July 20, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attorney Fee Award Appropriate Where Claims Lacked Substantial Justification

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Estate of Shimizu on Thursday, November 3, 2016.

Decedent—Deed–Undue Influence—Lack of Capacity—Attorney Fees—Groundless—Vexatious—C.R.S. § 13-17-102.

Decedent died intestate and was survived by his half-sister, Szoke. Szoke challenged the validity of a deed that decedent had executed near the end of his life. In that deed, decedent purported to convey his house to three of his close friends (the recipients). The probate court rejected Szoke’s claims, finding the recipients’ case far more persuasive because it was based on evidence from persons who had direct contact with decedent near or at the time the deed was executed, and not all of whom were interested in the outcome of the case. The court also determined that the recipients were entitled to an award of attorney fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-102 because Szoke’s claims “lacked substantial justification” and were “groundless, in that she presented valid theories of undue influence and lack of capacity, but offered little or nothing to support those claims.” The probate court awarded the recipients attorney fees.

On appeal, Szoke contended that the probate court erroneously awarded attorney fees to the recipients under C.R.S. § 13-17-102. The probate court found that Szoke’s claims were “groundless” because she did not present much evidence to support her claims, and the court did not believe her evidence in light of the recipients’ evidence. Based on the evidence presented by Szoke, a reasonable fact finder could have found undue influence and lack of capacity. Because Szoke presented some credible evidence in support of her claims, her claims were not sanctionable as groundless under C.R.S. § 13-17-102. On the other hand, although the trial court did not explicitly characterize Szoke’s action as “vexatious,” that was the gist of its findings and conclusions. Because the court’s findings are supported by the record, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees for conduct that was “stubbornly litigious, or disrespectful of the truth,” and, thus, “substantially vexatious.”

The award of attorney fees was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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