Friday, February 13, 2015
C.A. Rejects City’s Bid to Collect Legal Fees From Widow of Man Who Hanged Himself in Custody
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An Orange Superior Court judge did not abuse his discretion in denying attorney fees and expert witness fees that the City of Newport Beach sought from the widow of a man who hanged himself in police custody.
The city’s motion, brought under a statute that allows a public entity to recover fees for the successful defense of a frivolous lawsuit, and the appeal from Judge William Monroe’s denial of the motion, “are without merit and close to frivolous,” Justice Richard Fybel wrote Wednesday in an unpublished opinion for Div. Three.
Sandy Wedgeworth sued on behalf of herself and her family after her husband William killed himself in the summer of 2010. She said he suffered from bipolar disorder, and that police wrongfully arrested him on a spousal battery charge.
The plaintiff said she was not abused, and that police were called because Wedgeworth, who hanged himself with bed sheets at the jail, was having a “manic episode.” A jail-death investigation by the district attorney resulted in a report supporting the police version of events, which was that Sandy Wedgeworth told officers her husband had grabbed her hair and thrown her onto a couch.
The report said the wife told officers she did not want her husband locked up but wanted them to “take him somewhere.” The city moved for fees under Code of Civil Procedure §1038 after Monroe granted its motion for summary judgment.
In denying the motion, the judge wrote:
“Defendant City failed to submit any evidence or cite to any portion of the record to show that Wedgeworth Plaintiffs lacked good faith and reasonable cause to bring and maintain this action. Defendant City submitted a declaration from its attorney, Peter J. Ferguson, but he only attested to the amount of attorneys and expert witness fees. Defendant City did not cite to any authority to show that it can just bring this motion and expect the Court to review the entire record in order to make a finding in its favor.
“This court is not the scrivener for the defendants.”
Fybel, writing for the Court of Appeal, explained that in order to prevail on such a motion, the public entity must prove either that the action was brought without reasonable cause or that the plaintiff lacked a good faith belief in the claim.
“Based on the doctrine of implied findings, we infer from the trial court’s unequivocal denial of the motion that it determined the City had failed to prove plaintiffs’ lawsuit was not brought in good faith and was brought without reasonable cause,” the justice wrote.
He rejected the city’s claim that a profanity-laced phone call, made from the jail following his arrest, in which the decedent told his family to sue the city was sufficient to show that the action was brought in bad faith.
The case is Wedgeworth v. City of Newport Beach, G048902.
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