Friday, March 13, 2009
Court Limits Sanctions for False Accusations in Custody Proceedings
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A party exonerated of false allegations of child abuse or neglect in a child custody proceeding must move quickly to obtain sanctions against the accuser, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Noting the lack of an actual deadline in state law and the public policy of ensuring the best interest of children, Div. One on Wednesday applied equitable principles to conclude that falsely accused parties must seek sanctions within 60 days after service of a judgment exonerating them, or within 180 days of the judgment’s entry, whichever comes first.
However, the court held that retroactive application of the rule against a father who sought sanctions against his daughter’s mother and her attorney just under one year after being exonerated would be unfair because the case was one of first impression, and directed the trial court to consider the man’s motion on the merits.
Robert L. dated Catherine D. briefly and they had one child together, a daughter, but the pair never married. During the course of subsequent custody proceedings, the mother alleged Robert presented hazardous living conditions by allowing his ten cats, dogs and birds to urinate and defecate freely throughout his house; neglected the child by allowing her to be raised “by a series of nannies too numerous to count;” sexually abused the girl; and suffered from psychosis.
Almost two years after the allegations were initially raised, San Diego Superior Court Judge Lorna A. Alskne granted Robert full legal custody and exonerated him of the allegations, and 364 days later Robert sought sanctions under Family Code Sec. 3027.1 against Catherine and her attorney Jeffrey C. Fritz of San Diego, who repeated the allegations in court.
Under Sec. 3027.1, a court has discretion to impose monetary sanctions against a party, the party’s attorney or a witness if the movant establishes that an accusation of child abuse or neglect in a child custody proceeding was false, and the accuser knew so when making the allegation.
Robert sought upwards of $750,000 for attorney fees and costs, claiming he incurred at least $250,000 defending himself from the abuse and neglect accusations, but Fritz moved to quash, arguing the motion was untimely and deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction.
Alskne disagreed, but on her own treated the motion to quash as a motion to strike and applied the one-year limitations period for defamation under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340(c), analogizing a “claim for damages for false accusations” under Sec. 3027.1 to slander and striking any allegations of child abuse or neglect not made within one year before Robert’s motion.
The trial court dismissed the motion against Fritz after Robert acknowledged it could not succeed in light of the ruling, but the father contended on appeal that Alskne should have applied a presumptive deadline under the equitable doctrine of laches based on the tort of malicious prosecution, which would have given him two years from the date of judgment.
But Justice Patricia D. Benke wrote that neither period governed the timing of a sanctions motion under Sec. 3027.1 in the absence of a statute or rule setting a specific deadline, although she agreed that equitable principles applied.
Instead, Benke concluded that that the statute’s legislative history, the public policy of ensuring the health, safety and welfare of children, and consistency required a party seeking Sec. 3027.1 sanctions to do so within the 60 or 180 day time limits, which she drew from the California Rules of Court.
The justice also commented that a party who sought sanctions beyond the deadline could still obtain them, but bore the burden to demonstrate that the delay was excusable and did not result in undue prejudice to the opposing party or person identified in the motion.
Justices Richard D. Huffman and Gilbert Nares joined Benke in her opinion.
The case is Robert J. v. Catherine D., 09 S.O.S. 1472.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company