Attorney Fees in Set Aside Motions
The Sixth District Appellate Court (including Santa Clara County) has upheld
a trial court denial of recovery for the attorney fees incurred by and
during a former wife's unsuccessful bid to set aside a Marital Settlement
Agreement (MSA), based upon express language and implied waivers contained
in that agreement (which became incorporated into the Judgment once it
was approved by the court), and some misconduct on Wife's part.
Wife sought an award of $157,650 which she had paid (or that possibly remained unpaid) to her attorney, under the "needs" based provisions of Family Code section 2030, even though she incurred them on an underlying motion to set aside the MSA and Judgment that had been determined adversely to her. Her application was made on the basis of fraud, mistake, perjury and noncompliance with the Family Code disclosure requirements - which are standard grounds that Family Code section 2122 enumerates for setting aside family law judgments. It appears from this decision, which is obtusely written at times, that Wife had waived spousal support in that agreement.
Her motion was filed one day before the one-year statute of limitations expired as to some of those grounds (i.e., mistake). When Wife signed the MSA she was not represented by counsel, and for "reasons known only to her" declined to consult with anyone despite being warned by language in the MSA that she might wish to do so and would be bound by it in any event. The MSA contained two standard provisions that the trial court seized upon in denying Wife recovery of any fees: a) a waiver of all claims under Evidence Code section 1542 and b) a clause that stated that in the event of further litigation arising from the agreement, the prevailing party would be entitled to recover their attorney fees and costs. It did not contain any express waivers of need based or other attorney fee claims, but the trial court implied this waiver from the language and intent of the document.
Unfortunately for Wife, also, the trial court found that she had intentionally destroyed a premarital agreement - although the decision is vague about how the prenup related to the MSA (apparently it too waived spousal support, but the trial court refused to uphold that waiver to the extent it arose in the premarital agreement) - and this fact may be useful to distinguish this decision from other cases, and their lines of reasoning that suggest some courts might reach a different result. (The decision recognizes this split of authority and briefly discusses these other cases). Reference to Wife's destruction of the prenup is also confusing because it was apparently nonetheless litigated so someone must have retained a copy.
So began three years of litigation, and ended after two more years of appellate processes. And lots of attorney fees for both sides.
I have mixed feelings about this decision. Sometimes bad facts make bad law. The decision doesn't tell us what burden of proof the trial court applied in finding a "waiver" of rights - whether by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing proof - and the additional fact of wife's destroying the Prenup, which the appellate decision repeatedly points out, makes this case muddy in terms of its potential application. I suspect that trial judges who wish to apply this case to fact patterns they see in their courtrooms may apply this holding without regard for similar bad acts in their own cases; in this sense, if indeed wife's destruction of the prenup sealed her fate, as the decision seems to imply, other people's fates may be similarly sealed in the future even in the absence of bad faith. And, is it good public policy to declare that a party who, in good faith, prosecutes a set aside motion should not recover fees if they ultimately lose? The two provisions in this MSA that the trial court relied are pretty much universal in MSA's and Stipulated Judgments for Dissolution and related marital or domestic partnership proceedings. Provisions that might be enforceable in most business or nonmarital contracts, particularly as they relate to power imbalances over the control of property or income that may be controlled by an "in-spouse", arguably should not apply within the family law context.
On the other hand, the fiduciary relationship arising under the fact of the marriage ("de facto" fiduciary relationship) ended when the parties separated and began their divorce battle. This is to be contrasted with the continuing legal obligations ("de jure" fiduciary duties) between the parties that don't end until the community property has been distributed. Additionally, there is a strong public policy interest in the finality of judgments - and this case, extending over 3 years at the trial court level, must have been expensive for the Husband. To have prevailed but still to have been required to pay $156,000 (or some other substantial amount) to Wife for her failed attack seems inherently unfair. This is especially so to the extent that she was destroying documents or otherwise defrauding him or the court. Moreover, Wife did sign the MSA and never apparently satisfactorily explained how this was not her own fault. While she was unrepresented at that time, she made that choice willingly.
Another unanswered question in the reported decision is whether Husband himself sought attorney fees against the Wife as the prevailing party; it seems not. Presumably this is because Wife signed away substantial rights to property and support when she executed the MSA, and so had little to give towards his attorney fees. Notably this was a lengthy 16 year marriage, and it produced a 10 year old daughter. We know nothing about Wife's education, background, or the parties' assets and income.
Incidentally, Wife complained for the first on appeal that the denying her a need's based attorney fee award per Family Code section 2030 was inappropriate given that issues of child custody and support were also determined in the MSA; she did not urge this point in the lower court. The appellate decision implies that such an argument, if properly made, could have caused a different result even if Mom still had lost the set aside application.
This is an important case for protecting the interests of parties once settlement agreements are executed and approved by family court judges. It is also one of those cases that parties who are resisting set aside motions will use to intimidate the other side. It is not at all clear from the decision what would happen where a party files a fee application to underwrite their set aside motion and sets it to be heard before the final determination, i.e., before the other side is determined to have "prevailed." But the implications seem clear. This case should not be considered the final word on the subject.