July 22, 2019

Archives for November 21, 2013

People v. Stell: Breach of POA Agent’s Fiduciary Duty is Properly Included in Criminal Indictment

CashmanBy Barbara Cashman

In an 11/7/13 published opinion, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on substantial questions relating to the Uniform Power of Attorney Act (UPOA) as it relates to an agent’s duties, and the types of activities authorized under a power of attorney (POA). In People v. Stell, 2013CA0492, the court of appeals reversed and remanded with directions a case involving a criminal indictment of an agent who under a POA who liquidated the principal’s assets. This decision has wide and beneficial implications for principals who have executed POAs and whose agent are acting in their own self-interests, are converting their principal’s assets for the agent’s use, or who are otherwise stealing from them. Here’s a sketch of the factual background of the case.

The principal (referred to as “victim” in the opinion) executed a POA in 2009 in Virginia. Both Virginia and Colorado have adopted the UPOA so, even though the statutory citations vary, the law is substantially the same. In the POA, the principal named as agent his son, the defendant, Stell. While acting as agent under the POA, Stell wasted no time liquidating all of principal’s bank accounts, CDs, a 401K account, a piece of real property and the timber sold from that land – to the tune of $453,928.81. The following year, Stell proposed that the principal place other assets into a trust so they would be protected from creditors. The trust document that the principal signed at his agent Stell’s direction did not name the principal as beneficiary of such trust, and so the principal was permanently deprived of the use and benefit of those assets. In October 2010, principal terminated the POA and asked the Denver District Attorney’s office to investigate. As a result of the investigation, a nine-count indictment was drawn, eight counts for theft and one count for conspiracy. The appeal of the trial court’s ruling is based on the dismissal of counts 1, 2, 4 and part of 3 – relating to the authority of the agent, Stell, to transfer the principal’s property as agent under the POA. In its dismissal of those counts, the trial court ruled that because Stell had authority under the POA to do anything with the principal’s property that principal could do with it, Stell could not commit theft against his principal. The court of appeals soundly rejected this line of thinking.

The POA is a document that confers broad powers, but it is no license to steal. In this criminal case, the court of appeals examined carefully the fiduciary duty owed by an agent to his principal under the UPOA. Citing a Virginia Supreme Court decision, the court of appeals stated that “powers of attorney are strictly construed.” (Opin. at ¶17) Going further, the court ruled that the expansive language in a POA should be interpreted narrowly and should be construed in light of the surrounding circumstances. It soundly rejected the argument that, because a POA typically gives a broad grant of authority, it could somehow give an agent the authority to misbehave, commit theft, and otherwise breach fiduciary duties owed as a consequence of the nature of the principal-agent relationship.

The fact that a POA contains a broad grant of authority to the agent does not mean that an agent can abuse that authority. The agent is duty-bound (as in an agent’s fiduciary duty, as described in the UPOA) to exercise authority while acting as agent with the utmost good faith and loyalty. The court of appeals rejected the trial court’s reasoning that a broad grant of authority to the agent implied that an agent’s actions were somehow still “authorized” because agent was acting under a POA, even though the agent’s actions were in violation of his fiduciary duties. In ¶21 of the decision, the court of appeals identified the factual questions appropriate for a jury’s determination of whether an agent under a POA was acting within or outside of his or her scope of authority as determined by agent’s fiduciary duties. They included the following questions of whether agent acted: (1) in accordance with principal’s reasonable expectations and consistently with the principal’s interests and intent; (2) in good faith; (3) loyally for the principal’s benefit; and (4) with the care, competence, and diligence ordinarily exercised by agents in similar circumstances.

In reversing and remanding the counts of the indictment dismissed by the trial court, the court of appeals gives an indication that the days of the POA as a “license to steal” for non-criminal law purposes are over. This is an important development for Colorado – for both the new mandatory reporting of financial exploitation law (read my post about that law here) as well as the ability of exploited elders and other at-risk persons to recover funds improperly taken from them by an agent under a POA. It gives more protection for principals who have been taken advantage of by their agents to establish that the agent’s conduct was improper and to strengthen the ability to recover such funds that were improperly used or converted for the agent’s exclusive benefit.

