Here is a synopsis from the State Bar Trusts & Estates Section of an interesting case dealing with Trusts and Estates and the Court’s equitable power to charge the costs of attorneys fees incurred in defending a claim that is unfounded and brought in bad faith:
Pizarro v. Reynoso
Filed January 18, 2017, Third District
Cite as C077594
Melissa Reynoso served as trustee of her grandfather’s trust. The trust authorized Reynoso to sell real property to her mother, Karen Bartholomew, for $100,000 below the property’s appraised value. Reynoso agreed to help Bartholomew purchase the property. Reynoso obtained a personal loan, conveyed the property to Bartholomew, and the trust received the loan proceeds. Bartholomew’s son, Anthony Pizarro, and brother, Keith Jensen, filed petitions alleging that Reynoso breached her fiduciary duties, and that the sale must be set aside as a sham. During the litigation, Bartholomew turned against Reynoso and knowingly testified falsely. The trial court denied the petitions, finding the sale was valid and Reynoso did not breach her fiduciary duties. Additionally, exercising its equitable power over trusts, the trial court charged Bartholomew’s and Jensen’s shares of the trust with Reynoso’s attorney fees and costs. To the extent their trust shares were insufficient, the trial court held Bartholomew, Jenson, and Pizarro personally liable for the fees and costs.
The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Pizarro forfeited any arguments on appeal concerning the sale because his brief lacked clarity and failed to follow appellate procedure. The court properly exercised its equitable power to charge Reynoso’s attorney fees and costs against Bartholomew’s and Jensen’s trust shares. The court has the equitable power to charge a beneficiary’s share with the trustee’s attorney fees and costs if the beneficiary, in bad faith, brings an unfounded proceeding. While Bartholomew did not bring the petition, the court had the equitable power to charge her trust share because she took an unfounded position and acted in bad faith. However, the court could not order the litigants to personally pay the attorney fees and costs because such an order is beyond the court’s equitable power over trusts.