Thursday, January 27, 2011
Court Upholds Sanction Order Against Disbarred Attorney
Frivolous Venue Motion Supported Penalty, Justices Say
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday upheld nearly $90,000 in sanctions against a Glendora attorney who was later disbarred as a result of a criminal conviction arising, in part, from his harassment of a client’s former wife.
In an unpublished decision, Div. Two concluded sanctions against former family law practitioner John F. Watkins were appropriate, based on his purportedly wrongful conduct in filing a frivolous motion for change of venue.
In 1996, Watkins represented Steven Oleesky in a custody dispute with his former wife over their minor son. After Oleesky asserted the boy had been injured due to his mother’s negligence or abuse, the San Bernardino Superior Court appointed Sissie B. Barker to serve as minor’s counsel.
After her appointment, Barker claimed investigators hired by Oleesky began harassing her, sifting through her trash, showing up at her son’s football games, and taking pictures through her daughter’s window. On one occasion, she said, investigators ran her car off the road, jeered and drove off.
During this time the tires on her car were slashed and one of her dogs went missing. She said she found the dog’s collar on her back step with Watkins’ business card sitting in the middle of it, and never saw the dog again.
Barker also claimed Watkins told her he would be filing a lawsuit against her related to her former husband, Patrick McQuiggan. Barker and McQuiggan had divorced in 1987, and since that time there had been no activity in her family law case.
McQuiggan became a client of Watkins in 1997, and Barker asked to be relieved from the Oleesky matter. A witness in the criminal case against Watkins testified that Watkins had solicited McQuiggan in order to get background information on Barker, and to try to get Barker to recuse herself as minor’s counsel.
Shortly after Barker ended her representation of Oleesky’s son, Watkins, representing McQuiggan, filed a motion to change the venue of postjudgment proceedings in the Barker-McQuiggan divorce from San Bernardino to Los Angeles County. He asserted that this motion was preliminary to forthcoming requests for modification of child support, custody, and visitation.
Barker filed a motion seeking sanctions, contending there was no pending action, so Watkins’ motion was superfluous. Retired San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Ben T. Kayashima, sitting on assignment, denied both motions.
Barker renewed the motion in 1999, asserting the change of venue motion was intended as harassment and that Watkins and Oleesky were attempting to intimidate her by reopening her divorce case. Her motion was held in abeyance to allow resolution of a criminal case against Watkins.
In October 1999, a 266-count criminal complaint was filed against Watkins, Oleesky, and other defendants in Orange County. Watkins was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, perjury by declaration, and conspiracy to commit stalking. The first and third counts involved conduct against Barker. He was sentenced to three years in state prison.
Kayashima later found Watkins had acted in bad faith by filing the motion for change of venue. He ordered sanctions of $87,992 under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 128.5.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Carol Codrington noted Sec. 128.5 gives a trial court discretion to award “reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, incurred by another party as a result of bad-faith actions or tactics that are frivolous or solely intended to cause unnecessary delay.”
She explained that sanctions awarded under that statute can include attorney’s fees incurred in litigating the sanctions motion itself.
“In the present case, it comported with statutory policy to award attorney’s fees as sanctions for conduct deemed by the court to be in bad faith and constituting burdensome, unnecessary, frivolous, and delaying legal tactics,” Codrington said, concluding the imposition of sanctions was not an abuse of discretion.
Codrington also said the sanctions motion was timely filed since it was lodged within one year after Kayashima denied the first sanctions motion without prejudice, adding that “there is no expressly-stated statutory time limit on a motion for sanctions… under Section 128.7.”
Presiding Justice Manuel A. Ramirez and Justice Thomas E. Hollenhorst joined Codrington in her decision.
Barker, who is now in private practice in Rancho Cucamonga, was represented by her former law partner and former husband P. Timothy Pittullo.
Watkins was represented by his son and former law partner J. Brian Watkins. The younger Watkins was also named as a defendant in the criminal case, but all charges against him were dismissed and he later successfully petitioned for a finding of factual innocence.
The case is McQuiggan v. McQuiggan, E049027.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company