May 25, 2019

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.

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