Publication Date:: Monday, June 30, 2008
Trustees’ Fees Not Recoverable Under Elder Abuse Act—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The attorneys’ fees provision of the of the Elder Abuse Act does not authorize the award of trustee fees as costs, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
Div. Three overturned an award of more than $500,000 in fees to the trustee of the Lawson Family Trust for services rendered in connection with a challenge to the manner in which Cheryl Lawson obtained her elderly parents’ signatures on a quitclaim deed that transferred an undivided one-half interest in a Santa Barbara residence to her.
The court also overturned the remainder of the judgment, awarding the trust and the parents’ conservator nearly $700,000 in damages and awarding their attorneys more than $1 million in fees, on the ground that the trial judge had abused his discretion by denying Cheryl Lawson a continuance.
Lewis and Sylvia Lawson, now deceased, and their daughter acquired the Santa Barbara property in the 1990. Ownership was divided one-half to the parents and one-half to the daughter, and the parents’ interest was subsequently conveyed to the trust.
In May 2003, the parents quitclaimed their interest to the daughter, who subsequently filed a quiet title action against the trustee. While that action was pending, the trustee and the parents’ conservator filed their elder abuse action, claiming that Cheryl Lawson, one of three children, used pressure, force, and coercion to get her parents to execute the deed.
Following a bench trial, the judge found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages, costs, and trustees’ and attorneys’ fees.
But Justice Richard Aldrich, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 15657.5, the attorney’s fee provision of the Elder Abuse Act, cannot be stretched to support an award of trustees’ fees. He noted that the statute makes no mention of trustees, only conservators, and concluded this was a matter of legislative intent, not oversight.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the justice said Cheryl Lawson’s requests for a continuance and to reopen discovery should have been granted because the trial was noticed only four months in advance, the defendant’s attorney needed more time than that to prepare because he was suffering from a serious medical condition at the time of the notice, and the plaintiffs had subjected Lawson to a “squeeze play” by waiting 88 days to serve the summons and complaint.
The last fact, Aldrich wrote, contradicts the plaintiffs’ claim that a continuance would have prejudiced them because the parents were elderly and in ill health.
“The requisite balance was missing here,” the justice wrote. The judge’s ruling, he said, left Lawson with “[t]he absolute inability...to proceed at trial with the necessary tools in violation of the preference for trial on the merits.”
Aldrich also said, in another unpublished portion of the opinion, that the fee award was excessive on its face because it was disproportionate to the results obtained and the complexity of the case.
“The fees here have raised the shameful specter of the horrendous case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, where because of protracted delays...the corpus of the estates were depleted by court costs and legal fees,” the jurist wrote.
The case is Sanders v. Lawson, B185999.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company