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Family Law Tentative Rulings

Law & Motion Calendar

The following Tentative Rulings will become the ruling of the Court unless a party desires to be heard. If you desire to appear and present oral argument as to any motion, it will be necessary for you to contact the Judicial Assistant by telephone at (707) 521-6732 by 4:00 p.m. on the day before the hearing. Any party requesting an appearance must notify all other opposing parties of their intent to appear.

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Law & Motion Tentative Rulings

 February 21,  2024, at 8:30 a.m. 

S

SFL-72373 COUNTY OF SONOMA v. JONES, JR

TENTATIVE RULING:

            Motion to Compel Further Responses/Production to Demand for Production of Documents and Things, Form Interrogatories and Sanctions GRANTED in part, DENIED in part.  To the extent that the court denies the motion, it does so without prejudice, as explained below.  The court GRANTS it as to compelling further written responses to the discovery.  The court DENIES it, without prejudice as explained below, as to compelling Respondent to produce responsive documents.  The court AWARDS to Sebastiani and against Respondent monetary sanctions of $960, as specified below.  

                                                                                                                                       Facts and History

            Petitioner County of Sonoma, Department of Child Support Services (“Petitioner” or “County”) filed this action on January 5, 2016, to establish parental obligations of Respondent Joseph Gerard Jones, Jr. (“Respondent”) with respect to two minor children, naming Ashley Lynn Sebastiani (“Sebastiani”) as the other, custodial parent.  It filed the action to establish the parentage of one minor child, Layci Jae Sebastiani (“Layci”) and to establish Respondent’s obligation to provide support for both Layci and another minor child, Kayson Daniel Jones (“Kayson”). 

                                                                                                                                            Discovery

            On June 2, 2023, Sebastiani served Respondent with a Demand for Production of Documents and Things (“RFPs”) as well as a set of Form Interrogatories – Family Law, with responses due on July 18, 2023.  Attachment to Request for Order – Statement of Facts (“Lanz Dec.”), 1:16-24.  By July 19, 2023, Sebastiani had received no responses so sent Respondent a Notice of Waiver of Objections and CCP Section 2016.040 Request to Meet and Confer (“Waiver Notice”).  Id., 1:24-27.  Sebastiani received responses to the interrogatories on August 1, 2023, and responses to the RFPs, without any documents, on August 9, 2023, although Respondent did agree to produce some documents and items.  Id., 1:27-2:6.  Sebastiani received Respondent’s Amended Response to the RFPs on August 11, 2023, in which Respondent again agreed to produce some items, but Sebastiani still felt that the responses were insufficient and Respondent failed to provide requested documents so on September 7, 2023, Sebastiani sent Respondent a new meet-and-confer request, outlining her views on the responses.  Id., 2:7-16.  On September 14, 2023, Sebastiani received Respondent’s Second Amended Responses to the RFPs and Amended Responses to the interrogatories but Sebastiani still felt that Respondent failed to provide requested documents or sufficient responses.  Id., 2: 17-24.  After further discussing the matter with Respondent, Sebastiani received a Third Amended Response to the RFPs and another Amended Response to the interrogatories on October 16, 2023.  Id., 2:25-3:5.  Sebastiani still felt that Respondent failed to provide sufficient responses or requested documents so she felt it necessary to file a motion to compel.  Id., 3: 6-12.

                                                                                                                                              Motion

            In her Motion to Compel Further Responses/Production to Demand for Production of Documents and Things, Form Interrogatories and Sanctions, Sebastiani moves the court to compel Petitioner to provide further responses to the RFPs and interrogatories, along with production of additional documents in response to the RFPs.  She also moves the court to impose monetary sanctions on Respondent. 

            Respondent has filed opposition to this motion.  He argues that his responses are sufficient, Sebastiani’s motion blurs different issues, and Sebastiani’s request for sanctions is defective. 

            Petitioner has filed a response stating that it takes no position regarding this motion 

                                                                                                                               Applicable Authority

            According to the Family Law Rules of the California Rules of Court, at CRC 5.2(d), and Family Code section 210, provisions applicable to civil actions generally apply to proceedings under the Family Code unless otherwise provided.  This includes the rules applicable to civil actions in the California Rules of Court and the Code of Civil Procedure.  See also, In re Marriage of Boblitt (2014) 223 Cal.App. 4th 1004, at 1022. 

            When a propounding party is dissatisfied with responses to interrogatories or requests for production or inspection, that party may move to compel further written responses.  Code of Civil Procedure (“CCP”) sections 2030.300, 2031.310. The moving party must make adequate attempts to meet and confer.  Ibid.  Generally, once a timely, proper motion to compel further responses has been made, the responding party has the burden to justify objections or incomplete answers.  Coy v. Sup.Ct. (1962) 58 Cal.2d 210, 220-221. 

