Colorado attorney Francisco Ruybalid had one of those Mondays we all dread. That was when he found out he would not be reimbursed for the more than $200,000 in legal fees he had wracked up defending himself from misconduct charges while serving as the District Attorney for the Third Judicial District of Colorado.
District Attorney with 150 allegations of ethic violations
During Ruybalid's term as the elected district attorney, the Colorado Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel filed two disciplinary complaints against him alleging over 150 ethical violations of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Colo. R.P.C.) related to cases that he either prosecuted or supervised. People v. Ruybalid, Nos. 13PDJ065, 14PDJ064, 2010 WL 11020220, at *1 (Colo. O.P.D.J. Jan. 28, 2010).1
After a lengthy investigation in which he denied any misconduct, Ruybalid finally admitted to 26 violations in exchange for another 138 alleged violations being dismissed. The violations he admitted to doing included eight violations of Colo. RPC 1.3 (failure to act diligently and promptly in representing a client); eight violations of Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice); and ten violations of Colo. RPC 5.1(b) (failure to make reasonable efforts to ensure that subordinate lawyers conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct). Id. at ¶ 3
But he doesn't want to pay his attorney's fees
As a result of initially contesting the allegations of misconduct, Ruybalid incurred substantial attorney's fees and costs during the disciplinary proceeding. As part of the stipulations, Ruybalid was charged over $23,000 in costs and was suspended for practicing law for six months, which was stayed pending his successful completion of a twenty- three-month probationary period during which a judge oversaw his practice of law as District Attorney. Ruybalid claims that he spent over $200,000 in attorney costs defending himself during this disciplinary proceeding that were due to his official duties as District Attorney.
Ruybalid sued the counties seeking reimbursement for the $200,000 from the two counties – Huerfano and Las Animas - that comprise the Third Judicial District. The counties refused to reimburse Ruybalid for the expenses. Mr. Ruybalid’s claim failed.
He loses in the lower court
Ruybalid appealed the lower court’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals claiming he had both equitable and statutory claims. The Court of Appeals denied his argument stating that it had absolutely no merit and that his public policy arguments would be better addressed by the Colorado Legislature.
The Court of Appeals also discussed at great length, the American Rule, a longstanding doctrine that parties to litigation shoulder the burden of their own legal fees unless there is a statute, court rule or something that states otherwise.
“…parties generally bear their own costs of litigation absent a statute, court rule, or private contract permitting those costs to be shifted is well settled. See, e.g., Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 602-03, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001); Bernhard v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 915 P.2d 1285, 1287 (Colo. 1996). And while this so-called American Rule is more often considered in the context of whether a prevailing party may recover fees and costs from an opposing party, it reflects the broader and long-held presumption that parties pay their own legal fees and costs, “win or lose.” Baker Botts L.L.P. v. ASARCO LLC, 576 U.S. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2158, 2164, 192 L.Ed.2d 208 (2015) (quoting Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 253, 130 S.Ct. 2149, 176 L.Ed.2d 998 (2010)); Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 533, 114 S.Ct. 1023, 127 L.Ed.2d 455 (1994) (“[I]t is the general rule in this country that unless Congress provides otherwise, parties are to bear their own attorney's fees.”). Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Las Animas Cty., 2017 COA 113, ¶ 8, cert. granted sub nom. Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Huerfano Cty., No. 17SC708, 2018 WL 2011481 (Colo. Apr. 30, 2018), and aff'd, 2019 CO 49, ¶ 8
He loses in the Court of Appeals
The Court was clear that the counties were not obligated to pay the District Attorney's fees and costs incurred in defending himself in the disciplinary hearing for discovery violations and failing to supervise and train his subordinates.
“The statute allowing District Attorney to collect certain expenses necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties did not create an exemption to the American Rule, the long-established presumption that parties to a legal proceeding pay their own way, and District Attorney failed to state a plausible claim for relief regarding counties' responsibility for reimbursing his costs. Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 20-1-303.” Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Las Animas Cty. 2017 COA 113, cert. granted sub nom. Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Huerfano Cty., No. 17SC708, 2018 WL 2011481 (Colo. Apr. 30, 2018), and aff'd, 2019 CO 49
Ruybalid not only didn’t want to pay the costs and attorney fees, he wanted the taxpayers via the County Commissioners, who weren’t even a party to the original litigation, to cover the costs of his defense against the 166 charges of misconduct that ranged from withholding evidence from the defense to not adequately supervising junior attorneys in the District Attorney’s Office.
He loses in the Supreme Court
But Mr. Ruybalid persisted and appealed that decision to the Colorado Supreme Court. In June 10, 2019 ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court held that because the district attorney was found to be violation of several rules outside the scope of his official duties that Ruybalid had to bear the cost of defending himself. County Commissioners did not have to foot the bill for the costs because they were not costs associated with the discharge of the district attorney’s official duties.
“We conclude that because Ruybalid's ethical violations were at times committed recklessly or knowingly, his attorney's fees and costs were not necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties. Hence, we hold that Ruybalid is not entitled to reimbursement for the attorney's fees and costs that he incurred in defending the disciplinary proceeding against him, and therefore he failed to state a claim for relief in his original complaint. As a result, we affirm the court of appeals' decision on different grounds.”Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Las Animas Cty., 2019 CO 49, ¶ 2
Attorneys owe certain duties to their clients
An attorney upholding their professional duties is critical. In addition to the official duties of his job descriptions, Ruybalid, like other lawyers, owe certain duties to their clients, which in this instance were the citizens of Huerfano and Las Animas Counties and who had elected him to be the District Attorney. In Colorado, these duties are spelled out in the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. Each state has their own rules and typically may be found on a state bar’s website or Supreme Court website.
If lawyers violate these important duties, they can be held liable by the state bar where they are licensed, Disciplinary Committees of the Supreme Court and by the Courts that they are practicing before. Depending upon the severity of the violations, attorneys may face suspension and penalties. If the violations are really egregious, attorneys may even lose their licenses to practice law and be disbarred.
If you have a legal issue you need help with, the attorneys at Whitcomb, Selinsky Law PC would love to share their expertise with you. Please call (303) 543-1958.
Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Las Animas Cty., 2017 COA 113, ¶ 4, cert. granted sub nom. Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Huerfano Cty., No. 17SC708, 2018 WL 2011481 (Colo. Apr. 30, 2018), and aff'd, 2019 CO 49, ¶ 4 Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners of Cty. of Las Animas Cty. 2019 CO 49, ¶ 3