Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In Re: Matter of Heiner (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 27, 2006)

I hate pretty much everything about this case. I recognize that's a strong statement. But it's largely true.

Don't get me wrong. What I hate is the case. Not necessarily Justice Rivera's opinion, which is actually pretty good (even though I think it may well be wrong in a couple of different places). It's the actual case that really irks me.

I'll just give you some highlights. It's a child support case. The underlying marriage was incredibly swell. [Editor's Note: Insert punctuation that reflects dripping sarcasm here.] George Heiner and Cathy Chandler were married in May 1993. Their "marriage" lasted all of 18 months, and they separated in November 1994. And during this glorious 18-month marriage they managed to produce two children. To which a large part of me reacts by saying: "You idiots. If your marriage sucks so bad you can't even make it for 18 months, can you at least please not make matters worth by bringing additional people into this world to drag down with you?" Though then I read the briefs and learn the names of the children -- Stephanie Heiner, now 12, and Heather Heiner, now 10, and think: "Well, maybe all life is good life. Maybe Stepahnie and Heather are the only good things to come out of this debacle of a 'relationship'." Or at least I hope so.

Regardless, my strong feeling is that both George Heiner and Cathy Chandler totally suck. Let's take George first. He's a dentist. Or at least he was. He gets into a tussle with a security guard at K-Mart and is injured, so he sues. (P.S. - Justice Rivera: Can you please not leave out important color in the opinion?! Justice Rivera categorizes the underlying suit this way: "George worked as a dentist for about 10 years, but became disabled from practicing dentistry after he was injured at a KMart store in March 1995." Sounds almost like a disability claim. But when you read the actual briefs, the true nature of the underlying suit has a little more detail, and I wish Justice Rivera had included it.)

So the lawsuit against KMart goes to trial, and George wins a judgment of $3.8 million. Which KMart, of course, appeals, and files an appeal bond. But KMart loses the appeal. So now, with interest, KMart owes George even more. Now, Justice Rivera's opinion doesn't mention this, and George's lawyers have slyly filed the relevant documents under seal, but it turns out that George ends up receiving (by my calculation) a total of $4.3 million in settlement from KMart. Pretty good, eh?

Here's the rub. The whole injury thing with KMart transpired after the marriage was over, right? So George has previously been paying all of $327/month in child support. Wow. What a massive amount. Oh, yeah, he is also required to put his kids on his health insurance. So basically he's paying incredibly little in support.

But now he's a multi-millionaire, right? He just got a check for $4.3 million. (Well, actually, something between $2.3 and 2.8 million after deducting costs and fees.) He's got a boatload of money. He buys a huge house and dumps a ton of money into stocks and real estate and the like. He's rich, after all.

What about the kids, you ask? Well, of course, if you were thinking about these things as a real human would, you'd expect that a lawsuit might arise because Cathy would maybe request a little more child support from her now multi-millionaire ex-husband. Or, if you were really human, maybe you'd think that George would actually take care of his kids with some of his extra millions, and that no disputes would arise because George, like any parent, would make sure that his largess included spreading some comfort to his children.

But this is the real world, baby. So the newly multi-millionaire George responds to his fantastic new wealth not by upping the (whopping!) $327/month that he pays in child support, but rather moving to reduce his child support payments! Oh, yeah: He wants to take the kids off his health insurance too. Classy.

And, because this is the real world, the trial court grants the motion. After all, George ain't working any more; all he's doing all day is hanging out with this millions of dollars! So reduces George's child support payments to $99/month. Plus lets him take the kids off his insurance.

Wow. So you've got a multimillionaire who pays less than $1200 a year in child support for his two kids. Oh, yeah. That's definitely in the best interests of the children. But, legally, the trial court holds -- and the Court of Appeal agrees -- that the millions that George has received isn't "income" and so doesn't count. (Part of that is a clear crock, by the way: There's at least a half a million in the settlement that's basically interest income, and clearly that qualifies. Plus, the vast majority of the actual payment was due to George's lost income as a dentist. Justice Rivera has a response -- including the claim that we can't tell precisely "how much" was actual income -- but come on. Some of it -- in fact, probably almost all of it -- clearly is. This is a somewhat lame response, and nowhere justifies impoverishing the kids and taking away their health care while daddy gets to hang with his millions.)

So that's George. What a quality impression I have of him.

Oh, yeah. Cathy. She's a piece of work too. Here's but a taste of the many, many things we know about Cathy from the opinion: "The case was described as 'unique because of the degree of fraud, deception and obstruction practiced by Cathy.' Some examples: Cathy falsified her tax returns to show only one-fifth of her true income; Cathy admitted she made a false income statement in her income and expense declaration; and Cathy had previously claimed she had income of $1,500 per month but then admitted at trial she received $2,250. According to the court, Cathy 'manifested no humiliation, embarrassment or remorse when she admitted these falsehoods.'" Classy.

Oh yeah, Cathy's now living with a sugar daddy, Craig Schwab, who -- among other things -- owns a huge number of gas stations, and has also put various properties (including a Portola Food and Liquor) into Cathy's name. (Random aside: Hey, at least Cathy's store apparently doesn't routinely sell alcohol to undercover cops!) Anyway, as Justice Rivera notes, "It is undisputed that Cathy 'lives with a wealthy individual in an opulent setting.'"

The net result of all of this is that Cathy and her sugar daddy routinely manipulate their properties and assets, George essentially does the same -- but through the law -- on his side, and the kids net a whopping $99/month in child support. Plus get to see their "parents" -- and you'll note the deliberate quotes -- have this swell little battle over their welfare.

Okay. Maybe I'm being overly harsh here. But, as I said, I don't like virtually anything about this case. Yes, I know: This is the real world. With real law. Both of which are imperfect.

Still. Cases like this bum me out. For, I think, good reason. Wholly apart from the injustice that's approved by Justice Rivera's opinion. But also precisely because of that result as well.

POSTSCRIPT - I received a long, and touching, e-mail from one of the participants in this saga. I won't recount its contents, but did want to reiterate one thing that I'm increasingly certain about. Something that I said in the initial post, but that bears highlight. "Stepahnie and Heather are the [] good things to come out of this debacle of a 'relationship'." I'm increasingly confident that's true.