NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS
California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115. (Marin County Super. Ct. No. CIV1504551 )
After J. Martin Robertson discovered mold in his apartment, he sued eight entities involved in the management of his apartment complex. Four of these entities appeared in the case—Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, Riverstone Residential Group, LLC, Greystar RS CA, Inc., and Greystar Real Estate Partners, LLC (collectively, Respondents). Robertson and Respondents mediated their dispute and entered a stipulation for settlement (Stipulation) to resolve the litigation. After they were unable to agree on the wording of an actual settlement agreement, the trial court granted Robertson's motion under Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 for entry of judgment consistent with the Stipulation's terms.
All further statutory references are to the Code of Civil Procedure unless otherwise noted.
Robertson then moved to vacate the judgment on the basis that it contained terms materially different from those in the Stipulation. Concluding that the discrepancies he pointed out were immaterial and his arguments were frivolous, the trial court denied the motion and granted Respondents' request for sanctions. Appearing in propria persona, Robertson claims on appeal that (1) the judgment must be reversed because several of its terms materially differ from those of the Stipulation and (2) the court abused its discretion by awarding sanctions. We affirm.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL
Robertson, who is a lawyer, filed this suit in December 2015. In the operative version of the complaint, he sought damages based on his allegations that the eight named defendants had failed to respond adequately to the discovery of mold in his apartment. Respondents appeared in the case, but the other four named defendants—Larkspur Courts, Larkspur Courts Apartments, Riverstone Residential SF, Inc., and Riverstone Residential Group, Inc.—did not.
In January 2017, after engaging in mediation, Robertson and Respondents reached a settlement in principle and signed the Stipulation, which specified the terms under which the matter was deemed settled. We discuss those terms in more detail below, but in essence Robertson agreed to discharge his claims in exchange for $28,000.
Two months later, Respondents filed a motion to enforce the settlement based on Robertson's alleged refusal to comply with the Stipulation's terms. Robertson responded with a motion to enter judgment under the Stipulation's terms. In May 2017, after a hearing, the trial court denied Respondents' motion and granted Robertson's motion. The court then entered judgment under section 664.6, which required Respondents to pay Robertson $28,000 within 20 days of notice of entry of judgment and required Robertson to give Respondents a form dismissal of the action with prejudice within 10 days of receiving the settlement payment.
Robertson moved to vacate the judgment and for entry of an amended judgment on the basis that the judgment failed to reflect the Stipulation's terms. Respondents opposed the motion and sought sanctions, arguing that Roberts was merely "nitpick[ing] the word choice . . . [of] the Court." In July 2017, after a hearing, the trial court denied Robertson's motion and awarded Respondents $1,280 in sanctions, finding that Robertson's contentions about the judgment's language were frivolous and that Robertson's motion was brought in bad faith.
A. Robertson Is Not Entitled to Any Relief Based on the Differences Between the Stipulation and the Judgment.
Robertson contends that we must reverse the judgment because it does not reflect the Stipulation's material terms, as section 664.6 requires. He complains about numerous differences between the Stipulation and the judgment, but we agree with the trial court that his complaints lack merit.
Our review of these claims has been hampered by several circumstances, including Robertson's submission of a voluminous record, most of which has nothing to do with the issues on appeal, and his excessive briefing. Many of his arguments are made in obtuse language, include irrelevant or unnecessary facts, and are repetitive. Nevertheless, we decline the suggestion by Respondents that we award them attorney fees as sanctions. --------
1. General legal standards.
Section 664.6 provides "a summary, expedited procedure to enforce settlement agreements when certain requirements that decrease the likelihood of misunderstandings are met." (Levy v. Superior Court (1995) 10 Cal.4th 578, 585.) Under the statute, "[i]f parties to pending litigation stipulate, in a writing signed by the parties outside the presence of the court . . ., for settlement of the case, . . . the court, upon motion, may enter judgment pursuant to the terms of the settlement." (§ 664.6.)
