Husband and wife married in 1948 and separated in 1990. Wife filed Petition for Dissolution in 2006. Wife’s lead counsel was a first-year attorney. Husband retained three attorneys, one of whom the wife’s lead counsel described as the dean of the local family law bar. The dissolution proceeding produced 19 volumes of court files. Wife filed a motion for an accounting and a Section 271 motion for sanctions in the amount of $600,861 and attorney fees in the amount of $332,933. There was no meet and confer. The motion for sanctions and attorney fees included a 52-page declaration of Wife’s lead counsel, a 13-page memorandum of points and authorities that cited to only one case, and 250 pages of exhibits. In his declaration, Wife’s lead counsel made personal attacks on Husband. Husband responded with a Section 271 motion of his own. The court denied Wife’s motion and granted Husband’s. The statement of decision questioned why Wife’s law firm chose to “‘educate’ a newly admitted lawyer with a case that involved millions of dollars of varied assets in California and other states…” The statement of decision also noted that Wife’s lead counsel was “taught to litigate this case with unbridled aggression.” And while Husband’s refusal to discuss the case with Wife’s lead counsel was “inexcusably rude and uncalled for,” the court ordered Wife to pay Husband $100,000 in Section 271 sanctions.
Section 271 provides that “(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of this code, the court may base an award of attorney’s fees and costs on the extent to which the conduct of each party or attorney furthers or frustrates the policy of the law to promote settlement of litigation and, where possible, to reduce the cost of litigation by encouraging cooperation between the parties and attorneys. An award of attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to this section is in the nature of a sanction…”
Wife appealed, asserting that the order was not based on substantial evidence. The Court of Appeal affirmed the order of the trial court, noting that the statement of decision was 31 pages and set forth 15 findings. The Court of Appeal noted that the record was replete with “abusive, rude, hostile, and/or disrespectful” correspondence from Wife’s lead counsel and that he himself had acknowledged that “[p]erhaps some unpleasant letters that could offend someone did substantially increase the cost of litigation.” The Court of Appeal closed its discussion with a “reminder to counsel – all counsel, regardless of practice, regardless of age – that zealous advocacy does not equate with ‘attack dog’ or ‘scorched earth’; nor does it mean lack of civility.”