Thursday, May 23, 2002
State High Court Won’t Review Ruling Holding Lawyer In Contempt for Frivolous Challenge to Bench Officer
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The high court yesterday let stand a Court of Appeal ruling upholding a contempt adjudication against Beverly Hills attorney Richard I. Fine.
The justices voted 5-0 not to hear a habeas corpus challenge to the decision of this district’s Div. Two in Fine v. Superior Court, 97 Cal.App.4th 651. Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justice Marvin Baxter were absent from the weekly conference and did not vote.
That panel held March 14 that Fine had falsely and frivolously sought to disqualify Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Mitchell from continuing to preside over a class action against a health care provider.
The settlement agreement in the case provided over $9 million for claimants who were subjected to examinations conducted by a purported doctor who in fact had never been licensed.
Fine accused Mitchell of having “usurped power” that belonged to the private judge appointed to oversee the distribution of the money, retired California Supreme Court Justice David Eagleson. He also challenged Mitchell’s authority to adjudicate the contempt, claiming his role in the case should have been over at that point.
But the appellate panel—Presiding Justice Roger Boren wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Michael Nott and Kathryn Doi Todd—held that Mitchell had continuing authority under the settlement agreement and that there was substantial evidence Fine had filed multiple disqualification motions containing false assertions and had done so as a delaying tactic.
Fine told the MetNews he will challenge the contempt ruling in federal district court. He noted that the court had also yesterday, by the same 5-0 vote, denied review in a case where he challenged the county’s distribution of child support funds collected through what used to be the district attorney’s Bureau of Family Services.
Fine said he argued in that case that Los Angeles Superior Court judges should not be allowed to hear cases in which the county is the party, since they receive supplemental compensation from the county.
He also pointed out that George, in a question-and-answer session at the California Judges Association’s 2000 annual meeting, criticized the payments—which have been a source of irritation to judges in other counties—and questioned their constitutionality.
He claimed that the judiciary is engaged in “political retaliation” against him for his record of challenging government action on behalf of taxpayers. The state high court, he said, “refuses to look at the corruption that is taking place” in Los Angeles County.
The Supreme Court yesterday also left standing a Court of Appeal ruling that allows a clothing retailer to sue the law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp for an alleged conflict of interest.
This district’s Div. Four ruled on Feb. 13 that an arbitration ruling denying Pour Le Bebe, Inc.’s motion to disqualify Mitchell Silberberg from representing a company with competing interests did not estop Pour Le Bebe from suing later.
The high court, at yesterday’s conference, voted 5-0 not to grant review in Benasra v. Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, 96 Cal.App.4th 96. George and Baxter were absent and did not vote.
Pour Le Bebe, a manufacturer of children’s clothing, claims that Mitchell Silberberg breached its duty of loyalty to the company when it agreed to represent Guess? Inc. in the arbitration proceeding. Guess? brought that proceeding in an effort to terminate a licensing agreement.
Pour Le Bebe and its principles asked the arbitrators and the Superior Court to disqualify Mitchell Silberberg. The arbitrators denied the motion after Mitchell Silberberg insisted that it had never represented the company in any matter relevant to the dispute with Guess?.
The company then sued the law firm, seeking injunctive relief and damages. A motion for a temporary restraining order was denied on the ground that the issue had already been submitted to the arbitrators.
Pour Le Bebe then returned to the arbitrators, claiming newly discovered evidence of a disqualifying conflict. The arbitrators denied the motion again.
Mitchell Silberberg later moved for summary judgment, which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn granted. The judge held that the arbitrators’ denial of the motion to disqualify barred the suit under the principles of res judicata.
But Justice Daniel Curry, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that collateral rulings in private arbitration proceedings are not res judicata absent a stipulation to the contrary.
The proceedings on the disqualification motion, the justice explained, were clearly collateral to the underlying dispute over the licensing agreement. There was no evidentiary hearing, the justice noted, and Mitchell Silberberg was not a party to the arbitration, in which it was acting on behalf of Guess?, not itself.
Treating the motion to disqualify as a separate proceeding for res judicata purposes, Curry added, would be contrary to public policy. It would turn every such motion into “a life or death struggle between the attorney and the prior client” and require the parties to the underlying dispute to “stand aside while the issue was fully addressed by discovery, testimony, etc.,” the justice reasoned.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company