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Ruybalid v. Board of County Commissioners of County of Las Animas County

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 10, 2019

Francisco "Frank" Ruybalid IV, Petitioner,
v.
Board of County Commissioners of the County of Las Animas County, Colorado; Anthony Abeyta, member of the Las Animas Board of County Commissioners; Gary D. Hill, member of the Las Animas Board of County Commissioners; Mack Louden, member of the Las Animas Board of County Commissioners; Board of County Commissioners of the County of Huerfano County, Colorado; Gerald Cisneros, member of the Huerfano Board of County Commissioners; Ray Garcia, member of the Huerfano Board of County Commissioners; and Max Vezanni, member of the Huerfano Board of County Commissioners. Respondents,

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 16CA1473.

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Francisco E. Ruybalid Trinidad, Colorado Limited Appearance by Steven Lawrence Jensen Golden, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondents Board of County Commissioners of the County of Huerfano, Gerald Cisneros, Ray Garcia, and Max Vezanni: Garrett Sheldon Walsenburg, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondents Board of County Commissioners of the County of Las Animas, Anthony Abeyta, Gary D. Hill, and Mack Louden: Newnam Land LLP Mary D. Newnam Wimberley, Texas

          OPINION

          Boatright, Justice.

         ¶1 Francisco Ruybalid was accused of numerous ethical violations arising out of cases that he either prosecuted or supervised while he was the District Attorney for the Third Judicial District of Colorado. Ultimately, Ruybalid admitted to 26 violations in exchange for another 138 alleged violations being dismissed. As a result of initially contesting the allegations of misconduct, Ruybalid incurred substantial attorney's fees and costs during the disciplinary proceeding. The counties of the Third Judicial District refused to reimburse Ruybalid for these expenses. We must now determine whether the counties are obligated to reimburse Ruybalid for these attorney's fees and costs under section 20-1-303, C.R.S. (2018), which directs a county to reimburse a district attorney for "expenses necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties for the benefit of [the] county."[1]

         ¶2 We conclude that because Ruybalid's ethical violations were at times committed recklessly or knowingly, his attorney's fees and costs were not necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties. Hence, we hold that Ruybalid is not entitled to reimbursement for the attorney's fees and costs that he incurred in defending the disciplinary proceeding against him, and therefore he failed to state a claim for relief in his original complaint. As a result, we affirm the court of appeals' decision on different grounds.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3 Ruybalid served as District Attorney for the Third Judicial District of Colorado, which comprises Las Animas and Huerfano Counties (the Counties). During Ruybalid's term as district attorney, the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel filed two disciplinary complaints against him that alleged over 150 ethical violations related to his failure to provide discovery in cases that he either prosecuted or supervised. During the ensuing disciplinary proceeding, the Counties refused to assume the cost for Ruybalid's defense;[2] as a result, Ruybalid hired private counsel.[3] The disciplinary proceeding eventually resolved when Ruybalid entered into a stipulation. In that stipulation, Ruybalid admitted that he had failed to provide the required discovery in eighteen cases. Ultimately, Ruybalid admitted to twenty-six ethical violations: eight violations of Colo. RPC 1.3 (failure to act diligently and promptly in representing a client); eight violations of Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice); and ten violations of Colo. RPC 5.1(b) (failure to make reasonable efforts to ensure that subordinate lawyers conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct). In return, 138 alleged ethical violations were dismissed. For purposes of determining the appropriate sanction, Ruybalid stipulated that his mental state varied during each ethical violation from negligent, to reckless, to knowing. As a result of the stipulation, Ruybalid agreed to pay over $23, 000 in costs incurred in the disciplinary proceeding; he was then suspended from practicing law for six months, which was stayed pending his successful completion of a twenty-three-month probation period. In addition to the $23, 000 in costs, Ruybalid claims to have accrued over $200, 000 in attorney's fees.

         ¶4 After resolving the disciplinary case, Ruybalid filed a complaint in district court for a declaratory judgment and attached a copy of the stipulation from the disciplinary proceeding. In the complaint, Ruybalid asserted that the Counties were obligated to reimburse him for the attorney's fees and costs that he incurred during the disciplinary proceeding as well as the costs that he would incur in complying with the terms of his probation. Ruybalid argued that the fees and costs from the disciplinary proceeding were "expenses necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties for the benefit of" the Counties under "the DA Expense Statute"-section 20-1-303. Ruybalid pointed to two other sources of potential authority to support his argument that the Counties were obligated to reimburse him: section 24-10-110, C.R.S. (2018), of the Colorado Government Immunity Act (CGIA) and Colorado Counties Casualty & Property Pool v. Board of County Commissioners, 51 P.3d 1100 (Colo.App. 2002) (holding that a district attorney was entitled to attorney's fees incurred while defending against a wrongful discharge lawsuit).[4] The Counties moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5).

         ¶5 The district court granted the motion to dismiss. It first found that Ruybalid's actions were disallowed by ethical canons. For this reason, the court concluded that his conduct did not constitute performance of the official duties of a district attorney, and thus was not covered by the DA Expense Statute. Additionally, the district court found that section 24-10-110 of the CGIA did not cover Ruybalid's attorney's fees because there was no injury sustained by a third party-a requirement under the CGIA. Finally, the court concluded that Colorado Counties was distinguishable because Ruybalid's cause of action pertained to defending a claim of an ethical violation, whereas Colorado Counties pertained to defending against a tort claim.

         ¶6 The court of appeals affirmed on different grounds. It began its analysis by applying the American Rule, which provides that absent statutory authority to the contrary each party is presumed responsible for its own litigation fees and costs. Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 2017 COA 113, ¶ 8, P.3d (citing Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 602-03 (2001); Bernhard v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 915 P.2d 1285, 1287 (Colo. 1996)). Because the DA Expense Statute did not overcome the American Rule's presumption, the court of appeals concluded that the statute could not be read to cover Ruybalid's attorney's fees and costs. Id. at ¶¶ 11-13.

         ¶7 The court of appeals also differed from the district court in its handling of section 24-10-110 of the CGIA and Colorado Counties. The court of appeals refrained from applying Colorado Counties because it "did not agree with [the case]." Id. at ΒΆ 17. And it concluded that there was "no ...


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