Case of the Day – Tuesday, April 25, 2017

PINKY SWEAR

pinkyswear150204Hey, kids! Remember “cross my heart and hope to die?” How “swear on a stack of Bibles?” Even you’re too young for those old chestnuts, you all know what a “pinky swear” is.

Sadly, Robert Grey Johnson, Jr., does not. Mr. Grey Johnson lived in tony Monarch Bay Terrace, on the Pacific Ocean between Long Beach and San Diego. The community is governed by the Monarch Bay Terrace Property Owners Association, a type of local quasi-governmental regulatory body that gives despotism a bad name. A few years ago, Monarch Bay POA and Grey Johnson became embroiled in a dispute concerning his alleged installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain all of his trees so they didn’t impede either use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property or – more important when the “starter houses” in your neighborhood sell for over a million bucks – the ocean views of his neighbors.

To settle that earlier case, Grey Johnson promised to abide by a settlement that spanned more than 20 pages. He said he abide by Monarch Bay’s “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” and seek prior approval of any trees planted on his property. He conceded that Monarch Bay POA’s board of directors would have “sole discretion” to determine the proper height of any tree, or whether any new or existing planting constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance – and that its decisions would be “final.” Finally, Grey Johnson promised to remove certain trees, trim or top other trees, as necessary, to maintain them at rooftop level; and pay a fine of $250.00, plus $500.00 in attorney fees to Monarch Bay.

crossedfingers150206No one looked behind Grey Johnson’s back while he signed off on the deal, or they might have seen his crossed fingers. A few years later, after Grey Johnson had failed to trim his trees as he promised, the parties were back in court. The POA wanted the trial judge to enforce the deal. Grey Johnson, who channeled Joyce Kilmer, argued that he should not be required to “top” the tree that some of his neighbors characterize as an impediment to their ocean views, even though he earlier agreed to do that very thing.

The court was unimpressed. Kilmer, the judge pointed out, didn’t say that trees were lovelier than ocean views – just poems. Grey Johnson offered fifty shades of justification for not honoring the deal, but the court saw through them. After the trial court upheld the deal, he took his plea to the Court of Appeals, which wisely observed that “this case is not about whether Johnson should be required to top his tree – or whether Kilmer would have approved of his doing so. It’s about whether Johnson’s voluntary agreement to do it is legally enforceable, even though he doesn’t want to do it anymore. It is.”

Our hats are off in homage to the salesmanship of the lawyer who convinced Grey Johnson that he ought to bankroll this turkey. Had Grey Johnson come to us, we probably would have uncreatively told him to “keep your word… you signed the deal, now live with it.” Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the Court of Appeals told him.

The moral? Lawyers often say that a “bad settlement is better than a good lawsuit.” True, but that settlement is more than a technicality on the road to ending some pesky litigation. Courts presume the parties understand what they’re signing, and won’t later entertain deviceful arguments for ignoring the plain terms of the deal.

It's a pretty fine view - what you'd expect for ocean vistas that start round $2.5 million.

It’s a pretty fine view – what you’d expect for ocean vistas that start around $2.5 million.

Monarch Bay Property Owners Ass’n v. Johnson, Case No. G043518 (Ct.App. 4th Div. Cal., Oct. 19, 2011). Johnson, a homeowner in Monarch Bay, became embroiled in a dispute with the Monarch Bay Property Owners Association over his installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain other trees to ensure they were not impeding use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property, or the ocean views of his neighbors. In 2008, the parties settled the dispute with a lengthy settlement agreement, in which Johnson promised abide by the community’s Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, and would seek prior approval of any plantings on his property. He also agreed that the POA’s board of directors would have sole discretion to determine the proper height of any trees, or whether new or existing trees constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance. Johnson promised to remove some trees and trim others as necessary to maintain them at roof level, and to pay a modest fine. The parties agreed that a particular Canary pine “will be inspected” nine months after the date of settlement to determine whether it creates any view impediments. If it does, it would be further trimmed – but only if a “neutral arborist” (paid by Monarch Bay) determines that doing so would not permanently injure the tree. The settlement specified that the POA could enter a judgment against Johnson if he didn’t comply.

Right after signing the settlement agreement, Johnson removed and trimmed trees as he had promised to do. However, when Monarch Bay inspected his property nine months after the settlement, it determined that he had failed to properly maintain the trimming of his existing trees, and also that the Canary pine appeared to be impeding the views of his neighbors. The POA concluded that Johnson was in breach of the settlement agreement, and sought entry of judgment against him.

Monarch Bay’s motion for entry of judgment was filed just over one year after the settlement date. Johnson opposed the motion, arguing that he was in compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, but that Monarch Bay had breached it by “fail[ing] to inspect the Canary pine within the nine month period of the agreement.” Johnson also argued that Monarch Bay had provided no evidence that further trimming of the Canary pine would not endanger it, and that the stipulated judgment was too “vague” and lacking in objective standards to be enforceable.

The court denied the POA’s motion, without prejudice, because it lacked sufficient supporting evidence to establish Johnson’s breach of the agreement. The POA refiled its motion for entry of judgment five months later, supported by additional evidence, including the declaration of a neutral arborist, and declarations of neighbors attesting to view impairment. Also included with the moving papers was a copy of the stipulated judgment which the court was being asked to enter. Johnson again filed opposition. The trial court entered judgment for the POA on December 29, 2009.

Johnson appealed.

Held: The POA was entitled to its judgment. Johnson asserted two primary bases for challenging the stipulated judgment which arose out the prior settlement. First, he claims the court was without jurisdiction to enter an order enforcing the parties’ settlement pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 664, because Monarch Bay’s motion was brought more than one year after the date of the settlement, in violation of a provision requiring that the case be dismissed no later than one year after the settlement date. And second, Johnson claimed that the terms of the judgment as entered are materially different from those he stipulated to. Neither argument is persuasive.

stackofbibles150204The Court ruled that the settlement agreement did not actually require that the case be dismissed within a year after the settlement date – or at all. Instead, what the provision Johnson relies upon does is prohibit dismissal of the case for a period of time. But even if settlement had imposed a deadline or dismissal of the case, Johnson would have waived any right to rely upon it by failing to enforce it prior to entry of judgment. Until the case was actually dismissed – which this one never was – the court retained jurisdiction to enter judgment.

The Court also held that Johnson’s argument concerning the specific terms of the judgment ignored the plain fact that, as part of the settlement agreement, Johnson expressly stipulated to the exact terms of the judgment to be entered against him if he failed to comply with his obligations under the settlement agreement. While Johnson may be unhappy with its terms, the Court held, it is too late for him to raise that issue now.

Finally, Johnson also challenged the trial court’s award of about $60,000 in attorney fees incurred by the POA in enforcing the settlement agreement. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that “the parties specifically provided in their stipulated judgment for an additional award of attorney fees incurred by Monarch Bay ‘in enforcement of the stipulation,’ which would equate to the fees expended to obtain entry of the stipulated judgment. Nor did the court err by including in its award the fees Monarch Bay incurred in its first motion to obtain entry of judgment. The court explicitly denied the first motion “without prejudice, ” thus signaling that the issue of whether Monarch Bay was entitled to such a judgment was yet to be determined – in other words, that neither party had yet won nor lost the fight. The court’s fee award, entered after Monarch Bay ultimately prevailed, was consistent with that approach: One fight, one victor – and to the victor went the spoils.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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