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is the incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She contributes to the SOLOinCOLO blog and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared.  She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Tenth Circuit: Danger-Creation Exception to State Actor Liability for Only Own Acts Not Met

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Hernandez v. Ridley on Wednesday, November 13, 2013.

Jose Hernandez, Jr., and Salvador Hernandez were killed by a motorist while they were performing road construction in Oklahoma. Their representative sued their employer, Duit Construction Company, and the motorist and alleged a substantive due process claim against a host of Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) employees. All ODOT employees except the director and the resident engineer on the construction project were dismissed by the district court. The question is whether the two remaining employees are entitled to qualified immunity.

Normally, state actors are only liable for their own acts. Hernandez argued that the ODOT employees were liable for the acts of the third-party driver because they created the danger that caused the deaths. This argument failed because it did not meet the threshold to invoking the danger-creation exception to the rule. There must be private violence, but Hernandez alleged negligence of the driver, not deliberateness. The court went on to state that Hernandez also failed to meet the second element of the threshold, affirmative conduct on the part of the state in placing the plaintiff in danger.

Because the plaintiff failed to meet either threshold to the danger-creation exception, the court reversed the failure to dismiss the remaining ODOT employees from the suit.

Tenth Circuit: Disclosure of Material Considered by Expert Containing Factual Ingredients Required

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in In re Application of Republic of Ecuador on Wednesday, November 13, 2013.

Intervenor-Appellant Chevron Corporation appealed from a district court order granting a motion to compel production of documents pursuant to subpoenas issued under 28 U.S.C. § 1782. Section 1782 allows for discovery of documents to be used in a foreign proceeding. Petitioners-Appellees, the Republic of Ecuador and its Attorney General (collectively, “the Republic”) sought the discovery to defend an $18.2 billion judgment against Chevron by an Ecuadorian court in Lago Agrio. Chevron sought relief from that judgment pursuant to investment treaty arbitration under United Nations’ rules.

Prior to the Lago Agrio judgment, in September 2009, Chevron commenced arbitration proceedings against the Republic under the U.S.–Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty. In February 2011, immediately following the Lago Agrio judgment, the arbitral tribunal ordered that the Republic stay all efforts to enforce the Lago Agrio judgment, pending further order of the tribunal.

In June 2011, the Republic filed a § 1782 application in the District of Colorado seeking “discovery from Bjorn Bjorkman to aid the Republic in defending the validity of the Lago Agrio judgment.” The Republic alleged that Mr. Bjorkman served as one of Chevron’s chief experts and that the Ecuadorian court explicitly relied on his opinions. In the instant action, Chevron argued before the magistrate judge that the 2010 revisions to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 brought materials prepared by or provided to Mr. Bjorkman under the protection of the work-product doctrine. The magistrate judge rejected this argument and ordered the production of all of the facts and data the expert considered in forming his opinion. The Republic filed two motions to compel after Chevron continued to improperly withhold documents. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendations that only documents protected by Rules 26(b)(4)(B) and (C) were privileged.

On appeal, Chevron made several arguments that the 2010 revisions to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 radically changed the discoverability of documents held by experts. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, holding that the underlying purpose of the 2010 revision was to return the work-product doctrine to its traditional understanding, that it protects only the inner workings of an attorney’s mind. The court affirmed.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 11/21/13

On Thursday, November 21, 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued nine published opinions and 37 unpublished opinions.

People v. Bueno

People v. Smoots

Lawless v. Standard Insurance Co.

Todd Creek Village Metropolitan District v. Valley Bank & Trust Co.

Colorado Mining Association v. Urbina

Rieger v. Wat Buddhawararam of Denver, Inc.

People in Interest of S.N.

Barnhart v. American Furniture Warehouse Co.

People in Interest of J.J.M.

Summaries for these cases are forthcoming, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions. The case announcement sheet is available here.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 11/20/13

On Tuesday, November 19, 2013, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinions and one unpublished opinion.

Cox v. Lockheed Martin

Case summaries are provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.