August 20, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Laches is Available as Defense to Long-Overdue Maintenance Award

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Kann on Thursday, July 13, 2017.

Post-Dissolution of Marriage—Laches as a Defense to Collection of Spousal Maintenance Arrearages and Interest—Implied Waiver and Estoppel.

A decree of dissolution of marriage between husband and wife was entered in 1989. Husband agreed to pay wife lifetime maintenance of no less than $1,200 per month. In the event of breach, the prevailing party would be entitled to recover costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees. For the next 26 years, husband never paid maintenance and wife never asked him to do so.

In 2015, wife retained counsel and sought entry of judgment for $520,636.32—$289,200 in unpaid maintenance and $231,436.32 in interest. She also requested a maintenance modification if the court did not award her the full judgment. Husband raised the affirmative defenses of waiver, estoppel, and laches. He also requested that the court terminate his maintenance obligation if it awarded wife the full judgment. The trial court (1) concluded that husband was required to pay maintenance under the decree; (2) held that Colorado law does not recognize the laches defense; (3) found that husband had failed to meet his burden of proof on the waiver and estoppel defenses; and (4) enforced the full judgment against him. The court also decreased the maintenance going forward to $800 per month and awarded wife attorney fees as the prevailing party under the separation agreement.

On appeal, husband argued that he should have been able to raise laches as a defense. While a novel issue in Colorado, courts have addressed the issue as to child support and child support combined with maintenance. Based on these cases, the court of appeals concluded that laches is available as an affirmative defense when a party seeks maintenance arrearages as well as the interest on those arrearages. The court remanded for the trial court to reconsider the full scope of the laches defense on the existing record.

Husband also challenged the rejection of his implied waiver and estoppel defenses. The record supports the trial court’s rejection of husband’s waiver argument. As to estoppel, husband asserted that he proved all four elements. The trial court rejected this defense, finding that (1) husband understood his obligation to pay maintenance; (2) wife never told him that he did not have to pay; and (3) husband did not detrimentally rely on wife’s assertion that she would not collect maintenance. The court found no basis on which to disturb the trial court’s rejection of the estoppel defense.

Husband further argued that it was error to modify rather than terminate his maintenance obligation. The court could not resolve this issue because the propriety of the trial court’s order will depend whether it awards the wife none, part, or all of her request for maintenance arrearages plus interest.

The portions of the trial court’s order rejecting husband’s laches defense, awarding attorney fees to wife as the prevailing party, and modifying husband’s maintenance obligation were reversed. The case was remanded for the court to consider whether laches bars wife’s entitlement to maintenance interest or arrearages and, based on this determination, to then reconsider the maintenance and attorney fee awards as well as wife’s claim for appellate attorney fees. In all other respects the order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Laches Can Apply as Defense to Child Support Claim

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Johnson on Monday, September 26, 2016.

Interest on Child Support Debt—Laches.

The Supreme Court considered whether a father may rely on the doctrine of laches to defend against a mother’s claim for the interest on his child support debt. The Court concluded that laches may be asserted as a defense to a claim for interest on child support arrearages. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, which had concluded otherwise, and remanded this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Frederick Skillern: Real Estate Case Law — Contracts, Purchase and Sale, Transactions (2)

Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of a series of posts in which Denver-area real estate attorney Frederick Skillern provides summaries of case law pertinent to real estate practitioners (click here for previous posts). These updates originally appeared as materials for the 32nd Annual Real Estate Symposium in July 2014.

frederick-b-skillern

By Frederick Skillern

Van Rees, Sr. v. Unleaded Software, Inc.
Colorado Court of Appeals, December 5, 2013
2013 COA 164

Economic loss rule; contract for design of website; no tort claim because no independent duty.

Although this is not a real estate case, I note it simply as an example of how the economic loss rule is spreading to preclude a wide array of fraud claims arising out of contractual relations. In this case, the court deals with the scope and applicability of Colorado’s economic loss rule in the context of an agreement for the design and maintenance of a website. Under the economic loss rule, no independent duty exists for tort claims of fraud, fraudulent concealment, constructive fraud, or negligent misrepresentation when the alleged misrepresentations and false statements are about the ability to perform contractual duties. The court affirms the trial court’s dismissal of the fraud, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, Colorado Consumer Protection Act, and civil theft claims. The breach of contract claim has it all.

 

Hickerson v. Vessels
Colorado Supreme Court, January 13, 2014
2014 CO 2.

Collections; statute of limitations; C.R.S. § 13-80-103.5 (1) (a) (six-year statute); partial payment doctrine; laches.

