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Roberts v. Bruce

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 18, 2018

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.



         ¶1 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.[1] 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.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 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.[2] The trust named James as the initial trustee, and provided that all of Della Roberts's grandchildren were beneficiaries of the trust.

         ¶3 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 death.

         ¶4 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.[3] 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.

         ¶5 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.

         ¶6 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.

         ¶7 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.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶8 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 ...

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