What is the Disentitlement Doctrine?

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Disobeying Court Orders

In family law, as in all other areas of the law, court orders are valid and must be followed. Parties who disagree with certain court orders may challenge disputed court orders through motions for reconsideration at the trial level, writs and appeals at the appellate level, and petitions for review by the Supreme Court. But what a party may not resort to is self-help and simply disobey court orders with which they disagree. If a party disobeys a court order, they may be barred from asking the court for any relief under the disentitlement doctrine.

The Disentitlement Doctrine

The doctrine of disentitlement defines the principle that when a party violates a court order, that party is barred from seeking relief from the court. Any such requests require dismissal as an exercise of the court’s inherent power to induce compliance with its orders. The “disentitlement doctrine prevents a party from seeking assistance from the court while that party is in ‘an attitude of contempt to legal orders and processes of the courts of this state.’ (MacPherson v. MacPherson (1939) 13 Cal.2d 271, 277, 89 P.2d 382.)” In re Marriage of Hofer (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 454, 458; see also Say & Say v. Castellano (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 88; Stone v. Bach (1978) 80 Cal.App.3d 442, 446.

How Can You Disobey Court Orders?

In Marriage of Hofer, the husband (“John”) possessed all the information regarding several business entities owned by his family, the value of the assets, the income stream, etc. Wife (“Lisa”) sought to obtain that information through the discovery process, and John refused. Lisa then had to file a motion to compel John to comply with the discovery requests, which was subsequently granted, and sanctions were imposed against John. Consequently, Lisa sought an order from the court to prevent John from proving that any assets were separate, and she requested attorney’s fees because John was in an attitude of contempt. The trial court granted the attorney’s fees request and would not consider any evidence John claimed was necessary to support his contentions in opposition to the fee request. The court in Marriage of Hofer stated: “The principle permitting this court to stay or dismiss an appeal does not require a formal judgment of civil contempt. It ‘is based upon fundamental equity and is not to be frustrated by technicalities,” such as the absence of a formal citation and judgment of contempt. [Citations omitted]” In re Marriage of Hofer (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 454, 460.

In MacPherson v. MacPherson (1939) 13 Cal.2d 271, the appellate court was urged to dismiss the appeal because it was alleged that the appellant was willfully and continuously in contempt of court due to a direct violation of the court’s custody orders. The court stated: “Such flagrant disobedience and contempt effectually bar him from receiving assistance of an appellate tribunal. A party to an action cannot, with right or reason, ask the aid and assistance of a court in hearing his demands while he stands in an attitude of contempt to legal orders and processes of the courts of this state. [Citations omitted.]” MacPherson v. MacPherson (1939) 13 Cal.2d 271, 277.

The application of the disentitlement doctrine is an “exercise of a state court’s inherent power to use its processes to induce compliance with a presumptively valid order.” (Say & Say v. Castellano (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 88, 94, citations omitted.) When a party opportunistically seeks aid from a reviewing court while harboring no intention of complying with an unfavorable trial court ruling, the integrity of the judicial system is compromised. Under such circumstances, an appellate court has the discretion to dismiss the offender’s appeal. (See In re L.J. (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 1125, 1136 [appeal may be dismissed when a party “has signaled by his conduct that he will only accept a decision in his favor”].)

Follow The Rules

The disentitlement doctrine is a powerful tool to counteract the other party’s unwillingness to comply with court orders. In other words, when applying the disentitlement doctrine, the court is saying that before someone can request the court’s help, they must show they have followed the rules in the first place.

About the Author

Attorney Adina RosenfeldAttorney Adina Rosenfeld is an attorney at Feinberg & Waller, APC in Calabasas, CA. She is experienced in a wide range of divorce and family law matters, including complex custody disputes and international family law matters such as the Hague Convention and international child abduction. She speaks fluent German, conversational Polish and Italian, and some Hebrew. Adina earned her juris doctorate from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles and is a member of the California Bar Association.

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