Down by law

Beaten by the system, four fearless Sacramentans coulda been contenders

Photo By David Jayne

No gladiator in the local family-law arena is feared more than Judge Peter J. McBrien. Since SN&R began covering the judge’s tactics in Ulf Carlsson’s divorce case two years ago (see “The fighting Swede”), more than a score of individuals who’ve endured similar thrashings in McBrien’s courtroom have come forward. For many of them, McBrien personifies a broken system. A common thread runs through their stories: Faced with an inexplicable decision by the court, each took on the system and got clobbered. Following are a few of the more memorable bouts held at the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse.

Tim “The Contractor” Maxwell
Age: 57
Date: 1998-2001
Judge: Peter J. McBrien
Children: 1 daughter, 1 son
Attorneys: 4
Cost, including lost assets: $1 million

Tim Maxwell knew he was in trouble the second he stepped in the ring with McBrien. The judge’s uncanny ability to render litigants invisible caught him off guard.

“He just ignored you,” Maxwell says, recalling the 1998 child-custody bout. “I went before him countless times and never got a positive judgment. He didn’t want anything to do with me or my attorney.”

Maxwell and his ex-wife lived with their son and daughter and his ex-wife’s daughter from a previous marriage. They separated shortly after he’d built a new home for the family. In the trial, every decision save one went against him.

“My ex-wife got to move into the $300,000 house I built with her boyfriend,” he says. “I had close to $1 million in assets, and when it was done, I had a 40-foot trailer and my son. My son moving in with me saved my life.”

Photo By David Jayne

“Kid” Kim Perotti
Age: 36
Date: 2006-present
Judge: Peter J. McBrien
Children: 1 daughter
Attorneys: 2
Cost: $120,000

Hire your kid an attorney. In the brutal arena of family law, it sounds like a good idea. Not so, says Kim Perotti. According to court documents, Perotti’s troubles began in 2005, when her 5-year-old daughter alleged her father had sexually abused her. The court granted her sole custody of their daughter; her ex-husband was allowed supervised visits only. That’s when the kid’s attorney got involved.

Questioning the validity of the daughter’s allegations, and Perotti’s support for those allegations, both her ex-husband’s attorney and her daughter’s attorney argued that the custody order should be reversed, granting the father sole custody and Perotti supervised visits.

The day before the 2006 trial, Perotti’s attorney was disqualified because of a conflict of interest. McBrien refused to grant a continuance, forcing Perotti to represent herself. Her ex-husband’s attorney disputed that the alleged abuse occurred. A court-ordered psychological evaluation of Perotti consisting of two fill-in-the-bubble personality tests, some inkblots and a 45-minute interview found she was borderline paranoid and delusional. The trial lasted six hours. When it was over, McBrien awarded primary custody to her ex-husband, reducing her to supervised visitations only.

Perotti filed a motion for a new trial, presenting evidence directly refuting the findings in the first go-round. The psychologist who had been treating her for attention deficit disorder the past four years testified that other than being under a lot of stress, she was perfectly stable. Meanwhile, Child Protective Services social workers who investigated the alleged abuse substantiated the abuse allegations, as well as the case’s original custody evaluator, a pediatrician child-abuse specialist and her daughter’s therapist.

Nevertheless, McBrien denied her a new trial.

“There is cited evidence that would support a finding of molest, quite frankly,” McBrien said. However, “The evidence that was present was somewhat to the contrary, so I am a little concerned about what actually was the state of affairs.”

As it stands now, Perotti gets eight hours of supervised visitation with her daughter per week. She has filed for appeal in the 3rd District Court of Appeals.

Photo By David Jayne

Mary “The Cruncher” Kravitz
Age: 52
Date: 1995-present
Judge: Peter J. McBrien
Children: 2 sons
Attorneys: 1
Cost: $128,000

“Money talks, bullshit walks,” says Mary Kravitz, explaining how the family-law system works. When big bucks are involved, it doesn’t matter what’s in the child’s best interest. The team with the most money wins, as Kravitz knows firsthand.

