The lawyer for the Rebecca Zahau family faces a $1,500 court fine and possible state Bar investigation after he apparently “ticked off” a Superior Court judge.
Among other things, he didn’t show up for a scheduled hearing.
Attorney C. Keith Greer represents the mother, sister and brother-in-law of Zahau, the 32-year-old woman whose 2011 Coronado mansion hanging was twice ruled a suicide by the Sheriff’s Department but later a homicide by a civil jury.
Greer is suing for investigative files under the California Public Records Act.
Late last year, San Diego County lawyers, on behalf of their client Sheriff Bill Gore, tried to void the case via a demurrer. Judge Timothy Taylor rejected that effort but gave the county a chance to respond to several of his questions.
Greer then took the rare step of challenging the county’s so-called answer with his own demurrer. A hearing was set Feb. 18, but Greer never appeared.
Assuming that a second county answer would automatically trigger the cancellation of the hearing, he never notified the court clerk that he wouldn’t show up.
A week later, Feb. 25, Taylor ordered Greer to show cause why he shouldn’t be sanctioned, or fined, for not canceling the hearing.
So at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Greer will face Taylor in Department C-72 of the downtown Hall of Justice.
- Read: San Diego County’s reply in support of protective-order motion (PDF)
- Read: Zahau family’s memo opposing county’s motion for protective order (PDF)
Greer told Times of San Diego: “We were preparing to file a demur to the county’s answer to our complaint because it was vague. After we set the motion date, the county agreed to file an amended complaint, which mooted our motion.”
The Zahau lawyer concedes that he “erroneously” failed to pull the date from calendar.
“In most courts, the hearing date is automatically dropped if the papers aren’t received,” Greer said. “That didn’t happen here.”
But the judge’s order for a sanctions hearing suggests another reason he put Greer on the hot seat.
Taylor wrote: “Generally speaking, demurrers to answers are viewed by Superior Court judges as dilatory and largely unnecessary. Any issues raised by demurrers to answers can typically be dealt with in discovery and later dispositive motions.”
Agreeing was a University of Southern California legal expert on civil procedure.
“That’s a little bit unusual to file a demurrer to an answer,” said Professor Clare Pastore of USC Gould School of Law. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it in a case that I’ve litigated.”
Pastore, who reviewed Judge Taylor’s order for a sanctions hearing, said it appeared his court calendar was packed, so not getting briefs from Greer or appearing at the hearing was a nuisance.
“This looks like somebody who has ticked off the judge,” she said.
Specifically, Taylor says Greer broke Local Rule 2.1.20 of the San Diego Superior Court.
That rule reads: “The moving party shall promptly call the independent calendar clerk if a matter will not be heard on the scheduled date …. Failure to call the court shall be deemed a violation of the Local Rules, and may give rise to an OSC re Sanctions under Code of Civil Procedure, section 177.5.”
The size of the potential $1,500 fine is significant.
In California, Pastore says, a lawyer sanctioned by a court for more than $1,000 has to be reported to the state Bar.
“Oftentimes, you see judges sanctioning lawyers for $950, $990 — because they’re not trying to get the lawyer in trouble with the Bar,” the USC professor said in a phone interview. “For a judge to deliberately go this far above the reporting threshhold is also unusual.”
A $1,500 fine wouldn’t lead to disbarment, though, Pastore noted.
“But the Bar could open an investigation and maybe look to see: Has this lawyer been sanctioned by other courts? Does this lawyer have a history of disregarding court rules?” she said.
(Greer, admitted to the state Bar in 1988, has a clean record, according to its website. His law firm, near Rancho Bernardo, is only blocks away from USC’s San Diego Academic Center, it turns out.)
Asked whether he was prepared to “eat” the fine and forge ahead with a case to be heard July 8, Greer had a simple reply: