October 18, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Denial of Attorney Fees Not Error in Close Case with No Vexatious, Groundless Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Estate of Fritzler on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Wills—Business Records Exception—Jury Instruction—Presumption of Undue Influence—Attorney Fees—Costs.

Fritzler and his wife executed numerous wills during the last 10 years of their lives. The last will was drafted just a few years before they each passed away. In all of the wills, the Fritzlers sought to distribute their farm in a generally equitable manner among their five children, but the last will increased son Glen’s portion over son Steven’s portion. Steven contested the will, contending that Glen unduly influenced Fritzler. After a lengthy trial, a jury concluded that the will was valid. Following the verdict, the estate and the personal representative (PR) sought attorney fees and costs. The court denied the award of fees, finding that the case was “close” and Steven did not lack substantial justification. The court partially denied costs, concluding that it lacked equitable authority to grant fees without concurrent statutory authority.

On appeal, Steven contended that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding Fritzler’s hospital medical records because they were admissible under the business records exception. Although the exclusion was an abuse of discretion, any error was harmless because the records were cumulative of other admitted evidence.

Steven also contended that the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the presumption of undue influence. However, the PR offered sufficient evidence to rebut this presumption. Thus it would have been improper for the court to instruct the jury thereon.

The PR contended that the trial court erred by denying her request for attorney fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-102 and by denying her certain costs as the prevailing party under C.R.C.P. 54(d). The trial court noted that this was a close case and found that even though Steven did not prevail, his claims were not groundless, frivolous, or vexatious. Therefore, the court did not err by denying the request for fees. As to the costs, the trial court awarded most of the requested costs to the PR after a hearing, denying only some that it found to be unreasonable. Therefore, the court did not err in its award of costs.

The judgment and orders were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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