In 1993, she divorced her husband of 22 years. The couple had two school-age sons and had become moderately wealthy over the course of their marriage. Her husband’s parents, whom Kravitz describes as a prominent Sacramento family, launched an expensive legal battle seeking custody rights for both the father and the paternal grandparents. Backed with superior financial resources, she believes her husband and paternal grandparents proceeded to use her as a punching bag.

Kravitz says the opposing attorneys first passed pre-emptory challenges to ensure the case was tried before Judge Peter J. McBrien. They then argued that Kravitz was suffering from “parental alienation syndrome,” a discredited, pseudoscientific malady.

McBrien used it as reason to order a separate attorney for Kravitz’s sons. Then the attorneys for her ex-husband, her former in-laws and her children physically separated Kravitz from both her sons and her money.

The kids were not all right about this. Court documents show they wrote dozens of letters to their court-appointed attorney and even Judge McBrien, pleading to be allowed to stay with their mother in the summer, since their father worked all the time and left them home alone.

“Dear Judge McBrien,” wrote one son. “My attorney has threatened my brother and I many times. A couple of them were in court. He pulled me off to the side and said if you lie you will go to jail.”

By 1998, Kravitz had exhausted all her assets and was forced to represent herself in pro per. She estimates she’s spent $128,000 on the fight. While researching her case, she discovered she wasn’t alone. A chance conversation between two attorneys proved to be a turning point.

“I’m standing outside court,” she recalls, “and I hear one attorney say to the other, ‘I got this mother really stressed out. If I pull some shit on her, we should be able to get the house.”

Kravitz remains convinced the attorney wasn’t speaking metaphorically. She crunched the numbers on six years worth of pro per family-law cases and confirmed her hunch. “If you have assets under $100,000, you get shoved through the system,” she says. “If you have assets over $100,000, you can guarantee the fight will be perpetuated.”

Today, Kravitz belongs to the California Protective Parents Association, which lobbies the state Legislature and Congress on family-law issues. The group is currently attempting to advocate for a full audit of the financial activities at the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse.

Photo By David Jayne

David “DIY” Aragon
Age: 45
Date: 1999-present
Judge: Peter J. McBrien
Children: 1 daughter
Attorneys: 10
Cost: $300,000

In 1998, the mother of David Aragon’s now 10-year-old daughter informed him she was pregnant. After a paternity test determined he was the father, he told the mother he wanted to share custody of the child. She vanished shortly after that, still seven months pregnant.

Aragon located her after the child was born, and the pair visited a Sacramento County mediator to arrange custody in 1999. Unable to afford an attorney, he relied on a McGeorge School of Law student to help fill out the paperwork. Aragon was granted 50 percent custody, but the student neglected to send him the report before Aragon stepped into the ring with McBrien.

The judge went straight for the knockout, Aragon recalls. Upon learning the litigant was unprepared due to no fault of his own, McBrien grinned and ordered him to “go to the first floor and do your homework!” The judge cut Aragon’s time with his daughter from 50 percent to every other weekend.

A year later, Aragon returned with an attorney, seeking to enforce the existing court order and modify the custody agreement. During the interim, the mother had denied him any visitation at all, violating the court order 15 times, he said. When McBrien refused to alter the custody arrangement, Aragon couldn’t help thinking the fix was in.

That hasn’t stopped him from fighting the system, though.

“I’m on my 10th attorney,” says Aragon, who estimates he’s spent $300,000 in attorney and legal fees on the battle. “My eighth attorney told me there was no way I was going to win in McBrien’s courtroom.”

Still, he’s had his moments in the bout. Representing himself pro per, he’s even managed to win a round or two. But he knows he’s up against a determined, wily adversary in Judge Peter J. “Chainsaw” McBrien.

“I tried to get him kicked off my case,” he says. “He fought it and won.”