Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, September 24, 2019


Page 1


Court of Appeal:

Judge Erred in Deciding Attorney-Fee Issue Not Before Him


By a MetNews Staff Writer



In this 2014 file photo, Renee Zellweger, left, and Doyle Bramhall II attend ELLE's 21st annual Women In Hollywood Awards at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.


In this May 31 file photo, Susannah Melvoin poses in front of a photo of Prince at Warner Music Group in Los Angeles.


The Court of Appeal for this district said yesterday that a Superior Court judge erred in determining that a former wife is to receive no attorney fees from her ex-husband where the fee issue had been bifurcated and was not before the court.

The unpublished opinion by Justice John Segal of Div. Seven reverses a judgment by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bruce G. Iwasaki, ordering that, on remand, a hearing be granted on singer/songwriter Susannah Melvoin’s request for attorney fees from guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.

Undisturbed are Iwasaki’s order to Bramhall to pay $1,066 a month for child support and $200 monthly in spousal support and that Melvoin reimburse $11,000 to her ex-husband for a watch she stole from him.

In calculating support payments, Iwasaki did not count as income the free living accommodations provided to Bramhall by his then-girlfriend, actress Renee Zellwegger, or the payment by her of his monthly credit card charges of $4,000 to $5,000 a month—amounting to nearly $60,000 in 2015.

Parties Approached Stardom

Segal noted:

“According to the family law court, the two of them ‘have often stood twenty feet from stardom, writing and performing with major attractions,’ Bramhall with Eric Clapton and Melvoin with Prince.

“But times have changed. Melvoin is now a teacher’s aide and, in the words of the family law court, ‘sells Prince tchotchkes.’ Bramhall is still in the music business, but he now ‘travels by van from town to town for one-night [shows].’ ”

With respect to the attorney fees, Segal said the record is clear that Bramhall’s attorney stipulated top bifurcation of the issue and that Iwasaki said he would transfer the case to another department for a hearing on that matter.

Segal rejected Bramhall’s contention that any procedural gaffe is unimportant because the judge “had all of the evidence it needed to decide the issue,” decided it, and the ruling should stand.

Issue Not Addressed

The jurist responded:

“Certainly the court heard testimony about the parties’ financial circumstances. But Melvoin (and, to be fair, Bramhall) did not have an opportunity to present argument and evidence specifically on the issue of attorneys’ fees. The parties did not address attorneys’ fees in their initial or supplemental closing briefs. Indeed, Melvoin stated she was submitting her ‘written closing argument on the bifurcated issues of child support and spousal support.’ ”

He continued:

“Nor did counsel address attorneys’ fees during closing argument. Bramhall may be able to cite evidence he contends supports the family law court’s essentially surprise ruling, but Melvoin should have had the opportunity to argue the law and factors under Family Code sections 2030 and 2032 and why they weigh in favor of awarding her attorneys’ fees. The opportunity to present argument and evidence on a disputed issue is fundamental to our system of justice, and Melvoin should have that opportunity.”

Erroneous Impression

There had been some confusion on the judge’s part. On Sept. 1, 2017, his tentative decision was filed, setting forth:

“This is the Court’s Tentative Decision…and Proposed Statement of Decision….This tentative decision will become the statement of decision unless, within ten days after service of the tentative decision, a party specifies those principal controverted issues as to which the party is requesting a statement of decision or makes proposals not included in this tentative decision.”

Melvoin on Sept. 15 specified four such issues. However, Iwasaki on Nov. 27, 2017, wrote that no specification of issues had been received  from either party and declared:

“The Tentative Decision is deemed the Court’s Statement of Decision in this matter.”

The ex-wife sought an order vacating the judgment based on the fact that she had, in fact, specified controverted issues and requested a statement of decision as to them.

“Any error in the court’s preparation of the statement of decision, however, was harmless,” Segal said, explaining:

“Melvoin’s request for a statement of decision specified four principal controverted issues she wanted the court to address, and the court’s statement of decision essentially addressed all of them.”

The case is Marriage of Bramhall and Melvoin, B288129.

The attorneys on appeal were James R. Eliaser for Melvoin and Vicki J. Greene and Vicki J. Greene for Bramhall.


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