Monday, February 06, 2012

Lewow v. Surfside Owners Condo. Ass'n (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 2, 2012)

That's pretty nice.
Paul Lewow filed a lawsuit against his homeowners' association and lost.  The HOA filed a notice of entry of judgment, and was about to file a motion for attorney's fees seeking around $300,000.  So Mr. Lewow did what you might expect many people in such a situation to do:  He filed for bankruptcy.

At that point, the HOA couldn't file its motion for attorney's fees.  But Lewow wasn't safe.  His bankruptcy filing was dismissed around six months later, in July 2012.  And then, a little more than a month later, the HOA filed its motion for attorney's fees.

Fee motions are normally due within 60 days (i.e., within the time for filing an appeal), and the attorney for the HOA thought that the fee motion was tolled during Lewow's bankruptcy.  But, as the Court of Appeal notes, that's wrong.  The period isn't "tolled," but rather, you've got thirty days after the bankruptcy petition is dismissed to do whatever you need to do.  But the HOA waited until 32 days after the dismissal to file its motion.  Oops.

So the fee motion is pretty clearly untimely.  Nonetheless, while the Court of Appeal so holds, it also holds that the trial court had the discretion to extend this deadline -- even retroactively -- and that there was good cause here to do so since this was a difficult legal issue and even a reasonable attorney could be confused.  So it affirms the fee award.  To the joy of the HOA and the chagrin of Lewow.

Two lessons, though.  First, don't wait until the last day to do things.  Especially when things may be unclear.  If the HOA had just filed its fee motion a two days earlier, it would have avoided lots of pain and expense on appeal.  Second, while it might have been reasonable for the HOA's attorney in this particular case, since the law was unsettled, it's not unclear at this point.  You've got thirty days after the bankruptcy is over.  That's it.  And in the modern era, bankruptcy petitions are far from uncommon.  Especially for litigants facing a huge attorney fee award.

So file early.  Lest the result in your case be far different than the one here.