May 19, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Objection to Special Master’s Attorney Fees Waived When Not Timely Asserted

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Laleh v. Johnson on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

Mr. Johnson was appointed special master during the Lalehs’ complex forcible entry & detainer action. Ali and Kahlil Laleh, brothers, each signed engagement agreements with Mr. Johnson, outlining the scope of work and payment obligations. Mr. Johnson incurred attorney fees because the Lalehs’ former attorney refused to honor a subpoena, and billed the brothers for those fees as costs. Although the brothers settled their cases in February 2014, Mr. Johnson continued invoicing the brothers for costs, including his attorney fees, through May 2014. Kahlil Laleh sent a letter to Mr. Johnson in March 2014 expressing concern about his inclusion of attorney fees in his billings.

Although the trial court dismissed the case in February 2014 pursuant to stipulations by the parties, Mr. Johnson expressed concern to the court about his significant unpaid bills and the court issued an order to show cause as to why Mr. Johnson’s bills had not been paid. The court eventually accepted Mr. Johnson’s proposed order regarding the unpaid fees. The brothers appealed, arguing their due process rights were violated by the court’s entry of judgment against them.

The Colorado Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s order was procedurally deficient because it had issued only three days after Mr. Johnson proposed his order, defeating Rule 121’s requirement of a 7-day objection period. The court of appeals vacated the court’s judgment and remanded.

The brothers argued the trial court erred in ordering they pay Mr. Johnson’s attorney fees without express court approval, and in awarding Mr. Johnson’s fees incurred after the litigation settled. The majority disagreed with both contentions. The brothers challenged whether Mr. Johnson had authority to hire counsel, but because they did not object as soon as they learned of counsel’s role, the majority concluded they forfeited any objection, although the preferred option would have been for Mr. Johnson to request permission from the court before hiring counsel. Likewise, the brothers did not object to the first invoice containing a line item for Mr. Johnson’s attorney fees, and the court took this as further indication that they waived any contention. Even though Kahlil Laleh wrote to Mr. Johnson in March 2014 expressing concern about the attorney fees, this was not enough to constitute a sufficient objection.

The brothers also challenged the trial court’s award of post-settlement attorney fees, most of which post-dated Kahlil’s objection to the fees. The court of appeals determined the fees were proper pursuant to the court’s inherent authority. The majority affirmed the trial court’s order for the Lalehs to pay Mr. Johnson’s outstanding fees and costs. The dissent, written by Judge Webb, outlined how he would have disallowed any fees incurred after the parties settled.

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