A long-running legal battle over a Camarillo tomato field has hit another snag after a federal bankruptcy judge in San Diego stepped into the fight and temporarily stopped the warring parties in their tracks.
The latest chapter in a bizarre probate battle among three sisters came when Bankruptcy Judge Louise D. Malugen blocked a move by the troubled estate's trustee to quit because of old age and poor health.
The ruling means that former Ventura County Superior Court Judge Robert Shaw, 70, must at least temporarily continue serving as trustee. Shaw has undergone triple-bypass heart surgery, and this year he has undergone throat and eye surgeries and been hospitalized for a heart attack, according to his attorneys.
The ruling last Thursday came in a contempt motion filed on behalf of one of the sisters, Barbara Gisler Kennerly, who succeeded in making the tomato feud a federal case in April by filing for personal bankruptcy.
Under federal bankruptcy rules, monetary claims against a petitioning party are automatically blocked as soon as the bankruptcy petition is filed. Malugen upheld the contempt motion against Shaw and his attorney, J. Roger Myers, on grounds that they were proceeding with plans to withdraw and collect trustee and legal fees from the estate.
While the decision blocking Shaw from quitting could eventually be overturned, the initial ruling was hailed by Kennerly's husband and lawyer, Paul Kennerly, as a major victory after "more than 70 straight defeats" in Ventura Superior Court.
"It was our salvation," Kennerly said. "If they had allowed Shaw to collect trustee fees, we wouldn't have had the money to pay our taxes on the farm. Down there, we have prevailed because of the law. In Ventura, it's just a mess."
Barbara Kennerly has been fighting various trustees of the estate for more than a decade and has been locked in a bitter feud with her two sisters, Patricia Wise and Gertrude Hall, since the death of their mother, Angela Gisler, in 1983. The fight began after Barbara Kennerly, then the estate's trustee, submitted a $237 bill to the estate for attending her mother's funeral.
She claims that she has no money and thousands of dollars in debts; the value of the land that she and her sisters have inherited is estimated to be at least $6 million. The feud has blocked all potential sales in recent years.
Resignation as Trustee
Myers said he has not yet determined his next move in his efforts to allow Shaw's resignation as trustee of the estate.
"I'm frosted by this whole thing," Myers said. "I think it's absurd that the Bankruptcy Court ruled as it did. I've been practicing law for 20 years, and I've never been held in contempt before by any judge. I'm upset that it would happen in a case like this."
Shaw took over as trustee of the estate after the unsolved murder of a previous trustee, Margaret Reimann, in 1986. In addition to the Reimann slaying, the case has been marked by charges by the Kennerlys that all the judges of Ventura County are part of a "ranch-stealing conspiracy." Court penalties against the couple total more than $500,000 for failing to comply with various orders.