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Carrie Giorgianni v. John Kevin Crowley

August 4, 2011


Trial Court: Santa Clara County Superior Court No. CV156779 Trial Judge: Hon. William J. Elfving

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Duffy, J.


(Santa Clara County Super.Ct.No. CV156779)

Under the Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6200 et seq.; MFAA), a client may resolve attorney fee disputes by a speedy and inexpensive non-binding arbitration process.*fn1 [1] Carrie Giorgianni prevailed at arbitration, and her attorney, John Kevin Crowley, filed a request for trial de novo that was within the 30-day time limit specified in the MFAA, thereby (he thought) rejecting the arbitration award. Giorgianni petitioned to confirm the award, claiming that Crowley's de novo request was filed in the wrong court and was therefore ineffective. The court below agreed and confirmed the arbitration award.

We conclude that the trial court erred. The award was non-binding and would have become binding only if neither side timely rejected it. Crowley filed a timely request for trial de novo in the small claims division of the superior court (small claims court; see Code Civ. Proc., § 116.210), alleging that the amount in controversy--i.e., the amount that he claimed owing from Giorgianni--was no more than $5,000. We reject Giorgianni's contention that the de novo request should have been filed as an unlimited jurisdiction matter of the superior court because both her claim in the MFAA arbitration and the award exceeded the $5,000 ceiling for small claims court. We hold that Crowley's request filed in small claims court effectively rejected the arbitration award and will therefore reverse judgment entered on the order confirming the award.


Crowley represented Giorgianni in a family law proceeding to enforce a judgment against her former husband. Giorgianni was billed in excess of $77,000. Giorgianni paid over $69,000 and thereafter requested arbitration through the Santa Clara County Bar Association Fee Arbitration Program. She claimed in that proceeding that she had been overcharged by approximately $40,000; Crowley claimed that approximately $11,000 was due on outstanding billings. After arbitration, on August 28, 2009, the arbitrators served an award granting Giorgianni a recovery of $29,713.96 (Award).*fn3

On September 21, 2009, Crowley filed a small claims court action against Giorgianni in which he sought an amount "not to exceed $5,000" for "[u]npaid fees for services and costs expended." He alleged that the matter was an attorney-client fee dispute, checked the box indicating that the matter had already proceeded to arbitration, and attached the form ("SC-101") specified for arbitrated attorney fee disputes. Crowley alleged in the form attached to the complaint that the amount of money in dispute was not more than $5,000; the arbitrator decided that the attorney was required to pay the other party an unspecified amount; and Crowley "want[ed] a trial in small claims court to decide the fee dispute."*fn4 The following explanatory language appeared on the form next to the box Crowley checked indicating that he wanted a trial: "(You can check this option only if you did not agree in writing to a binding award and you file this form within 30 days after the Notice of the Award.)" (Original italics, bold, and underscoring.)

On November 6, 2009, Giorgianni filed a petition in the superior court to confirm the Award. She alleged that the action was an unlimited civil case with an amount in controversy of $29,713.96; more than 30 days had passed since the mailing of the Award; and no party had filed a timely rejection of the Award and request for trial. Crowley contended in his response that the petition to confirm should be denied because he had timely rejected the Award by filing the small claims action. His response was accompanied by a request for judicial notice of the small claims complaint. After a hearing, the court filed an order confirming the Award and entering judgment on it on January 25, 2010. Crowley filed a timely notice of appeal.


I. Appealability

Giorgianni raises a threshold issue concerning appealability. "The existence of an appealable judgment is a jurisdictional prerequisite to an appeal." (Jennings v. Marralle (1994) 8 Cal.4th 121, 126.) Giorgianni's challenge is without merit.

Under section 6203, subdivision (b), a party may petition to confirm an arbitration award in the same manner as arbitration awards may be confirmed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1285 of the California Arbitration Act. (Perez v. Grajales (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 580, 588; see also Loeb v. Record (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 431, 449-450.)*fn5 If an arbitration order is confirmed, the court is required to enter judgment thereon, and "[t]he judgment so entered has the same force and effect as . . . a judgment in a civil action of the same jurisdictional classification" and is enforceable in the same manner. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1287.4; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 1294.) An appeal will lie from the judgment entered on the order confirming the arbitration award. (In re Marriage of Corona (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1205, 1217, fn. 3; Cummings v. Future Nissan (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 321, 326-327.)

Although Giorgianni concedes that an appeal from a judgment entered on an order confirming an arbitration award is proper (Code Civ. Proc., § 1294, subd. (d)), she argues that Crowley cannot maintain this appeal because he did not challenge the Award by moving to vacate or correct it or by requesting a trial de novo. She cites Knass v. Blue Cross of California (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 390 (Knass) in support of this contention. There, after the plaintiff filed suit against his medical insurer, the parties stipulated to binding arbitration. (Id. at p. 392.) An award was rendered in favor of the insurer and a judgment was thereafter entered. (Ibid.) The plaintiff did not file a petition to vacate or correct the award as required under the California Arbitration Act; rather, he appealed from the judgment and claimed the award should be vacated due to an error of law. (Ibid.) The court rejected the challenge, concluding the plaintiff had waived the right to contest the arbitration award by failing to petition to vacate it within 100 days after service of the award, as required by Code of Civil Procedure section 1288. (Knass, at p. 394.)

Knass is inapposite. The parties here did not stipulate to binding arbitration, and Crowley does not contend that the Award contained an error of law. Rather, he urges that it was non-binding as provided under the MFAA and that he timely rejected it by filing the small claims action within 30 days after its service. And he presented these challenges in opposition to Giorgianni's petition to confirm the Award. Under the circumstances, Crowley preserved his objection to entry of judgment on the Award, and Knass has no application here.

Moreover, Giorgianni's claim that Crowley did not perfect the appeal because he purportedly did not request a trial de novo involves circular reasoning. Under this view, the court's determination that Crowley's filing of the small claims action was legally ineffective--which was the premise for its rejection of Crowley's position and its confirmation of the Award--would be unassailable, because the assumed validity of the court's conclusion would preclude an appeal. There is no justification for precluding a party's right to appeal on this basis. (Cf. Kaatz v. City of Seaside (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 13, 25-27 [denying motion to dismiss founded on contention that shortened time limit for appeal in validation action applied, where appellant challenged trial court's decision that suit constituted validation action].)

The judgment entered on the order confirming the Award is appealable (Cummings v. Future Nissan, supra, 128 Cal.App.4th at pp. 326-327), and Crowley is not barred from pursuing the appeal on any grounds claimed by Giorgianni.

II. Standard of Review

Our review is of the superior court's judgment, not of the Award itself. Accordingly, we review de novo the court's judgment on the order confirming the Award. (Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. v. Intel Corp. (1994) 9 Cal.4th 362, 376, fn. 9; see also Toal v. Tardif (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 1208, 1217; Lindenstadt v. Staff Builders, Inc. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 882, 892, fn. 7.) Further, we must decide here whether Crowley's filing of the small claims action constituted an effective rejection of the Award under the MFAA. Since that decision is based upon an interpretation of the relevant MFAA statutes and an application of that ...

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