Mother Sanctioned for Not Complying with Orders
In affirming the Trial Court, a California Court of Appeals has ruled that Trial Court did not make a mistake by imposing California Family Code Section 271 sanctions of $552,153 on a parent whose refusal to comply with Trial Court custody and visitation orders and whose concomitant litigious conduct in Pennsylvania Trial Court frustrated settlement and added to the parties’ litigation costs. In the case of In re Marriage of Wahl and Perkins, Mother and Father were divorced in 1999. Sometime later, custody and visitation proceedings resulted in a December 2005, custody order that was designated as a final order, modifiable only on a showing of substantial change of circumstances.
In April of 2006, Mother moved to modify the custody orders. That matter apparently remained pending after custody the evaluator recommended that Children be in Father’s custody for at least one year, pending further assessments. The matter did not move forward until 2009, when Trial Court scheduled a mandatory settlement conference for February 23, 2009, and a trial date for March 2, 2009. Mother failed to appear at that conference, and she and Father were ordered to meet with a retired judge acting as a mediator, where they reached a written agreement. They and their attorneys signed it and Trial Court approved it. On March 16, 2009, Trial Court issued a Permanent Order regarding custody that awarded Mother and Father joint legal custody of Children, with Mother to have sole physical custody and Father to have visitation according to a specific schedule. The order also provided for payment of travel expenses and clothing for Children to travel to California from their home in Pennsylvania, and required Mother to provide Children with cell phones (with texting and voice mail). Children were permitted to use email, cell phones, videoconferencing, or other electronic communication to call each parent. Mother was also ordered to maintain a working fax machine to accept Father’s communications. In addition, Trial Court made a Co-Parent Coordinator Order, designed to carry out its establishment of a process for Mother and Father to resolve disagreements and to spell out coordinator’s duties.
On March 17, 2009, only one day after Trial Court’s order, Mother claimed that the March 16, 2009, orders were coerced and told Father that she considered them null and void. On June 10, 2009, Mother, now in pro per, filed a 13-page “Rescission of Signature and Agreement Affixed Thereto” in which she purported to rescind her agreement to the March 16, 2009 orders. On June 25, 2009, Father filed a request for emergency screening, child-custody evaluation, and order for sole legal and physical custody of Children, pending the evaluation. Father subsequently sought California Family Code Section 271 sanctions. When Mother failed to appear at the scheduled hearing on July 16, 2009, Trial Court issued an order compelling Mother’s compliance with the March 16, 2009 orders, among other things, and scheduling a further hearing for August 10, 2009.
From then on, Mother sent letters to Trial Court and to former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Ronald George, claiming due process violations, reiterating her rescission of the custody agreement, and claiming that Pennsylvania Trial Court had jurisdiction. Mother repeatedly failed to appear at scheduled hearings, initiated proceedings in Pennsylvania that required Father to retain local counsel, thwarted Father’s attempts to communicate with the Children by cell phone or fax, violated travel provisions regarding the Children, and ultimately sued the Pennsylvania judge in federal court.
In preparation for a scheduled hearing on Father’s motion for California Family Code Section 271 sanctions, Father submitted a declaration, stating that he has incurred more than $552,000 in attorneys’ fees defending Mother’s lawsuits. He also submitted declarations from his attorneys in California and Pennsylvania detailing their services in state and federal courts and from a financial analyst regarding the parties’ relative financial positions. Declarations showed that as of February 13, 2009, Mother had liquid assets of around $5.7 million and $1 million in property. Father declared that Mother had received $30 million in cash and stock in their 2001 divorce settlement.
At the hearing on February 26, 2010, Father and his attorney testified, but Mother did not appear. Trial Court found that Father made sufficient showing that Mother’s behavior frustrated settlement, that Father’s attorneys’ fees were not unreasonable, and that Mother had repeatedly ignored Trial Court’s orders. Accordingly, Trial Court ordered Mother to pay Family Code Section 271 sanctions of $552,153 to Father.
Mother appealed, but a California Court of Appeals has now affirmed Trial Court’s decision. The Appellate Court has ruled that Trial Court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Mother to pay sanctions of that amount and that Mother’s appeal is frivolous. The Appellate Court has affirmed Trial Court sanctions order and orders Mother and her attorneys to pay appellate sanctions totaling $25,000.