"[E]ven when issues relating to the binding nature or terms of the settlement are in dispute," a section 664.6 motion may be appropriate "because, in ruling upon the motion, the trial court is empowered to resolve these disputed issues and ultimately determine whether the parties reached a binding mutual accord as to the material terms." (In re Marriage of Assemi (1994) 7 Cal.4th 896, 905.) In making this determination, the court relies on "the legal principles which apply to contracts generally" to decide whether there is mutual consent. (Weddington Productions, Inc. v. Flick (1998) 60 Cal.App.4th 793, 810.) But the court may not " 'create the material terms of a settlement, as opposed to deciding what terms the parties themselves have previously agreed upon.' " (Leeman v. Adams Extract & Spice, LLC (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 1367, 1374.)
The primary issue here, whether the trial court complied with section 664.6 by entering a judgment that reflected all of the material terms of the settlement, is a legal question that we review de novo. (See Hines v. Lukes (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1174, 1185; Williams v. Saunders (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 1158, 1162.) To the extent Robertson challenges the court's determination that a binding settlement agreement was reached or any related factual findings, our review is for substantial evidence. (See In re Marriage of Assemi, supra, 7 Cal.4th at p. 911.) It is a "cardinal rule of appellate review that a judgment or order of the trial court is presumed correct and prejudicial error must be affirmatively shown." (Foust v. San Jose Construction Co., Inc. (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 181, 187.)
2. Robertson fails to demonstrate that any of the wording changes he identifies are significant.
a. Definition of "Defendants"
Robertson highlights the judgment's definition of "Defendants" to include only Respondents, in contrast to the Stipulation's reference to "defendants" without limitation. He argues that this difference matters for two reasons.
First, as to the mutual release which the parties agreed to reach, the judgment's statement that the release "shall include as parties all named Defendants, their affiliates, subsidiary . . . and predecessor entities" altered the Stipulation's statement that the release "will include as parties all named defendants, their affiliates, subsidiary and predecessor entities." (Boldface added.) Robertson claims this constitutes an improper modification of a material term of the Stipulation because the preamble of the judgment defines "Defendants" to be Respondents. According to Robertson, the judgment therefore requires that only Respondents and their affiliated entities, not all eight named defendants and their affiliated entities, be parties to the release.
We agree with Respondents that Robertson fails to demonstrate any prejudice resulting from this change. As Robertson essentially admits in his reply brief, the four defendants who have not appeared are Respondents' "affiliates, subsidiary . . . and predecessor entities." If this were not the case, he could not have reasonably believed that Respondents had the authority to bind those four defendants in a mutual release. Thus, Robertson has not shown that the limitation of the release to Respondents and their affiliated entities instead of all named defendants and their affiliated entities is prejudicial, because it appears that all eight defendants are included either way.
Second, as to the language in the Stipulation about a waiver of Civil Code section 1542, a statute that otherwise limits the scope of a general release, the judgment's statement that the Stipulation "between Plaintiff and Defendants included an express waiver" of rights under that statute is different from the statement in the Stipulation itself that "[t]his settlement includes an express waiver" under the statute. (Original boldface omitted; boldface added.) Robertson argues that the judgment thereby "allows [Respondents] to argue that the waiver of Civil Code section 1542 does not apply to the defendants that have not appeared" and their affiliated entities. The judgment's language merely reflects that he and the Respondents were the parties who agreed to a settlement, however, and again, he fails to demonstrate that this language excludes the other four named defendants.
b. Provision for mutual release
Robertson claims that the judgment materially altered the Stipulation by providing that he and Respondents "further agreed to and shall accept" a mutual release instead of that the parties "further agree to sign, acknowledge and deliver to each other" a mutual release. (Boldface added.) He argues that the word "accept" is vague and, as used, "does not effect the mutual release of any . . . claims or causes of action." But the parties' refusal to sign a mutual release was what led to the need for a judgment to enforce the Stipulation, and the judgment merely requires the parties to give each other a mutual release as they agreed to do in the Stipulation. He is correct that the judgment does not "effect" a mutual release, but neither did the Stipulation. Again, he fails to demonstrate any prejudice stemming from the altered wording in the judgment.
