Congratulations to Ventura Coast Law

Ventura County has a new law firm, “Ventura Coast Law,” located in Newbury Park. My former law partners, Doug Goldwater and Jesse Cahill, are two of its principals. We met in the 2000’s, working for Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP. As a partner at FCOP struggling to deal with a burgeoning family law practice, I was pleased to have Doug and Jesse as bright young resources to whom I could delegate.

I then enjoyed seeing them develop into competent and honorable practitioners. Doug built his own family law practice. Jesse focuses on estate planning (I admired him so much I hired him to handle my family’s own work!). They are good attorneys and good people.

Having left FCOP nearly seven years ago to found Herring Law Group, I remember the various and sometimes intense stresses of “making the jump” — it is not easy. But the independence allowing streamlined systems, the highest standards, and esprit de corps through one’s own “boutique" firm can make it all worth it.

On a lighter note, I recall pulling a trick on Doug early on — shortly after he was accepted into the State Bar in late 2004. I called him mere minutes prior to his first solo court appearance and “reminded” him that he would need his Bar card in order to enter the courtroom and do his job. (That is not really a requirement, and I do not think he even had his card yet!) He’s a smart guy and quickly perceived the ruse (although his heart might have skipped a beat or two!). The “hazing” generated plenty of laughs at FCOP, and Doug graciously accepted it with his own smile.

HLG salutes Ventura Coast Law as it cuts a new path and surely enjoys future success.

The Recent Expansion of, and Limits to, Notions of “Domestic Violence”

Over the past twenty or so years, the Legislature has enacted a “hodgepodge” of confusing and sometimes contradictory provisions, as California Family Law guru, Garrett Dailey, has put it, in its rush to enact one domestic violence (“DV”) statute after another.

As of January 1, 2021, coercive control is a newly codified form of DV. Family Code section 6320 provides for ex parte (emergency) orders enjoining harassment, threats, and violence. Under the statute, “coercive control” is defined as:

“… a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person's free will and personal liberty. Examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following:

(1)    Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.

(2)    Depriving the other party of basic necessities.

(3)    Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party's movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services.

(4)    Compelling the other party by force, threat of force, or intimidation, including threats based on actual or suspected immigration status, to engage in conduct from which the other party has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the other party has a right to engage.”

As of the same date, the standard for “disturbing the peace of the other party” sufficient to warrant DV orders is “conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.”

In making these amendments, the Legislature was concerned about expanding the scope of abusive conduct beyond what was necessary, taking care to “… limit the application … to clearly abusive behaviors.” (Senate Judiciary Committee Analysis, cited by In re Marriage of L.R. and K.A., Cal. App., July 27, 2021, D077533.) 

On July 27, 2021, the Court of Appeal issued its Opinion in In re Marriage of L.R. and K.A. The Opinion is now certified for publication, meaning that it can be cited as persuasive precedent in future cases. The case involved the too-common situation of alleged DV in the context of high conflict custody proceedings. The Court emphasized that the examples of coercive control, as set forth above, 

“set forth certain parameters – ‘a mental state, objective reasonableness, causation, foreseeable harm, actual harm’ – to ‘provide strong guardrails to help ensure that the [law] will function as intended and not reach benign conduct that is ordinarily tolerated in relationships or that does not actually distress the person.’”

It explained, “[t]hese ‘guardrails’ are necessary because [a DV] order implicates fundamental liberty rights, as a violation of its provisions is a crime, … and it is a factor that is weighed in child custody and visitation determinations.” The court continued, “[r]especting these guardrails, courts are concluding that the [DV laws were] not enacted to address all disputes between [former and existing] couples, or to create an alternative forum for resolution of every dispute between such individuals.”

Earlier in the case, a San Diego trial court found that the mother involved acted “obsessively” in an incident with the father and their ten-year-old daughter during the mother’s scheduled parenting time at a visitation center. The trial court found that the mother was “aggressive and controlling” during the incident, and that she “escalated an already emotionally intense situation, and subjected both the [father] and the child to further distress,” and “she manipulated that child’s already sensitive emotional state to a degree that was not acceptable.” It noted that a responding law enforcement officer testified that it was “one of the worse” DV calls of his 28-year career. The trial court found that the mother “escalated [the situation] beyond control.”

Based on those findings, the trial court held that the mother committed DV by disturbing the father’s mental peace and calm, including through “controlling and coercive behavior,” and therefore issued DV orders against her that protected both the father and the child.

