Sheila Prell Sonenshine

Sheila Sonenshine

Born: July 9, 1945, Butte, Montana
Judge, Orange County Superior Court, 1981-1982
Associate Justice, Court of Appeal, 4th District, Division 3, 1982-1999

Sheila P. Sonenshine, one of the original justices appointed to Division Three, served on the court for 17 years. Sonenshine grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada through the fifth grade but persuaded her parents to send her to California to attend the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes. She later described her Chadwick years as a “fantastic experience”; even in the early 1960s, “Chadwick was one of the only, if not the only, co-ed private boarding school that never really had gender boundaries,” she said.

While at UCLA, Sonenshine worked for over two years at Neighborhood Legal Services, where she was the organization’s first employee. Her experience confirmed her desire to be a lawyer, and her abiding interest in pro bono work. After graduating as an economics major from UCLA in 1967, Sonenshine pursued her legal studies at Loyola Law School, receiving a juris doctor degree in 1970.

Sonenshine opened her own law office in Newport Beach. She focused on family law, and became one of the first certified family law specialists in the state. Her firm grew to 10 lawyers when she left in 1982 to join the Orange County Superior Court. As a judge, Sonenshine was unafraid to jail deadbeat spouses for failing to pay spousal or child support. “The philosophy has changed dramatically. The courts didn’t used to look at that crime the same as it did other offenses,” Sonenshine said.

Shortly thereafter, Governor Jerry Brown elevated Sonenshine to the newly created Division Three, where she was one of the youngest appointees on the court, and inaugurated the state’s first mandatory judicial settlement program. To further the settlement process, Sonenshine penned a widely cited opinion empowering courts to require persons with “meaningful” settlement authority to personally appear at settlement conferences. (Sigala v. Anaheim City School Dist. (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 661.) “The major purpose of a settlement conference is not to ‘clear the docket,’ but to achieve justice. For the litigants, settlement may be the best method of reaching this goal. And even when a settlement is not achieved, . . [e]ach party is able to gain valuable insight into the viability of the opponent’s position as well as perhaps unperceived weaknesses in its own case.”

Sonenshine authored a leading decision on HIV and infectious diseases, holding a public school was required to educate an 11-year old boy who tested positive for the AIDS virus as a result of a blood transfusion. (Phipps v. Saddleback Valley Unified School Dist. (1988) 204 Cal.App.3d 1110.)

Among her most noteworthy legal opinions, Sonenshine points to her dissents in Koire v. Metro Car Wash (1984) 209 Cal.Rptr. 233, rev. granted [gender based price discounts] and People v. Bravo (1985) 211 Cal.Rptr. 439, rev. granted [warrantless searches as condition of probation, both of which ultimately were adopted and extensively quoted by the California Supreme Court.

Sonenshine authored a trilogy of civil rights cases involving a male high school alumnus who sued a commercial photographer for refusing to include a photograph with his male dance companion in a high school reunion yearbook. “Our Legislature intended to provide recourse for those individuals denied full and equal treatment by a business establishment. . . . [T]he amount of recovery for actual damages is insignificant because discrimination by businesses is, per se, injurious. As unimportant as this matter appeared to the trial judge, all [Unruh Civil Rights Act] plaintiffs are entitled to the same respect.” (Engel v. Worthington (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 628.)

In Casenas v. Fujisawa USA, Inc. (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 101, Sonenshine published an opinion affirming a summary judgment for the employer in a constructive discharge case to provide “a textbook example of how to respond appropriately to an employee's harassment complaint. We do not know what more the employer could have done to accommodate [the employee], short of ceding its managerial prerogative to her.”

And in Schmoll v. Chapman University (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1434, Sonenshine, writing on a matter of first impression, held the First Amendment barred an employment lawsuit regarding a campus chaplain of a church-affiliated university. “It matters not whether such an employment decision is based on doctrine or economics. It is irrelevant whether the action involves hiring, firing or discipline or simply changes the terms and conditions of the employment. The rule is about as absolute as a rule of law can be: The First Amendment guarantees to a religious institution the right to decide matters affecting its ministers' employment, free from the scrutiny and second-guessing of the civil courts.”

Sonenshine was one of the founders of the Public Law Center, Orange County’s pro bono legal organization through its progenitor, Amicus Publico. She organized the Sonenshine Pro Bono Opportunities Reception, where new associates at major law firms learn of volunteer legal opportunities in Orange County.

Upon her retirement from the Court of Appeal in 1999, Sonenshine co-founded and served as executive managing director of an investment bank, which she eventually sold. Sonenshine currently serves as a mediator and arbitrator of complex civil litigation matters at JAMS (Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Service). She also acts as an advisor to women-owned businesses.

In 2010, the American Jewish Committee awarded Sonenshine its Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, the Orange County Bar Association Appellate Law Section presented her with the David G. Sills award for appellate excellence.


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