c. "The" occupancy
Robertson takes issue with the judgment's reference to a mutual release under which he will release all claims "arising in any way out of or related to the occupancy" of the Larkspur apartment he rented instead of all claims "arising in any way or related to his occupancy" of the apartment. (Boldface added.) He argues this "expands the scope of the claims that must be released" because it includes "occupancy of the apartment before, while and after [he] lived in the apartment," but he fails to explain what claims he could have against Respondents that arise from any occupancy of the apartment other than his own. Therefore, he has not established any prejudice resulting from this change.
d. Payment by other parties
Robertson also complains that the Stipulation provides that "[p]ayment of the stated settlement amount" will be made to him but the judgment provides that Respondents "shall remit the above-referenced settlement payment" to him. (Boldface added.) He claims that the judgment thus "allows [Respondents] to argue that they may make payment of the settlement amount to [him] by remitting payment to [him] from a person or entity other than themselves (such as their insurer . . . or its subsidiary . . .), rather than making payment of the settlement amount to [him] themselves." The Stipulation's use of the term "payment" does not require any particular parties to make the payment, however, so it is difficult to understand Robertson's position. In any event, he fails to explain how he could be prejudiced by receiving the settlement payment from a party other than Respondents themselves.
e. Timing of settlement payment
Robertson contends that the judgment materially altered the Stipulation by requiring him to "sign and deliver to Defendants a standard form of Dismissal With Prejudice of the action within 10 days" of receiving the settlement payment instead of requiring him to deliver the dismissal at an unspecified time before the payment is made, but after the mutual release is entered. (Boldface omitted.) He argues that the judgment thereby allows Respondents to obtain a dismissal with prejudice before they have actually entered a mutual release with him. As mentioned above, however, the parties' inability to agree upon a mutual release led to entry of the judgment, and Robertson can now collect the settlement payment before entering the mutual release. Thus, if anything, this change is to his benefit.
f. Requirement that "each" bear fees and costs
Robertson also points out that the Stipulation provides that "[e]ach party will bear its own attorneys' fees and court costs" but the judgment states that "[e]ach shall bear his/her/its own attorneys' fees and court costs," which he claims creates ambiguity. (Boldface added.) He does not explain who could possibly be included in this provision of the judgment besides the parties to the Stipulation, much less demonstrate that the provision could be construed in any way unfavorable to him.
g. Words used to refer to Respondents' counsel
Finally, Robertson complains that the judgment refers to Respondents' counsel's representation "that he/she has fully explained to his/her client(s) the legal effect" of the Stipulation and "that his/her client(s) has freely consented to and authorized" the Stipulation, changing the Stipulation's use of only female pronouns and possessive adjectives in the same provision to reflect that the attorney who attended the mediation on behalf of Respondents is a woman. (Boldface added.) He claims that the judgment therefore conveys that both the female attorney "and an unidentified male attorney explained the legal effect of the Stipulation," "making it very difficult to enforce [counsel's] representations." This argument is patently ridiculous, and we reject it.
B. The Trial Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion by Awarding Sanctions.
Robertson also claims that the trial court erred by ordering him to pay monetary sanctions. There was no error.
The trial court awarded Respondents their attorney fees under section 128.5, finding that Robertson's motion to vacate the judgment was frivolous and made in bad faith. Section 128.5 authorizes a court to order a party and/or the party's attorney "to pay the reasonable expenses, including attorney's fees, incurred by another party as a result of actions or tactics made in bad faith, that are frivolous or solely intended to cause unnecessary delay." (§ 128.5, subd. (a).) "Frivolous" is defined as "totally and completely without merit or for the sole purpose of harassing an opposing party." (§ 128.5, subd. (b)(2).) We review an order imposing monetary sanctions under section 128.5 for an abuse of discretion. (Moore v. Shaw (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 182, 199.)
Robertson argues that even if the trial court did not err by entering a judgment that altered the Stipulation's terms, the award of sanctions must be reversed because his arguments were not frivolous and he brought his motion in good faith. We agree with the court that Robertson's arguments, most of which he has reiterated on appeal, were "totally and completely without merit," and his conclusory assertions that he brought the motion in good faith are insufficient to demonstrate an abuse of discretion. The court did not err by awarding sanctions.
The judgment and order awarding sanctions are affirmed. Respondents are awarded their costs on appeal.
Humes, P.J. We concur: /s/_________
Margulies, J. /s/_________