The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that “[m]other’s conduct did not rise to the level of destroying father’s mental and emotional calm to constitute abuse with the meaning of the [law].” “The trial court had all the authority … to handle … what ‘boiled down to … a child custody dispute.’”

This Opinion immediately set off alarms. Its logic, if extrapolated, could erode hard-fought gains in the eyes of DV prevention professionals (including child development specialists, child advocates, women’s advocates, family law attorneys, judicial officers, and many others). Trial courts in any custody case have the authority to handle custody matters. As such, this Opinion could be read to make DV proceedings in any custody case superfluous, which would not seem to have been the Legislature’s intent.

In addressing the recent expansion of, and suggesting these limits to, California’s notions of DV in the context of custody disputes, In re Marriage of L.R. and K.A stepped into the zone of landmines where these charged concerns often overlap. 

The Passing of Two Family Law Friends: Judith Rhodes and Paul Blatz

Sadly, the past week saw two of our accomplished family law friends pass.

Ventura County Superior Court Commissioner Judith Dahlman Rhodes was an amazing woman of tremendous and meaningful professional accomplishment. I met her when she was an associate of AAML Fellow, Bobette Fleischman. Under Bobette’s tutelage, Judy gained her Legal Specialization in Family Law from the Board of Legal Specialization of the State Bar of California shortly after I gained mine in 2004. Judy later broke off and created her own office in East Ventura County.

We often found ourselves on the opposite sides of cases, but we always worked respectfully in relation to each other, and toward our respective clients’ best interests. I always appreciated her positive outlook and easy smile. I called her “my sister,” explaining that her bright, generous, and open manner reminded me of my awesome sister’s. She readily accepted that (and my hugs).

Our professional relationship deepened shortly after I founded Herring Law Group. After my prior co-representation of Paul Anka in an initial round of family law litigation, she helped Paul hold his and his child’s gains going forward. When the case flared again in 2016, she and Paul called me back in. With HLG attorney, Ruston Imming, at my side, we fought and won an intense custody battle against certain “controversial but excellent” Los Angeles litigators. Ruston and I provided our extensive trial experience, but it was Judy’s unmatched patience and ability to direct Paul toward his amazing closing testimony that pushed our team to victory.

In 2018, Judy achieved her long-held goal of becoming a Family Law Commissioner. Of course I attended her swearing-in ceremony, and of course I was there in court on her first day officially in robes. When she saw me in the courtroom that morning, she called me to the Bench for a private conversation. At my inquiry, she confessed her nervousness, but she then proceeded to take charge of the courtroom –of course she “did great!”

Only shortly thereafter, Judy became afflicted with a particularly devastating form of ALS, Bulbar Palsy. HLG is proud to have joined many in our family law community who donated toward her experimental treatment. Hopefully others will still benefit from the related research. Consistent with Judy’s commitment to children in distress, her family has asked that donations be made in her honor to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for children), which recruits, screens, trains, and supports volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities (casaofventuracounty.org).

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Former Ojai Mayor, civic leader, and attorney, Paul Blatz, passed the day after Judy. Paul and I both came to Ojai with our respective families in the early 1990’s. While I joined one of the then-two “big firms in the county,” he established his own in town. He became Ojai’s “go to” lawyer for all sorts of work.

He was a class act in court — always with a smile and a kind word.

A favorite memory is of him tooling around Ojai in one of his Corvettes – he loved those things! His surviving wife, Michaelle, is in my wife’s book club. His son, Ryan Blatz, succeeded him on the Ojai City Council. Ryan is an outstanding attorney in his own right, who helped vanquish Golden State Water Company in major class action litigation a few years ago.

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Ventura County Superior Court will be noticeably dimmer absent the bright lights that were Judy Rhodes and Paul Blatz. They are in our thoughts, and we wish their respective families strength and resilience going forward.

Herring Law Group Welcomes Clark Lammers

Herring Law Group is pleased to welcome Clark Lammers to our team. Clark is a Santa Barbara native and second-generation local attorney, following in the footsteps of his father, Terrence L. “Terry” Lammers. Clark received his Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He gained his Juris Doctor from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He spent the past decade working at top area firms specializing in complex and challenging family law matters. Immediately prior to joining HLG, Clark was an associate and then a partner at the Santa Barbara firm of Fell, Marking, Abkin, Montgomery, Granet & Raney, LLP. There he practiced civil litigation, with an emphasis in family law. Clark is a strong addition as HLG’s fifth attorney, toward serving our select clientele throughout “the 805.”

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