C.A.: $585,000 Attorney-Fee Award Unsupported
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal has reversed an attorney-fee award of nearly $600,000 after finding in favor of a homeowners’ association in its battle with a man who placed a tarp on his property and removed two trees without permission of the association and, in contravention of the rules, placed a security sign on a chain strung across his driveway.
Justice Thomas M. Goethals expressed bewilderment in Monday’s unpublished opinion over how a huge an amount could have been awarded in what appears to be a squabble of scant significance.
Orange Superior Court Judge John C. Gastelum made the fee award, totaling $585,067.30, on June 29, 2021.
Judgment for Plaintiff
On Feb. 19, 2021, he had awarded judgment to the Ladera Ranch Maintenance Corporation (“LARMAC”) on its complaint against homeowner Grant A. Tinsley, ordering Tinsley to remove the tarp, the chain and the sign and to pay for the planting of new trees. He also decreed that Tinsley and co-owner Karen D. Jennings, will take nothing on their cross-action against LARMAC for breach of the CC&Rs, nuisance interference with their quiet enjoyment of their property, and declaratory relief.
The Court of Appeal on Aug, 23 affirmed the judgment in an unpublished opinion by Goethals, who remarked in a footnote:
“A wit to the end, Oscar Wilde’s supposed last words were: ‘This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.’ The staggering attorney fees awarded here, nearly $600,000.00—composed of more than $298,000 to LARMAC as plaintiff and in excess of $286,000 to LARMAC as cross-defendant—may suggest there was a battle to the death in the courtroom below. But no issue regarding attorney fees is currently before us.”
The issue did come before Div. Three in an appeal from the postjudgment order. Goethals said in Monday’s opinion:
“[W]e find no adequate justification in the record or the trial court’s order for such fees. Nothing suggests that more than 2,700 attorney hours were necessary—by 11 lawyers no less—to address a tarp, two trees, and a chain, nor to defend against equivalent complaints lodged by the homeowners in a cross-complaint. A fee award eclipsing a half million dollars for such matters stands out as manifestly excessive. We therefore reverse and remand for the trial court to reconsider its order in line with the governing principles….There may yet be justification for a sum approaching the fees awarded, or half, a quarter, or none; or, alternatively, the parties may resolve this issue themselves. But at this time, nothing in the briefing, the appellate record, or the trial court’s order explains it.”
The case is Ladera Ranch Maintenance v. Tinsley, G060730.
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