Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In Re Marriage of Sharples (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 22, 2014)

Thank God for opinions like this.

Wife wants to get pendente lite attorney's fees from Husband in a dissolution action.  She files the relevant paperwork, including a declaration that explains the reasons for her request, the relevant information about attorney's fees, etc.

At the hearing, the trial court (Judge James Warren in Riverside) says:  "Interestingly enough, in all the documents I reviewed, I did not see anywhere a family law form 319, which is mandatory for you to be able to recover attorney’s fees, so your request for attorney’s fees is denied."  (FL Form 319 lists various information about income, fees, etc.)

To which Wife's attorney responds, respectfully:  "Your Honor, I believe the form is an optional form."  At which point the trial court says:  "No, it’s not. It’s mandatory as of January 1st, 2012. Family law
form 319 is mandatory, sir."  The trial court then denies Wife's motion for attorney's fees exclusively on the ground that she didn't file FL Form 319.

My first reaction was that the trial court's ruling seems pedantic.  So what that a particular form was not filed?  What's relevant is whether the necessary information was filed.  If something's missing that you need to adjudicate a motion, say so.  It's way too picky just to say simply:  "There's a particular form missing.  Motion denied."  Justice isn't supposed to be purely about whether or not someone fills in blanks.  We care about what's inside the blanks.  Or at least should.

Moreover, once I read further, I was even happier for the Court of Appeal's opinion.  Because not only was the trial court overly picky, but it was also obviously and indisputably wrong.  Yes, the Judicial Council created FL Form 319 effective January 1, 2012.  And, yes, in connection with this form, the Council also created California Rule of Court 5.93 (now 5.470) governing the use of this form.

But this rule says only that in order to request attorney's fees, a party must file a "Request for Attorney’s Fees and Costs Attachment (form FL-319) or a comparable declaration that addresses the factors covered in form FL-319."  That second part is exactly what Wife's counsel did here.  There's no argument anywhere that anything in FL-319 was left out of the declaration that Wife submitted.

So not only was the trial court overly picky, but it was also wrong on the merits.  And I was glad to see the Court of Appeal say so.  (There is, parenthetically, a local Riverside rule that says that filing FL-319 is mandatory in settlement conferences, but this wasn't a settlement conference, and even it it was, it'd have been preempted by the relevant Rule of Court.)

Judges should be trying their best to decide cases on the merits.  That didn't happen here.  Hopefully it will now.