April 28, 2014

Should an undue influencer be responsible for paying the legal fees incurred to rectify the undue influence?

by Kelly Cooper

In a recent unpublished decision, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that a niece who unduly influenced her uncle was not responsible for the payment of the uncle's legal fees, which were required to rectify the undue influence and return the property to the uncle.

Specifically, the niece was accused of unduly influencing her uncle to give her pieces of real estate during his life. A jury found that the niece did unduly influence her uncle and that she breached her fiduciary duty to her uncle. As a result, the court ordered that the real estate be transferred back to the uncle. In addition, the jury awarded $315,000 in legal fees against the niece to make the uncle whole.

On appeal, the niece argued that she should not be responsible for the payment of attorney's fees because Colorado follows the American rule that parties in a dispute must pay their own legal fees. The uncle, through his conservator, argued that an award of legal fees was appropriate in this case under the breach of fiduciary duty/trust exception to the American rule. This exception was first recognized by the Colorado Court of Appeals in 1982. See Heller v. First Nat'l Bank of Denver, 657 P.2d 992 (Colo. App. 1982). The Colorado Supreme Court recognized the exception in 1989. See Buder v. Satore, 774 P.2d 1383 (Colo. 1989).

Despite the recognition of this exception, the Colorado Court of Appeals found that the Colorado Supreme Court has cautioned it against liberally construing any of the exceptions to the American rule.

In finding that the exception did not apply to this case of undue influence, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that the niece's breach of fiduciary duty did not closely resemble a breach of trust. In addition, the Court of Appeals found that the niece breached her duty as an individual, rather than any fiduciary duty to manage property, and that abusing personal influence is not similar to mismanaging property as a fiduciary.

The citation for the case is: In the Interest of Phillip Delluomo, Protected Person, 2012CA2513.