Jay A. Roberts and Ashley Roberts McNamara, as Cotrustees of the Della I. Roberts Trust, Petitioners
Barry L. Bruce. Respondent
Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Case No. 15CA1824
Attorneys for Petitioner: Frederick J. Lockhart, Jr. Irit
Louise Lockhart Denver, Colorado.
Attorneys for Respondent: Jackson Kelly PLLC John S. Zakhem
John L. Skari, Jr. Denver, Colorado.
In this case we consider the reach of Colorado's
attorney's fees statute. Specifically, we consider
whether the trial court properly awarded the petitioners
attorney's fees for costs incurred in responding to an
action deemed frivolous in West Virginia. We hold that an
award of attorney's fees pursuant to section 13-17-102,
C.R.S. (2017), is limited to conduct occurring in Colorado
courts. We therefore affirm the court of appeals.
Facts and Procedural History
This case concerns the improper administration of a trust and
resulting litigation. Della Roberts created the trust at
issue with the help of her only son, James Roberts, shortly
before she died in 1996. James Roberts was married to Mary
Sue Roberts and they had three children: petitioners Jay
Roberts and Ashley Roberts McNamara ("the
Robertses"), and Andrew Roberts. The trust named James as the
initial trustee, and provided that all of Della Roberts's
grandchildren were beneficiaries of the trust.
James administered the trust until his death in 2012. As
trustee, James was obliged to undertake certain duties
delineated in the trust. This did not happen. Instead, the
district court found that "[f]rom the very beginning,
James Roberts failed to fulfill his obligations as
trustee." Despite this, nobody expressed any concern
over James's improper administration until after his
After James died, the trust provided that Mary Sue was to
succeed him as trustee. In response, the Robertses invoked
the provision of the trust permitting removal of the trustee
upon a majority vote of the trust beneficiaries and they
removed Mary Sue as successor trustee. In April 2013,
the Robertses filed a motion in district court in Colorado to
have themselves named as permanent cotrustees in place of
Mary Sue. Mary Sue responded, arguing that the Colorado court
lacked jurisdiction because she and James had moved from
Colorado to West Virginia in 1999, approximately three years
after the trust was created in Colorado. In June 2013, the
district court rejected Mary Sue's jurisdictional
challenge, and, in early August, granted the Robertses'
motion and appointed the Robertses as cotrustees.
Meanwhile, in May 2013, while the Robertses were litigating
the trusteeship issue in Colorado, Mary Sue filed a separate
action against the Robertses in state court in West Virginia,
again claiming that jurisdiction properly lay in West
Virginia. The Robertses appeared and removed the case to
federal court. Ultimately, the federal district court
concluded that Colorado had jurisdiction over the trust, and
therefore dismissed Mary Sue's complaint for lack of
jurisdiction. Mary Sue sought review in the Fourth Circuit,
but voluntarily dismissed her appeal in early 2014. As a
result of the litigation in West Virginia, the Robertses
incurred substantial attorney's fees.
After Mary Sue dismissed her appeal in West Virginia, the
Robertses moved in Colorado state court to be reimbursed for
the attorney's fees they incurred in responding to Mary
Sue's West Virginia action. The district court found that
the West Virginia action "lacked substantial
justification under C.R.S. § 13-17-102, because it was
frivolous, groundless and vexatious." Further, the court
concluded that there was "no legitimate basis for
challenging the jurisdiction of the Colorado court over the
Trust and that there is little explanation for this legal
action beyond a bad faith effort to delay and impede the
[Robertses'] efforts to resolve the issues before this
Court." The court found that Mary Sue Roberts could not
be expected to have knowledge of such a jurisdictional issue,
and it therefore assessed the $54, 565 attorney's fee
award against her counsel, Barry Bruce.
Bruce appealed and the court of appeals vacated the award.
The court of appeals held that section 13-17-102 does not
permit a court to award fees for an action in a foreign
court. Bruce v. Roberts, 2016 COA 182, ¶ 37,
__P.3d__. The Robertses sought certiorari, which we granted.
Standard of Review
Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review
de novo. See Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Equalization v.
Gerganoff, 241 P.3d 932, 935 (Colo. 2010). We begin by
looking to the plain language of the statute, construing
words and phrases according to the rules of grammar and
common usage. Id. In determining the meaning of a
statute, our central task is to give effect to the General
Assembly's intent. Id. To this ...