This case takes up the collection efforts of the holder of a $386,000 promissory note given in 1989 to the Vessels Oil Company. The note was due in ten years. Shortly after 1999, the maker started making payments on the note, and that continued for a couple of years. After payments stopped, Vessels sued to collect the entire balance. Under existing common law, which the court refers to as the partial payment doctrine, the running of the six-year statute of limitations begins anew whenever payments are made voluntarily, as the debt is recognized and acknowledged. The trial court held that the debtor should be protected under the circumstances of this case by the equitable defense of laches. The court of appeals reversed, but the Supreme Court reinstates the trial court’s ruling.

Four statutes refer to the partial payment scenario. See C.R.S. §§ 13-80-113 to 116. The court refers to these as examples of the common-law rule, and not a replacement of the rule.

In a fairly bold stroke in support of the exercise of equitable powers, the court holds that the separation of powers doctrine does not bar application of the equitable defense of laches to a debt collection action filed within the original or restarted six-year statute of limitations period. Laches does not conflict with the plain meaning of the relevant statute of limitations, nor does it conflict with the partial payment doctrine, which is a creature of Colorado common law. Since early statehood, Colorado case law has recognized the application of equitable remedies to legal claims. Accordingly, the Court reverses the judgment of the court of appeals and remands the case for consideration of issues it did not reach, to wit – does the record support a defense of laches. Maybe not.

“The essential element of laches is unconscionable delay in enforcing a right under the circumstances, usually involving a prejudice to the one against whom the claim is asserted.” The elements of laches are: (1) full knowledge of the facts; (2) unreasonable delay in the assertion of available remedy; and (3) intervening reliance by and prejudice to another. Laches requires “such unreasonable delay in the assertion of and attempted securing of equitable rights as to constitute in equity and good conscience a bar to recovery.”

The court remands the case to the court of appeals for review of whether the elements of laches are satisfied by evidence in the record. And father time marches on.

Frederick B. Skillern, Esq., is a director and shareholder with Montgomery Little & Soran, P.C., practicing in real estate and related litigation and appeals. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with real estate, professional responsibility and attorney fees, and acts as a mediator and arbitrator in real estate cases. Before joining Montgomery Little in 2003, Fred was in private practice in Denver for 6 years with Carpenter & Klatskin and for 10 years with Isaacson Rosenbaum. He served as a district judge for Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District from 2000 through 2002. Fred is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his law degree at the University of Colorado in 1976, in another day and time in which the legal job market was simply awful.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Laches Does Not Apply to Actions to Recover Past-Due Child Support

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Johnson on Thursday, October 23, 2014.

Child Support Arrearages.

Father’s marriage to mother ended in 1983. He was ordered to pay $400 in monthly child support for their two children. In September 2012, mother requested that judgment enter for $893,285 in child support arrearages and interest. Father objected, asserting that under the applicable twenty-year statute of limitations, mother could collect arrearages accruing only after September 1992. He requested a hearing to make that determination. The magistrate entered judgment for mother for the full amount requested, without addressing father’s contention or his hearing request.

Father petitioned for district court review of the order. The court ruled that the twenty-year statute of limitations applied, vacated the magistrate’s order, and remanded the matter for an evidentiary hearing. After the hearing, the magistrate rejected father’s argument that child support had terminated when their last child turned 19 in July 1995 and that lachesbarred mother’s right to collect interest. The magistrate entered judgment for $23,260 for arrearages between September 1992 and July 1997, when the parties’ last child turned 21, plus interest, resulting in a judgment of $155,000. The district court adopted the order.

On appeal, father argued that child support automatically terminated on July 17, 1995 and that the finding of $23,260 in arrearages lacked record support. At the time of the dissolution, child support was owed until a child emancipated, which presumptively was at age 21. In 1991, the applicable statute was amended to provide that emancipation occurs and child support terminates when a child turns 19. The amendment applied to all child support obligations established before July 1, 1991. Therefore, father’s child support obligation terminated on July 17, 1995, when the last child turned 19.

Father also argued that it was error to hold that laches did not apply as to the right to collect interest. Under CRS § 14-14-106, interest is specified on arrearages in child support and it is not discretionary. The Court of Appeals has previously held that laches does not apply “to actions for the recovery of past due child support.” At the hearing, father had acknowledged that he owed $4,800 in arrearages for the period between July 1994 and July 1995. On remand, the court was ordered to calculate interest under CRS § 14-14-106 on the $4,800 and enter judgment for mother accordingly.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Forest Service’s Management Plans Did Not Violate National Forest Management Act or Environmental Protection Act

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Biodiversity Conservation Alliance v. Jiron on Tuesday, August 5, 2014.

Biodiversity sued the U.S. Forest Service in two separate cases involving Forest Service actions in the Black Hills National Forest. In the first case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, Biodiversity claimed the Forest Service failed to comply with various statutes and regulations. The district court denied Biodiversity’s petition for review. In the second case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, Biodiversity argued the Forest Service had violated a settlement agreement and moved for relief. The district court dismissed Biodiversity’s motion. Biodiversity appealed both rulings and the cases were consolidated for appellate review.

