Divorce is often complicated, both legally and emotionally. For one California woman who decided to represent herself in her divorce, her failure to follow proper legal procedures prevented her from cross-examining her husband in court, and resulted in $10,000 in sanctions payable to him.

Stephanie George and Daniel Deamon separated in 2015, after 19 years of marriage, and commenced dissolution proceedings. In June of 2017, they participated in a mandatory settlement conference, reaching an agreement on all disputed issues between them. The court then entered a judgment of dissolution.

The San Diego family court ordered Deamon’s attorney to prepare a judgment and forward it to George for her approval before submitting it to the court. Upon receipt of the judgment, George raised several issues and demands claiming she was not prepared to approve it.

Deamon asked the court to enter the judgment according to the terms of the settlement, and also requested that it impose sanctions of “at least $10,000” against George for her refusal to approve the proposed judgment.

In September of 2017, the family court held a hearing, where George admitted that she approved of the judgment. The court then entered the judgment.

A month later, the court held a hearing on the sanctions motion. George appeared, representing herself without an attorney. Deamon, who was living in Japan, appeared through his counsel. George told the court that she objected to Deamon’s continued physical absence from the court proceedings, stating he is “literally never … here, not one time.”

The family court noted her objection and then ordered George to pay $10,000 in sanctions to Deamon, saying her conduct as to the execution of the proposed judgment “caused him unnecessary attorney fees and costs.”

George appealed, arguing that the family court had improperly based its ruling on declarations and documents submitted by Deamon without requiring him to provide live testimony so she could cross-examine him.

She cited a California statute that says, “absent a stipulation of the parties or a finding of good cause … the court shall receive any live, competent testimony that is relevant and within the scope of the hearing.”

George argued that the statute meant she had the right to obtain live testimony from Deamon at the sanctions hearing unless the family court found good cause to exclude it.

“We agree to a point,” the appellate judges said. “If George had followed the proper procedures,” the family court would at least have had to consider her request. But, George failed to meet the procedural requirements.

Generally, personal appearance by a party is not required, and appearance via counsel is sufficient.  However, if George wanted to ensure Deamon’s physical presence, she was required to serve him with a notice to appear to compel his attendance.  It was incumbent upon George to bring Deamon before the court to testify, not simply make an objection to Deamon’s lack of physical presence at the hearing.

In failing to fulfill the procedural requirements, she forfeited her right to live testimony.

The appellate court noted that George “did not expressly inform the family court that she was requesting that she wanted to call Deamon as a witness so that she could cross-examine him.”

The appellate court also noted that the family court is required to receive live testimony only if it is “relevant and within the scope of the hearing.” George provided no explanation at trial or on appeal as to how her cross-examination of Deamon would have related to the sanctions order, which was based on her refusal to sign the judgment and the resulting delay therefrom.

Therefore, the family court did not err in issuing the sanctions without hearing live testimony, the appellate court ruled.

By Nitasha Khanna