An Award of Attorney Fees and Costs May Be Reversed if the Amount Shocks the Conscious

Holly Loeffler and William Medina began living together in 1995. Their relationship ended in 2001, and Loeffler remained in the house. In April 2001, the family law court issued a domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”) against Medina. In April 2004, Loeffler applied for an extension of the DVRO. The family law court ultimately extended the DVRO “indefinitely.” Three months later, Medina filed an application for an order terminating the permanent restraining order. The family law court denied Medina’s application. Almost two years later, Medina filed another application in the family law court for an order to terminate the permanent restraining order. The family law court award Loeffler $25,000 in attorney fees and $1,504.85 in costs pursuant to a request made in Loeffler’s family law attorney’s initial response to Medina’s application. Medina’s family law lawyer  then filed a timely appeal from the order denying his application to terminate the restraining order, and challenged the family law court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Loeffler.

On appeal, Medina’s family law attorney argued that the family law court made the award under section 271, which authorized the family law court to award attorney fees and costs “in the nature of a sanction” when the conduct of a party or attorney “frustrates the policy of the law to promote settlement of litigation.” Medina argued that sanctions should not have been awarded because there was no evidence that he or his family law attorney frustrated the policy of the law to promote settlement of litigation. However, the Court of Appeal reasoned that the family law court did not award fees and costs to Loeffler as a sanction under section 271. Instead, it awarded fees and costs to Loeffler pursuant to Family Code Section 6344, which stated that, “after notice and a hearing, the court may issue an order for the payment of attorney’s fees and costs of the prevailing party.” Because section 6344 provided authority for the family law court to award attorney fees and costs to a party who prevailed in defeating an application to terminate a domestic violence restraining order, and Loeffler’s family law lawyer prevailed in defeating Medina’s application, the Court of Appeal rejected Medina’s argument that there was no evidentiary basis for the attorney fees and costs award.

Furthermore, Medina’s family law attorney also argued on appeal that the award of fees and costs to Loeffler “shocks the conscience” because of its amount. In support of his argument, Medina claimed that he purportedly spent only $5,000 to litigate the case, while Loeffler’s family law attorney spent approximately $50,000. When applying an abuse of discretion standard in reviewing the attorney fees award, the “only proper basis of reversal of the amount of an attorney fees award is if the amount awarded is so large or small that it shocks the conscience and suggests that passion and prejudice influenced the determination.” Here, the Court of Appeal reasoned that Loeffler’s family law lawyer submitted detailed billing records showing how each of the items of fees and costs related to this litigation. Medina’s family law attorney did not attempt to establish that any specific item of fees or costs was not reasonably incurred by Loeffler. Thus, Medina did not meet his burden to establish that the family law court abused its discretion in that the award was “manifestly excessive in the circumstances.” Accordingly, the family law court’s award of attorney fees and costs was affirmed.

Loeffler v. Medina (2009) 174 Cal. App. 4th 1495