Court of Appeal:
Finality of Judgment Doesn’t Bar Later Grant of Fees Where Judgment, Itself, Doesn’t Incorporate Earlier Fee Refusal; Utterance in Statement of Decision Is of No Effect, Justice Yegan Declares
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A superior court had jurisdiction to make a post-judgment award of attorney fees in a case notwithstanding that the judge had expressly denied such fees in her statement of decision and spurned two objections that had been filed to that statement, and although the judgment had become final, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, declaring that an award was not barred because the judgment, itself, made no mention of attorney fees.
Justice Kenneth Yegan of Div. Six wrote the opinion, which was filed Monday and not certified for publication. It reverses an order by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen K. Sterne.
Sterne awarded judgment in the case to Hope Ranch Park Home Association in an action to garner $26,600 in unpaid penalties which it had imposed on A. Stuart Rubin and Annette Rubin pursuant to its covenants, conditions and restrictions. The judge found that the full amount the plaintiff sought was due.
The homeowners’ association (“HOA”) also sought attorney fees, but Sterne said in her Nov. 29, 2018 statement of decision:
“The court finds that allowance of fees to either side in this matter would be inequitable, and thus orders that each side will bear their own fees. The prevailing party is awarded costs, to be determined through the filing of a Memorandum of Costs.”
The HOA filed two protests, pointing out that under Civil Code §5975(c), an award of fees to the prevailing party is mandatory, but Sterne did not set a hearing on the matter and did not respond.
Her April 22, 2019 judgment awarded the full $26,600, with interest, and “costs pursuant to a filing of a memorandum of costs.”
Silent on Fees
Yegan pointed out in Monday’s opinion:
“The judgment is silent on the subject of attorney fees.”
The HOA filed its memorandum of costs on May 10, 2019, and also filed a motion for attorney fees on June 6, 2019.
Sterne on July 22 allowed $1,358.29 as costs, but said, with respect to attorney fees:
“Because the parties argued entitlement to attorney fees as part of the trial of this action and because the court adjudicated the issue of entitlement, as presented by the parties, in its final judgment on the merits, the court does not have jurisdiction to alter its adjudication of the issue of entitlement to attorney fees by this post-judgment motion.”
No Conclusive Decision
Contradicting that notion, Yegan wrote:
“We conclude the trial court erred. Because the judgment did not conclusively decide the HOA’s entitlement to attorney’s fees, the trial court retained jurisdiction to decide the motion. It erred when it denied the motion because section 5975, subdivision (c) makes an award of attorney fees to the prevailing HOA mandatory.”
Elaborating on why the finality of the judgment did not strip the court of jurisdiction over a subsequent motion for attorney fees, the jurist said:
“The judgment is silent on attorney’s fees. Consequently, the HOA was not required to appeal it in order to preserve its right to recover fees or to appeal a subsequent order denying fees.”
He said that Sterne’s finding in her 2018 statement of decision that an award of attorney fees “would be inequitable” was not reiterated in the 2019 judgment, and by law was “not carried into the judgment.” That meant, the opinion’s author put forth, that “the judgment did not conclusively determine the HOA’s entitlement to an award of attorney’s fees” and, accordingly, “the trial court retained jurisdiction to consider the HOA’s postjudgment motion for attorney’s fees.”
Yegan added that under §5975(c), the HOA was, plainly, entitled to is attorney fees as the prevailing party.
That provision says that “[i]n an action to enforce the governing documents” of a HOA, “the prevailing party shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.”
The case is Hope Ranch Park Homes Association v. Rubin, B299932.
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