In 1976, the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) took effect, and the Forest Service created a plan under which it managed the Black Hills National Forest. In 1992, the Forest Service decided to revise the plan, and in 1997 it issued its revised forest plan. Biodiversity challenged the 1997 plan in an administrative proceeding, and its appeal was decided by the Chief of the Forest Service in 1999. The Chief determined that although most of the plan complied with the NFMA and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), there were some shortcomings, which the Chief described specifically in his ruling.

Before the Chief issued his 1999 ruling, the Forest Service began implementing its 1997 forest plan. Biodiversity administratively challenged some aspects of the plan, and eventually Biodiversity and the Forest Service entered into a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement included Phase I and Phase II plans for implementation, and the Colorado federal district court retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement. Phase I was implemented in 2001, and the Forest Service incorporated some of the Chief’s recommendations from the 1999 ruling. From 2001 through 2005, the Forest Service conducted a more detailed analysis of the Black Hills National Forest in preparation for the Phase II amendment. Also during this time, several wildfires ravaged the forest, and a mountain pine beetle infestation spread from 5,200 acres to 100,000 acres. As a result, the Phase II amendment was adjusted to address fire and insect issues.

The Forest Service considered six alternatives to implement the 1997 plan, and ultimately chose the sixth alternative even though some species would be adversely affected because the sixth plan would reduce wildfire risks and reduce the pine beetle infestation. In October 2005, the Forest Service began implementing Alternative 6 as the Phase II amendment. In 2006, Biodiversity challenged the Phase II amendment, but the Chief upheld it. In separate administrative cases, Biodiversity also challenged nine specific projects implemented as part of the Phase II amendment. The Chief denied all nine challenges, upholding the last in January 2011.

Biodiversity filed suit in Wyoming federal district court in October 2011, petitioning for agency review under the Administrative Procedures Act. In November 2012, the Wyoming court upheld the Forest Service’s action, and it denied a motion for reconsideration in April 2013. Biodiversity timely appealed.

Meanwhile, the Beaver Park litigation initiated by Biodiversity in 1999 lay dormant. After its defeat in Wyoming, Biodiversity attempted in May 2013 to reopen the Colorado case. The district court denied its motion, determining that laches barred enforcement of Biodiversity’s rights under the settlement agreement. Biodiversity timely appealed this ruling also, and the appeals were consolidated for Tenth Circuit review.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed Biodiversity’s challenges as final agency actions under the Administrative Procedures Act. Both parties agreed that each of Biodiversity’s plaintiffs established Article III standing. Biodiversity pursued review under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), arguing that the agency action was arbitrary and capricious. Biodiversity asserted violations of the NFMA and the NEPA.

The Tenth Circuit conducted a detailed analysis of each implicated section of the NFMA and NEPA. Where sections were ambiguous, the Tenth Circuit deferred to the Forest Service’s interpretation unless that interpretation was manifestly unreasonable. Regarding the population data requirement, the Tenth Circuit found that the regulation was ambiguous, and although Biodiversity raised a competing interpretation, deference was due to the Forest Service because its resolution of the ambiguity was reasonable. Regarding the Forest Service’s species viability analyses generally, Biodiversity argued that the Phase II amendment failed to ensure species viability for the Northern Goshawk, snag-dependent species, and sensitive plants. The Forest Service examined these particular species and adopted a different approach than that proposed by Biodiversity. Biodiversity failed to explain why its analysis was preferential to the Forest Service’s, however, so the Tenth Circuit deferred to the Forest Service’s scientific analyses.

Biodiversity argued the Phase II amendment failed to provide heightened protections for Research Natural Areas (RNAs) and Botanical Areas. Specifically, it alleged the Forest Service allowed livestock to graze on RNAs without specific management plans in place. However, there are no timelines for implementation of RNA management plans, and the Forest Service developed a plan as part of the 2005 Phase II implementation. Biodiversity failed to show that the Forest Service’s delay was unreasonable. As for the Botanical Areas, the Forest Service addressed these in its 1997 plan. Although Biodiversity argued the Forest Service failed to adequately monitor the well-being of the Botanical Areas, the Tenth Circuit’s APA review is narrow and examines only if the Forest Service had a rational explanation, which the Tenth Circuit found it did.

Biodiversity argued that the Forest Service failed to conduct a proper suitability and capability analysis for livestock grazing. The Tenth Circuit found no reason to conclude the Forest Service’s analysis was unreasonable, erroneous, or inconsistent with the regulation.