            A party moving to compel further responses to a production request, however, must demonstrate “good cause" for seeking the items.  CCP section 2031.310(b)(1).  This requires a showing that the items are relevant to the subject matter of the litigation and a showing of specific facts justifying discovery.  Glenfed Develop. Corp. v. Sup.Ct. (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 1113, 1117.  Whether there is an alternative source for the information is relevant though not dispositive.  Associated Brewers Distrib. Co. v. Sup.Ct. (1967) 65 Cal.2d 583, 588.  Once the moving party demonstrates good cause, the responding party must justify its objections.  Kirkland v. Sup.Ct. (2002) 95 Cal.App.4th 92, 98.

            Requests must identify the documents sought by describing a category with “reasonable particularity” CCP section 2031.030(c)(1).  This description must be particularized from the point of view of the person on whom the demand is made, such as by describing categories which bear some relationship to the manner in which the documents are kept.  See Calcor Space Facility, Inc. v. Sup.Ct. (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 216, 222.

            A party has a duty to provide “complete” responses and to make them as straightforward as possible.  CCP sections 2030.220; 2031.210-2031.230.  Requests must be answered to the extent possible and an answer that contains only part of the information requested or which evades a meaningful response is improper.  Deyo v. Kilbourne (1978) 84 Cal.App.3d 771, 783. 

It is also not proper to respond by simply referring to other documents such as a deposition transcript.  Deyo, supra.  If a party does refer to other documents, it should generally also specify the source and summarize the information to make the response itself complete.  Ibid.  A responding party also has a duty to make a reasonable, good-faith effort to obtain the requested information and if it is unable to comply, it must state that it made a reasonable and diligent search.  CCP sections 2030.220, 2031.230; Deyo, supra, 84 Cal.App.4th 783. 

            Where a party has failed to respond to a request for production or the responses are considered inadequate, the first step is not to compel production but, as with interrogatories, to compel a response, and only once a party has obtained a response agreeing to produce items may the party seek production in compliance with that response.  CCP §§ 2031.300, 2031.310, 2031.320.

            Where the responding party agrees to produce the documents, things, property, or information requested, but then fails to do so, the party seeking discovery may move to compel production of the promised documents, information, or things.  CCP section 2031.320.  As with a motion to compel for failure to respond, there is no deadline and no meet-and-confer requirement.  Ibid.  The moving party must merely show that the responding party failed to comply as agreed.  CCP section 2031.320(a); see also Standon Co., Inc. v. Sup.Ct. (1990) 225 Cal.App.3d 898, 903.  However, it applies only where “a party filing a response to a demand… thereafter fails to permit the inspection, copying, testing, or sampling in accordance with that party’s statement of compliance….”  CCP section 2031.320(a), emphasis added. 

Under CRC 3.1345, in a motion to compel further responses, the moving party “must” provide a separate statement setting forth the items and responses in dispute verbatim along with an explanation as to why further responses are needed.

                                                                                                                                     Compelling Production

            As explained above, a party is only entitled to seek, and obtain, an order compelling production in response to RFPs once the responding party has provided a response agreeing to produce the documents or other items requested. 

            In his opposition, Respondent correctly notes that seeking further written responses and seeking production of items as agreed are distinct issues, with distinct standards, and that in her moving papers Sebastiani appears to blur the distinction between these. 

            Sebastiani vaguely claims that Respondent has not provided requested documents, but it is not clear what he has failed to produce, what Sebastiani wants the court to order him to produce, or whether he agreed to produce any of the documents at issue.  She shows in the declaration of her attorney, as set forth above, that Respondent produced some documents and items, but that she found the production to be lacking or deficient.  Lanz Dec.  However, nowhere does she clarify the uncertainties set forth above.  For example, in his declaration, her attorney simply makes generalized and conclusory statements such as “Father [i.e., Respondent] failed to sufficiently answer and failed to provide the required documents (Lanz Dec., 2: 21-23),” but her evidence indicates he did provide some documents.  In the separate statement, Sebastiani appears to seek documents which Respondent did not agree to produce.  For example, with respect to Demand No.2, Sebastiani shows that Respondent stated he was producing “The 3/1-3/31/2023 AmeriTrade statement,” but Sebastiani asserts that he failed to provide the “statements covering 01/2022-02/2023 and 04/01/2023-current,” but she shows that he did not agree to produce those.

            At this time, the court DENIES the motion as to compelling production, WITHOUT PREJUDICE to Sebastiani bringing a proper and clear motion to compel production, showing that Respondent agreed to produce certain documents and yet failed to do so.

                                                                                                                                Further Written Responses

                                                                                                                                   Requests for Production

            Sebastiani shows that Respondent provided defective responses to all of the RFP items at issue.  For some, he asserted objections, yet, as shown above, he waived objections by failing to respond by the deadline.  Respondent also failed to provide a complete and clear agreement to produce the requested documents, or explanation of inability, or that he made a complete and diligent search and could find no others.  In some instances, his response amounted merely to a list of some documents, without an actual response to the request even referencing his compliance or inability to comply, or efforts to provide the requested documents.  For some, such as RFPs 26 and 27, Respondent provided no response whatsoever. 

