Thursday, August 30, 2001
S.C. Allows ‘Palimony’ Action Against Johnnie Cochran to Proceed
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A second Court of Appeal ruling allowing Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.’s former lover to sue the prominent lawyer for “lifetime” support was left standing yesterday by the state Supreme Court.
Requests to review or depublish the May 24 decision by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal were unanimously rejected at yesterday’s weekly conference, a court official said.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas Willhite, on temporary assignment to the appellate panel, said the trial judge was in error when he threw out Patricia Cochran’s suit in November 1999.
Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. had ruled that Johnnie and Patricia Cochran—she took his surname even though the two never married—had not cohabitated and thus could not have formed an enforceable agreement under the 1976 ruling in Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal.3d 660.
Willhite, however, said that evidence the couple shared a residence on a continuous, albeit part-time, basis was sufficient to put the cohabitation issue before a jury.
Where a relationship is “long-term, stable and significant,” Willhite said, the party seeking to enforce a “Marvin” agreement need not prove cohabitation.
The Cochrans lived together for many years, beginning in the 1960s, and had a child together. During that time, Patricia Cochran claims, Johnnie Cochran agreed that she was to receive half of all property acquired during the relationship, in addition to lifetime support.
The couple bought a house in North Hollywood in 1974—four years before Johnnie Cochran divorced his first wife—and spent two to four nights each week there together, Patricia Cochran alleges.
In 1983, she claims, the parties entered into an agreement settling their property rights up to that time and reaffirming Johnnie Cochran’s commitment for lifetime support. Johnnie Cochran continued to give her money until shortly before she filed suit in 1995, she alleges, even though he married his present wife in 1985.
In his opinion for the Court of Appeal, Willhite cited deposition testimony that Johnnie Cochran continued to visit the North Hollywood home frequently after the 1983 agreement, and occasionally after his 1985 remarriage, eating meals there.
Johnnie Cochran claims he spent as little as one night a week at the home after the parties resolved the property issues, and that as far as he was concerned, they were merely “dating.”
Johnnie Cochran’s lawyer, Larry R. Feldman of Fogel, Feldman, Ostrov, Ringler & Klevens, argued unsuccessfully that the issue was ripe for high court review because the justices haven’t examined the scope of an enforceable cohabitation agreement since Marvin.
The parties’ dispute has been moving among the various levels of the state court system for several years. Mortimer’s was the third trial court ruling appealed by Patricia Cochran, who claims that Johnnie Cochran cut off her support in 1995 because he was angry that she had publicly disclosed that she, not Cochran’s current wife, was the mother of the attorney’s son.
The “palimony” suit was originally dismissed by Judge Edward M. Ross—since retired—who ruled that any claim for breach of the 1983 agreement accrued no later than when Johnnie Cochran moved out of the house. The claim was thus barred by the two-year statute of limitations for actions for breach of contracts not in writing, Ross concluded.
Div. Five reversed in 1997, holding that the statute period didn’t begin to run until the agreement was breached. In the meantime, Patricia Cochran filed another suit, claiming that the noted trial lawyer intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her and her daughter by leaving a telephone message saying that he would send the younger woman on a “Valu-Jet” around the world vacation package.
The trial and appellate courts rejected that action on the ground that the reference to the low-fare airline—whose plane crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing everyone on board, shortly before the statement was made—was not intended as a threat and didn’t amount to outrageous conduct.
Cochran claimed that the message was a joke intended for his son.
The case is Cochran v. Cochran, 89 Cal.App.4th 283.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company