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February 9th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A California Court of Appeals has upheld the largest award of sanctions in the history of the state against a mother of two children.  Read about it here (Daily Business Review, 2/7/12).  The trial court awarded the father, Drew Perkins, the sum of $552,153.28 against his ex-wife, Dr. Loretta Wahl, but the appellate court didn’t stop at approving that sum.  It also awarded him $15,000 for Wahl’s frivolous appeal, but the court still wasn’t finished.  It also sanctioned her two lawyers $5,000 each for their involvement in the appeal.

Now, the linked-to article doesn’t begin to fully describe Wahl’s behavior that led to such a huge sanction against her.  Here’s what it says:

The case stems from December 2005 when Santa Clara County Superior Court issued an order mapping out custody and visitation rights for Wahl and Perkins and their two young children. What followed were more than six years of cross-country legal filings and accusations of bad behavior between two wealthy people.

Now, given that description, you might think that Loretta Wahl and Drew Perkins were equal-opportunity abusers of each other and the legal system.  But you’d be wrong.  In fact, only one person was sanctioned by the courts – Loretta Wahl – and reading the appellate court’s ruling on the case, it’s easy to see why.

The court’s opinion is 23 pages long, almost all of which consists of a litany of Wahl’s outrageous behavior regarding the court, her ex-husband and their two children.  Not surprisingly, the result of her behavior was to keep the children away from their father for long periods of time.  I suspect that wasn’t an accident.

As the linked-to article states, this drama played out over a period of six years.  During that time, Loretta Wahl violated just about every possible judical rule for the conduct of litigation.  The main problem, though, arose from the one agreeable thing she did in the entire case.  In March of 2009, she actually agreed to an order of custody, visitation and the like.  She was represented by an attorney and she signed the document giving her all but exclusive custody of the children, but requiring her to put the children on a plane once a year to visit their father in California.

Despite getting everything she could possibly have desired, Loretta Wahl decided the very next day that her signature on the agreement had been coerced.  She proceeded to unilateraly attempt to abrogate same.  What that meant was that she spent the next almost three years ignoring and disobeying court orders.  She figured she had the right to do that because she had decided that the agreement she’d signed and that the court ordered simply didn’t apply to her.

So she hired and fired lawyers and then represented herself.  She announced, without supporting legal authority, that her home state of Pennsylvania was, and ever after would be, the proper jurisdiction for deciding the issues she sought to raise.  She sued the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court under legal theories as yet unknown to the profession.  She refused to abide by any of the trial court’s orders, routinely refused to appear for hearings either in person, by counsel or by phone.

Although ordered to do so, she refused to accept Perkins’ phone calls and disabled her fax machine.  The court ordered her to provide cell phones to her children, but she immediately filled their voice mail boxes so their father couldn’t leave messages for them.  When she finally sent the children to California to be with their father, she demanded that he pay her $500 for clothing for them.  Amazingly enough, he paid the money, but when they arrived, they had no clothing.

She filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania against the Chief Justice and Perkins, in both state and federal courts.  In addition,

On January 5, 2010, Pennsylvania Judge David Wecht ordered appellant to pay respondent $1,500 in attorneys’ fees and costs for filing the same request three times. 

Also on January 5, 2010, appellant filed a federal lawsuit against Judge Wecht and the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, seeking protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Respondent’s federal counsel also represented him in that case.

Face it, when you’ve got a litigant who responds to a minor adverse ruling by attempting to sue the judge who issued it, you know there’s a loose cannon on the deck.

At one point, when Perkins was due to travel to Pennsylvania to see his kids, Wahl demanded that he pay her $250,000 “as a retainer,” whatever that means.  She then informed him that he could not come to her front door to pick up the children, but had to do so at the end of her driveway.

Meanwhile of course, Drew Perkins had to hire attorneys both in California and Pennsylvania to hang on to what minimal parental rights he had.  Each filing by Wahl meant more attorney’s fees for Perkins and more time wasted.  Each hearing she refused to attend meant the same. 

During much of this time, Wahl was representing herself and transparently had no idea of what she was doing.  Her spelling and grammar were bad and her legal acumen non-existent.  Her entire work product consisted of little but a blizzard of paper whose sole intent and sole accomplishment – in addition to angering the trial and appellate courts - was to come between a father and his children.

One of her favorite tactics was to file documents in court with the requisite statement that the filings had been served on Perkins’ counsel when in fact she’d done nothing of the kind.  That required his attorneys to carefully monitor all filings in the various courts in Pennsylvania and California just in case Wahl was making yet another frivolous claim.

So the trial court came down on her with both feet.

The superior court found that respondent had met his burden of showing that appellant had “frustrate[d] the policy of the law to promote settlement of litigation.”  It stated that respondent’s declarations were “replete with examples of [appellant's] behavior that has frustrated the letter and the spirit of the Permanent Order.”  As to her attempt to rescind the parties’ agreement, the court observed that appellant had not filed a motion to set aside the parties’ agreement, she had not followed the court’s orders, she had not appeared in court, and she had not accepted the court’s authority to make orders.

As to the amount of the award, the court indicated that it had reviewed the lodged
billing statements.  It found that, in light of appellant’s reckless conduct, $552,153.28 was not an unreasonable amount of attorneys’ fees and costs to have incurred since issuance of the Permanent Order.  The court stated:  “Respondent cannot be faulted for aggressively litigating the enforcement of a custody order that [appellant] seems determined to ignore.  By attempting to ‘rescind’ the Permanent Order in California, and by commencing custody litigation in Pennsylvania, [appellant] has forced Respondent to fight to retain his custodial time (and his bond) with his two children.  By refusing to comply with discovery requests and by absenting herself from this sanctions proceeding, [appellant] has forfeited her opportunity to present evidence that such a sum is unreasonable.

As you may have guessed, neither Perkins nor Wahl is hurting for money.  When she pays it, Wahl will barely feel a sting at the loss of half a million dollars.  Conservative estimates have her net worth as in excess of $18 million and more like $30 million.

One final point worth noting is the fact that her last lawyer, Richard Ducote was sanctioned by a court in Louisiana for using similar tactics in a divorce case there.  Now, Ducote committed next to none of the bad behavior in Wahl’s case.  He only began representing her in 2011.  I suspect that the court sanctioned him $5,000 for aiding and abetting the obviously abusive behavior his client.

But Ducote looks to be worse than simply an overzealous attorney.  He also seems to be one of the true believers in the club that claims that (a) family courts unfairly discriminate against mothers and in favor of fathers, (b) any claim of abuse by a mother must be taken at face value and (c) parental alienation syndrome is bogus science that seeks to tear children from innocent mothers and give them to abusive fathers.

I say this because he’s a member in good standing with something called the “leadership council” many of whose members are a rogue’s gallery of exactly the above. 

So I find it interesting that a lawyer who just entered the case less than a year ago and who engaged in few if any of the abusive tactics Wahl did should have been sanctioned by the appellate court.  Could it be that they’re sending a message not only that such tactics can’t be allowed to work, but that the absurd beliefs of the “Leadership Council” can’t be either?

One can hope.

Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.

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