            There is good cause for seeking the items at issue. The documents and the information, which they appear likely to contain, are facially reasonably necessary, even truly necessary, for proper litigation of the issues in this action, specifically support.  The information addresses the parties’ respective finances and ability to support the minor children. 

            These responses are deficient. Respondent must provide complete responses, without objections, to the RFP items at issue, clearly agreeing to produce all requested documents or providing a code-compliant statement that he has made a diligent search, specifying what documents he is producing, and explaining in a code-compliant manner why he is not producing other requested documents. With these parameters, the court GRANTS the motion s to compelling further written responses to the RFPs. 

                                                                                                                                              Interrogatories

            Sebastiani shows that for the interrogatories at issue, #6, 7, 10, and 20, Respondent provided facially incomplete and evasive answers.  The requests clearly do not provide all of the information requested and completely fail to address, in any manner, the portions of the interrogatories to which he failed to respond.   Specifically with respect to the schedule of assets and debts which Sebastiani asks Respondent to fill out in interrogatory 10, Respondent’s position is unpersuasive.  First, although the procedures for providing the declaration of disclosure and schedule of assets and debts set forth in Fam. Code section 2104 may not control here, that does not prohibit her from seeking the same information in discovery.  She is asking for this information through discovery as part of her interrogatories, so potentially may obtain it, even though she is using a form schedule which is generally used in a different procedure.  The key point is the nature of the information sought, and this information is clearly relevant and may be subject to discovery.  Second, as Sebastiani notes, Respondent raises the argument against responding as an objection and he has waived all objections.

            Again, the answers are deficient. Respondent must provide clear and complete responses to all parts of the interrogatories.  The court GRANTS the motion as to compelling further responses to the interrogatories.

                                                                                                                                                  Sanctions

            For compelling further responses, the court shall impose monetary sanctions on the losing party unless that party acted with substantial justification, or other circumstances make sanctions unjust.  CCP sections 2023.010, 2023.030, 2030.300, 2031.310.  In order to obtain sanctions, the moving party must state in the notice of motion that the party is seeking sanctions, identify against whom the party seeks the sanctions, and specify the kind of sanctions.  CCP section 2023.040.  Sanctions are limited to the “reasonable expenses” related to the motion.  Ghanooni v. Super Shuttle of Los Angeles (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 256, 262.

            Sebastiani asks the court to award her monetary sanctions against Respondent personally.  She is entitled to an award of sanctions because, as explained above, Respondent’s discovery responses are clearly deficient and lacking in substantial justification.

            In his opposition, Respondent argues that Sebastiani failed to comply with the requirements for requesting sanctions in the notice of motion.  He contends that in her Request for Order (“RFO”), she simply states that she wants sanctions without providing other required information.  However, she does clearly state in the caption and throughout the RFO that she wants discovery sanctions and also states, albeit without having checked the box, that she wants $10,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.  RFO, ¶6.  The attached papers are also themselves clear that she is seeking specific monetary sanctions and that she seeks them from Respondent.  The specific amount which Sebastiani identifies in the other papers differs from the $10,000 mentioned in the RFO, but only in that the specific number is smaller.  This is somewhat confusing, but given that the specific number is smaller than the amount noticed in the RFO, this does not violate the notice requirement. 

            Sebastiani asks for an award of $8,793 in attorney’s fees and $90 in costs.  The evidence supporting this is limited to the statement that Sebastiani “will incur no less than $8,793.00 in attorney’s fees and $90.00 [in] costs for a total amount incurred of $8,883.00.”  Lanz Dec., 3:17-20.

            The amount requested appears facially unreasonable, there is no evidence supporting or explaining the amount such as showing the number of hours expended, and the amount on its face includes anticipated time since the declaration states that this is the amount which Sebastiani “will incur.”  The amount of sanctions must, as stated, be reasonable, and it must be limited to expenses actually incurred, not amounts which are merely anticipated.  The court AWARDS to Sebastiani, against Respondent, sanctions of $960, for $900 in attorney’s fees reflecting a reasonable amount for roughly between two and four hours of work, which appears to be a reasonable time, and for the $60 filing fee, resulting in a total of $960.   The court may alter this award depending on additional evidence and explanation provided.

                                                                                                                                                     Conclusion

            The court GRANTS the motion in part and DENIES it in part. The court GRANTS it as to compelling further written responses to the discovery.  The court DENIES it, without prejudice as explained above, as to compelling Respondent to produce responsive documents.  The court AWARDS to Sebastiani and against Respondent monetary sanctions as specified above.  

            The prevailing party shall prepare and serve a proposed order consistent with this tentative ruling within five days of the date set for argument of this matter. Opposing party shall inform the preparing party of objections as to form, if any, or whether the form of order is approved, within five days of receipt of the proposed order. The preparing party shall submit the proposed order and any objections to the court in accordance with California Rules of Court, Rule 3.1312.     

It is SO ORDERED.     

*THIS IS THE END OF THE TENTATIVE RULINGS*


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