amount as being excessive. This argument was rejected, because section 271 awards need not “be limited to the costs to the other side resulting from the bad conduct.” (Slip Opn., at p. 9, citing In re Marriage of Quay, 18 Cal.App.4th 961, 970 (1993).)
Wife moved to recover appellate attorney’s fees, claiming husband’s appeal was frivolous in nature. This request was denied, because the reviewing panel found that it was not unreasonable for husband to argue that “because of the limited nature of his failure to cooperate, sanctions were not warranted” even under the deferential abuse of discretion review standard. (Slip Opn., at p. 10.) For more discussion of the standards and cases relating to appellate sanctions, see our category “Cases: Appeal Sanctions.”