Tuesday, September 23, 2014
C.A. Throws Out Judgment Against State Deputy Attorney General
Court Says Sharon Wooden, Son Not Properly Served in Dispute Over Family Property
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday reversed a $300,000 default judgment against a state deputy attorney general and her son in a lawsuit between family members over some property.
Div. Seven, in an unpublished opinion, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason abused her discretion in denying Code of Civil Procedure §473 relief to Deputy Attorney General Sharon Wooden and her son, Isaac “Tre” Richard III. The appellate court did, however, affirm the judgment against Wooden’s husband, former Pasadena City Councilman Isaac Richard, saying he was lawfully served and failed to offer a valid excuse in blaming his wife for his lack of response to the complaint.
The ruling is the latest development in six years of litigation over the Los Angeles apartment building that Wooden and her two sisters, Andrea Wooden and Charlene Kobrine, inherited from their mother in 2004.
All three of the sisters have law degrees. Sharon Wooden once clerked for now-deceased California Chief Justice Rose Bird and has been a deputy attorney general since 1985, currently based in San Francisco; Kobrine works at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana; and Andrea Wooden does not practice law.
Pro Se Plaintiff
The default judgment was entered in a suit filed by Andrea Wooden, representing herself, against her sisters, brother-in-law, and nephew. She claimed that Sharon Wooden, her husband, and their son entered her apartment in the building and took personal property belonging to her, along with property that had belonged to her mother.
She pled 11 causes of action, including wrongful eviction, fraud, trespass, conversion, libel and slander.
Richard was served with what he later acknowledged was “a package of documents” at the building in May 2012.
According to a return of service, service was made on an individual who said he was Tre Richard at an address in Piedmont, in the Bay Area, that was the residence of Isaac Richard, Sharon Wooden, Tre Richard, and another son.
The process server also made purported substituted service on Sharon Wooden by delivering the summons and complaint to the individual identifying himself as Tre Richard, and later mailing her a copy of the papers at the same address. In a subsequent declaration, the process server described Tre Richard—who was 18 years old at the time—as being about 45 years old and said that he became angry at being served and chased the process server down the street.
Default was entered against Isaac and Tre Richard and Sharon Wooden in the fall of 2012 and judgment entered on Dec. 11 of that year. In support of their subsequent motions to set aside the judgment, the declared that they had no notice of the lawsuit until January of last year, when they received notice of entry of judgment by mail, as well as a Christmas card from the plaintiff reading: “Pursuant to an order from the L.A. County Superior Court, you are hereby notified that a judgment has been entered against you in the matter mentioned above…”
In support of the subsequent motion to set the judgment aside, Isaac Richard declared that after receiving the papers from the deputy sheriff, he told his wife because she’s a lawyer. He said she assured him that there was no need for him “worry about the papers” and that he did not recall if he brought the papers home or whether he “mislaid or discarded the papers.”
He said he was “surprised, shocked and disappointed that” his sister-in-law had sued him and obtained a judgment.”
Sharon Wooden said she had “a vague recollection of” her husband called her and telling her about papers being served at the apartment building and of telling him “he need not worry about the papers, because if it was a complaint, [her sister] would have to serve me with it personally.”
“To the extent I was wrong about the service issues, it was certainly my fault and not the fault of Isaac.”
Tre Richard pointed out in his declaration that he was only 18, not 45, on the date of the purported service, and said he was not home that day, but rather was away at college. If anyone was home at the time, he said, it was likely his 13-year-old brother.
Andrea Wooden responded that, from the description of what occurred when the process server attempted service at the Richard home, it was likely Isaac Richard—who would have been around 53 at the time—whom the process server gave the papers to.
Bryant-Deason denied the motion as to all three defendants, finding their testimony less than credible.
But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal, sitting on assignment in the Court of Appeal, said Sharon Wooden and her son were entitled to the benefit of Code of Civil Procedure §473.
Since it is clear that Tre Richard was never actually served, Segal reasoned, the judgment must be vacated as to him. And since the only purported service on his mother was through serving him, the judgment must be vacated as to her as well, the jurist said.
Wooden’s attempt to establish substituted service on her sister by claiming that it was actually her brother-in-law, not her nephew, who was home that day is not supported by any evidence, Segal said.
He went on to say, however, that Isaac Richard’s admissions that he received the papers and did nothing about them other than to discuss them with his wife establish that the trial judge was within her discretion in denying him relief.
Relief would have been mandatory, Segal acknowledged, if Richard established that his wife was acting as his attorney and that it was solely her fault that no response was made to the complaint.
But more was required of Richard than merely mentioning the service to his wife, Segal said.
“Neither Isaac nor Sharon made any effort to investigate or find out what the case was about, what kind of case it was (Isaac thought without reading the complaint that it might have been a probate or unlawful detainer case), who the parties were, or where the case was filed….
“Reasonably prudent people, especially those with advanced degrees in business”—Richard has an MBA from Columbia University—“and law do not engage in such conduct, especially when they have knowledge that their adversary, according to Sharon, is litigious and ‘has a history of making frivolous claims and misrepresenting facts in . . . legal matters.’”
The case was argued in the Court of Appeal by Andrea and Sharon Wooden.
The case is Wooden v. Wooden, B251358.
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