[Note: Subsequent to this post the Supreme Court denied review, but order the opinion depublished. See, "Family Law Sanctions Case Depublished," posted May 17, 2012.]
Considering the totality of the party's efforts to frustrate a court-approved settlement agreement, both inside and outside California, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding $552,153.28 in sanctions against that party pursuant to Family Code §271, said the Sixth District Court of Appeal in In re Marriage of Wahl and Perkins (Feb. 2, 2012, H035712), __ Cal.App.4th __ [2012 DJDAR 1435].
In April 2006 appellant sought modification of the Permanent Order Regarding Custody and Visitation issued by the court four months earlier. On March 16, 2009, the parties and their attorneys signed a written settlement agreement that resulted in a new custody and visitation order and an order authorizing a co-parent coordinator to address disputes arising between the parties.
Three months later the appellant, now representing herself, filed a document that purported to rescind the agreement on the ground that she had not freely consented due to her "cognitive disability." This disability was "predisposed by domestic violence and precipitated by the retraumatizing conditions and stress of litigation which causes [her] to become symptomatic interfering with [her] ability to be functional during that litigation." Appellant also asserted that she was denied the effective assistance of counsel, who used "coercive, threatening, demeaning, abusive and unconscionable tactics" to obtain her signature that "chronically and acutely instilled profound fear and paralyzing terror which permeates [her] existence and the existence of [her] children."
The stress of litigation did not prevent appellant from vigorously seeking to overturn the Permanent Order, nor did it discourage her from filing an action in Pennsylvania state court, seeking to have all custody and visitation issues decided there, and in Pennsylvania federal court, where she asked for declaratory relief determining that all custody and visitation issues were the province of Pennsylvania state courts.
At the end of this multi-venued war, the trial court concluded that appellant's actions had frustrated "the letter and the spirit" of the Permanent Order and the policy of the law to promote the settlement of litigation. In upholding the court's award of sanctions, the appellate court found that the appellant had not shown that the award included attorney's fees for services unrelated to her "defiant attempts to thwart the court's March 16, 2009, orders," and, in any event, a sanctions award under §271 need not be limited to the cost to the other side resulting from the bad conduct. Since appellant's proceedings in Pennsylvania were closely connected to her efforts to overturn the Superior Court's order, the trial court could reasonably include attorney's fees incurred in those actions in the sanctions order.
Finding that the appellant had raised "completely and undeniably meritless arguments" on appeal, the court imposed sanctions of $15,000 on appellant and $5,000 on each of her two attorneys.