Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Court Reverses Sanctions Against Pasadena Attorney
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday reversed an award of over $3,500 in monetary sanctions and attorney fees against a Pasadena attorney based on her alleged violations of the California Rules of Professional Conduct.
Div. One explained that San Diego Superior Court Judge David G. Brown’s imposition of sanctions was legally unsupportable because Linda Paquette had not violated a court order by disregarding a request by counsel for a proposed conservatee that all communications to her client go through her.
Paquette represented Vida Negrete in her petition to obtain a conservatorship over Bibiano Becerra in 2007.
Becerra had suffered serious brain and other injuries in a 2003 construction accident. He later recovered approximately $1.6 million in settlement, which was placed into a trust for which Negrete served as trustee.
San Diego attorney Parisa P. Farokhi was appointed as Becerra’s attorney and requested that all contact with her client be made through her.
In April 2008, Farokhi accused Paquette of having contacted her client without her consent and knowledge, which interfered with her representation of Becerra. Farokhi requested an order to show cause for sanctions or a contempt ruling, on the grounds that Paquette had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct in that manner.
Based on Farokhi’s representations, Brown announced at an April 11 hearing that an order to show cause regarding sanctions would be heard May 30 and the court clerk subsequently served two written notices of the order to show cause regarding sanctions, citing Code of Civil Procedure Secs.177.5 and/or 575.2.
Sec. 177.5 authorizes a judicial officer to impose monetary sanctions “payable to the court, for any violation of a lawful court order by a person, done without good cause or substantial justification.” Sec. 575.2(a) permits a court’s local rules to prescribe sanctions, including penalties or payment of opposing counsel’s attorney fees, for noncompliance with those rules.
Both orders were dated April 14 and signed by Judge Richard G. Cline. One order was printed on a court form and stated that the hearing would be held in Cline’s courtroom, but it did not fill in the blanks regarding the basis for the sanctions. The other order gave similarly general notice, except that it stated the matter would be heard in Brown’s courtroom.
On May 30, the sanctions matter came for hearing in Brown’s courtroom but Paquette failed to appear, as she was in Cline’s courtroom and had to be redirected to Brown’s courtroom. In the meantime, Brown heard argument from Farokhi and ordered Paquette to pay $1,000 sanctions to the clerk of the court and pay attorney fees to Farokhi in the amount of $2,587.50.
Paquette appealed, contending that the sanctions were unsupported by statutory authority or the record in the form of a proven violation of an existing lawful court order, as opposed to a different finding by the probate court of her violation of a rule of professional conduct that could lead to attorney disciplinary proceedings.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Richard D. Huffman reasoned that the probate court’s order was “largely or entirely based on its belief that the Rules of Professional Conduct had been knowingly violated and this amounted to a violation of some court order or a rule of court.”
He explained that Farokhi had the right to request other attorneys in the conservatorship case not independently contact her client, and a violation of her request would amount to a violation of Rule 2-100(A)—which forbids attorneys from contacting with an individual represented by counsel without that lawyer’s consent.
“Although the standards of professional responsibility prepared by the State Bar are subject to approval by the Supreme Court, and as such are binding upon counsel, they are not normally regarded as court orders or local rules of the type referred to in sections 177.5 and 575.2, for purposes of awarding sanctions,” Huffman said.
Huffman therefore concluded that the probate court’s apparent misinterpretation of Secs. 177.5 and 575.2 to justify the setting of a sanctions hearing and then to find Paquette had violated court orders on that basis was incorrect and in excess of the probate court’s discretion.
Huffman also noted that the oral and written orders failed to comply with Sec. 177.5’s requirements that sanction orders be in writing and recite in detail the conduct or circumstances justifying the order and, joined by Justices Gilbert Nares and Cynthia Aaron, rejected the sanctions order as “at all times ineffective, invalid and void.”
The case is Conservatorship of Becerra, 09 S.O.S. 4538.
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