Two recent California Court of Appeal decisions–one of them published–address the procedure for requesting a trial de novo following the issuance of an arbitration award under the Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act (MFAA) (Bus. & Prof. Code section 6200 et seq.).

Georgianni v. Crowley, (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1462, involved a dispute over fees billed by the attorney for handling a family law proceeding.  The attorney asserted that he was owed money and the client claimed that she had been overcharged.   The arbitrator sided with the client, and issued an award in her favor for $29,000. 

Under the MFAA, a party dissatisfied with an award may request a trial de novo by “commencement of an action in the court having jurisdiction over the amount of money in controversy within 30 days after service of notice of the award.”  The attorney opted to seek trial de novo by filing a complaint in small claims court seeking $5,000, waiving any fees in excess of that amount.  The client asserted that the de novo request was legally ineffective because it was not initiated in Superior Court which had jurisdiction over the amount in controversy in the fee arbitration.  The trial court agreed with the client.  The Court of Appeal reversed, ruling that the “amount of money in controversy” as provided in section 6204(c) [means] the amount of demand or recovery sought by the plaintiff filing the rejection of the MFAA arbitration award.”  Thus, a party seeking a trial de novo may file a complaint in small claims court seeking no more than $5,000, even if a greater amount was sought by one of the parties in the aarbitration.

In a second, unpublished MFAA decision, the California Court of Appeal (Fourth App. Dist., Div. One) evaluated the adequacy of a de novo request.  The arbitrator issued an award against the attorney for $7,600.  Within the 30-day period, the attorney filed a form entitled ”Rejection of Award and Request for Trial After Attorney-Client Fee Arbitration.”  The trial court granted a petition to confirm the aarbitration award, agreeing with the client that this rejection form did not satisfy the requirement of Bus. & Prof. Code sec. 6204(c) that the party seeking trial de novo “commence[] an action.”  The Court of Appeal affirmed, explaining that under the statute the party seeking a trial de novo file both a rejection form and a complaint.  The decision is Avetisyan v. Gordon, 2011 Cal.App.Unpub. LEXIS 7502.