Biodiversity also argued that the Forest Service violated NEPA because it failed to consider no grazing alternatives in its Phase II amendment, it failed to take a “hard look” at how the amendment would affect sedimentation in Black Hills waterways, and it failed to take a “hard look” at historical grazing practices before authorizing grazing. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the Forest Service’s actions, finding instead that the Forest Service considered two no grazing alternatives, it contemplated sedimentation using Biodiversity’s proposed resources, and the Forest Service considered past grazing practices in determining that Alternative 6 was the best way to implement Phase II.

Turning to the Colorado claim, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the doctrine of laches barred Biodiversity’s assertion of the breach of settlement agreement claims. Biodiversity waited 6 1/2 years to file its suit alleging breach of the agreement, and that delay was unreasonable. The district court ruled the delay prejudiced the Forest Service, and the Tenth Circuit found no reason to disturb those findings.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the Wyoming court’s denial of Biodiversity’s petition to review under the APA and affirmed the Colorado court’s dismissal of Biodiversity’s action to enforce the settlement agreement.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Doctrine of Laches Barred Appellate Review of 24-Year-Old Ineffective Assistance Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Lanari on Thursday, June 5, 2014.

Crim P.35(c)—Doctrine of Laches—Prejudice.

In 1987, a jury convicted Lanari of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and four crime of violence sentencing enhancers. On November 2, 2010, Lanari filed a pro se Crim.P. 35(c) motion, alleging that trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for various reasons. The People moved to dismiss the motion, arguing that it was barred by the doctrine of laches. After a hearing, the district court agreed and dismissed the Crim.P. 35(c) motion.

On appeal, Lanari argued in his opening brief that his Crim.P. 35(c) motion was not barred by the doctrine of laches. There is no statutory time limit to file a post-conviction motion if a defendant has been convicted of a class 1 felony. However, the doctrine of laches is still available to bar such motions based on prejudice to the prosecution. Here, Lanari conceded that he knew about the facts underlying his ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims either before or by the conclusion of his trial in 1987. Additionally, he knew about the facts that formed the basis of his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims by the conclusion of his appeal in 1997. The People were not required to show that they detrimentally relied on Lanari’s failure to file a post-conviction motion within a reasonable time. Because Lanari filed his post-trial motion almost twenty-four years after his trial in January 1987, the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the People were prejudiced by such delay. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

Colorado Supreme Court: Laches Defense Does Not Conflict with Statute of Limitations

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hickerson v. Vessels on Monday, January 13, 2014.

Statute of Limitations—CRS § 13-80-103.5(1)(a)—Partial Payment Doctrine—Laches.

The Supreme Court held that the separation of powers doctrine does not bar application of the defense of laches to a debt collection action filed within the original or restarted six-year statute of limitations period. Laches does not conflict with the plain meaning of the relevant statute of limitations, nor does it conflict with the partial payment doctrine, which is a creature of Colorado common law. Since early statehood, Colorado case law has recognized the application of equitable remedies to legal claims. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for consideration of issues it did not reach.

Summary and full case available here.

Tenth Circuit: Utah Supreme Court’s Dismissal on Laches Grounds Constitutes a Decision on the Merits

The Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Horne on Monday, November 5, 2012.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“FLDS”)  filed a complaint in federal district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the Utah probate court’s reformation and administration of a religious charitable trust (“Trust”). FLDS also moved for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the probate court’s administration of the trust. This federal suit was stayed pending settlement negotiations.

While the federal case was pending, FLDS filed a petition for extraordinary writ with the Utah Supreme Court raising substantially the same claims as the federal complaint. The Utah Supreme Court dismissed the petition finding that FLDS’s claims regarding the trust were barred by the equitable doctrine of laches. FLDS then renewed its motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court. The district court entered a temporary restraining order and also granted FLDS’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding there was no basis for laches. The district court also found that the Utah Supreme Court’s finding of laches was not a judgment on the merits for res judicata purposes.

Defendants appealed the district court’s order granting FLDS a preliminary injunction. The Tenth Circuit certified the following question to the Utah Supreme Court:

Under Utah preclusion law, is the Utah Supreme Court’s discretionary review of a petition for extraordinary writ and subsequent dismissal on laches grounds a decision “on the merits” when it is accompanied by a written opinion, such that later adjudication of the same claim is barred?

In its answer to the Tenth Circuit’s certified question, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that such a decision is a decision on the merits for res judicata purposes that would preclude a subsequent action on the same claims between the same parties.

Having received the Utah Supreme Court’s answer, the Tenth Circuit concluded that FLDS was precluded from pursuing its claims in federal court.  The district court erred in granting a preliminary injunction, and specifically erred in holding that the Utah Supreme Court’s finding of laches was not a judgment on the merits for res judicata purposes.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit VACATED the district court’s grant of preliminary injunction and REMANDED with directions to dismiss the claims filed by the FLDS Association as barred by res judicata.