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A Parent May be Sanctioned for Bringing a Frivolous Claim with the Divorce Court for Either Improper Motive or Indisputably Having No Merit

Husband and wife had one daughter during the course of their marriage and filed for divorce in Kentucky. The divorce proceedings were not completed in Kentucky, however, wife was awarded temporary custody of their daughter. Subsequently, mother moved to California and left the daughter with her grandmother. Husband moved to California and moved in with the grandmother and cared for his daughter. Husband’s divorce lawyer filed a petition in California requesting child custody of daughter and child support from wife. The divorce court granted temporary custody to husband and reasonable visitation to mother and husband returned to Kentucky with daughter. The divorce court ordered wife to pay the cost for daughter to visit her in California and husband to pay the cost to return to Kentucky. The divorce court denied husband’s divorce attorney’s request for custody and child support payments. Husband’s divorce lawyer appealed two issues: (1) the denial of child support, and (2) the division of the transportation costs. The court reaffirmed the divorce court’s decision and fined husband $500 for bringing a frivolous appeal.

On review by the Supreme Court, husband’s divorce lawyer argued that the divorce court failed to consider wife’s earning capacity because it unconstitutionally relied on a sex-based statute. The wording of the statute suggested that fathers had a primary support duty and mothers were only required supplemental support if they could afford it. The Supreme Court decided that the record shows no evidence of husband’s claim and that the divorce court indeed reached its decision by applying a sex-neutral standard to the facts before it.  Additionally, the Court found the sanction imposed by the divorce court to have been in error.

The Supreme Court stated there was no explicit definition of a frivolous claim and that created public policy issues, specifically for attorneys. The Court explained, counsel must have freedom to file appeals on their clients’ behalf without the fear that appellate courts will second guess and penalize their reasonable decisions. The Court found that husband’s appeal was not frivolous and established a standard for penalizing parties due to frivolous claims. A divorce court may deem a claim to be frivolous if it is brought for improper motive – to harass and delay the effect of an adverse judgment or when it indisputably has no merit. Thus, the Supreme Court agreed with wife’s divorce lawyer and upheld the divorce court’s decision to refuse husband child support payments and split the costs of daughter’s visits to California between husband and wife. Additionally, the Supreme Court found that it was improper for the appellate court to have issued sanctions for a frivolous claim against husband because no standards had been determined and no fair notice was present. Wife was not required to pay child custody support and husband was not required to pay fees for bringing a meritless claim.

In re Marriage of Flaherty (1982) 31 Cal.3d 637