Monday, November 16, 2009
Appeals Court Sanctions ‘Vexatious’ Northridge Attorney $10,000
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal on Friday sanctioned a Northridge attorney and her client $10,000 for bringing a frivolous appeal, for the third time, as to her son’s standing to participate in a probate proceeding.
Div. Five explained that the possibility Justin Ringgold-Lockhart could inherit trust property from his mother, Nina Ringgold, in the future did not give him a property right in or a claim against the trust estate that may be affected by the probate proceeding in which he sought it intercede.
Nina Ringgold, who did not return a MetNews phone call, was a beneficiary and former trustee of a trust. She was held in direct contempt of a court order to sign documents giving the successor trustee access to trust property—which arose from a prior order to cooperate and turn over documents that would allow trust property to be distributed to beneficiaries—by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff in 2006.
She subsequently filed numerous appeals which were dismissed due to her failure to obey the probate court’s order and then began representing her son in 2007, asserting that he had standing to appeal various orders as her successor-in-interest.
Lack of Standing
Ringgold-Lockhart purported to appeal from two 2007 probate court orders, but Div. Five ruled that he lacked standing since he had no then-current interest in the trust assets and no existing right to any distribution from the trust.
In October 2007, Ringgold-Lockhart filed a verified petition seeking an order to show cause re contempt and other relief, but Judge Aviva K. Bobb, since retired, found he lacked standing to participate in the probate proceeding. Div. Five upheld Bobb’s decision in an unpublished decision in January of this year.
The next month Div. Five declared Ringgold a vexatious litigant, finding in an unpublished opinion that she had repeatedly tried to “frivolously litigate her right to appeal on her own behalf notwithstanding her refusal to abide by a court order.”
In the instant case, Ringgold-Lockhart purported to appeal from a nunc pro tunc order approving an ex parte petition for preliminary partial distribution, an order authorizing the retaining of appellate counsel and payment of fees, and a statement of decision.
Probate Code Sec. 48 limits standing in a probate proceeding to an “interested person,” such as an “heir, devisee, child, spouse, creditor, beneficiary, and any other person having a property right in or claim against a trust estate or the estate of a decedent which may be affected by the proceeding.”
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Paul Turner rejected Ringgold-Lockhart’s claim that he was an “interested person” with a future interest in the trust and a current right to trust principle as the issue of an income beneficiary.
“We have reviewed the trust provisions and find no support for plaintiff’s assertions,” Turner said. Absent any evidence that Ringgold-Lockhart was a beneficiary of the trust or that his mother was an income beneficiary of the trust, Turner reasoned that Ringgold-Lockhart had no interest providing him with standing.
He further concluded that sanctions were appropriate “as the contention now for the third appeal that Mr. Ringgold-Lockhart is an interested party thereby having standing to appear and appeal the probate court’s orders is frivolous and any reasonable attorney would believe the appeal totally and completely without merit.”
Joint and Several
Joined by Justice Orville A. Armstrong and Justice Madeline Flier of Div. Eight, sitting on assignment, Turner ordered Ringgold and Ringgold-Lockhart to pay sanctions of $10,720, jointly and severally, in favor of Andre-Paul Summers Chaussier as successor trustee of the Summers Family Trust.
Marshal A. Oldman and Mary-Felicia Apanius of Oldman, Cooley, Sallus, Gold, Birnberg & Coleman represented Chaussier and filed the motion for sanctions. Santa Monica attorney Andrea Lynn Rice and Marc L. Edwards of Tarzana—who represented the trustees of two other trusts involved in the dispute—joined the motion.
Apanius said that the trust dispute began in 2003 and that Ringgold “began appealing virtually every order in the case” after 2005.
She opined that the Court of Appeal “rarely imposes sanctions and this [ruling] demonstrates that they are going to do so in what they believe is an appropriate situation.”
The case is Ringgold-Lockhart v. Sankary, B217816.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company