Pugliese sued, after favorable vote for an ex-client
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese voted last September to reduce the property tax on a former client’s family trust, about 60 days before a hearing to decide whether legal advice she previously gave to the client was accurate.
A record of the Sept. 30 property tax abatement hearing does not reflect that Pugliese disclosed the potential conflict of interest before she voted with the two other commissioners to approve a $3,500 property tax reduction for the Marie Ramstetter Family Trust.
Marie Ramstetter, of the trust seeking the tax break, was a client of Pugliese’s law firm as recently as May 2012, court filings show.
Marie Ramstetter is the owner of record for the property at 774 23 Road that sought the tax reduction, according to the Mesa County Assessor’s Office.
Two months later, Mesa County District Judge David Bottger in a probate hearing found that Pugliese gave incorrect legal advice to Marie Ramstetter and her sister, Karol, which caused them to sign by mistake a settlement agreement Pugliese drafted for them as their attorney.
Within six days of Bottger’s decision, Marie Ramstetter and her two sisters, Karol Ramstetter and Jeanne Hostetler, sued Pugliese for legal malpractice.
Colorado law requires local government officials to disclose any personal interest they may have in a matter pending before the governing body on which they serve.
The tax reduction vote could expose Pugliese to claims she violated the law when she voted for a tax break that favored Marie Ramstetter, her former client, without disclosing the relationship.
On Friday, Mesa County Assessor Ken Brownlee said his office has located no record that shows Pugliese disclosed to the board her relationship with Ramstetter prior to her vote.
Marie Ramstetter’s lawsuit against Pugliese has “nothing to do with Ms. Pugliese’s role as a county commissioner,” an attorney for Pugliese, Alan Avery, wrote in an email to The Daily Sentinel.
Pugliese’s vote could also be construed as an attempt to curry favor with Marie Ramstetter, a party in the probate action that arose out of allegedly faulty documents Pugliese drafted and incorrect advice Pugliese gave while acting as Marie Ramstetter’s attorney.
Bottger’s ruling in the probate action supplied the spark that ignited the two lawsuits filed against Pugliese earlier this year. Both complaints seek unspecified monetary damages.
All sides agree Pugliese’s current legal predicament has its genesis in a will she prepared for Louise Ramstetter sometime after the death of Ramstetter’s husband, Karl, in 2007.
Louise Ramstetter is the mother of the three sisters: Marie and Karol Ramstetter and Jeanne Hostetler.
Louise Ramstetter died in April 2009. Pugliese read the contents of the will she had prepared and explained its legal ramifications to the sisters shortly after their mother’s death.
Some of the legal opinions she expressed were wrong, Bottger ruled.
When a dispute among the sisters broke out, the Ramstetters consulted with Pugliese, who drafted a settlement agreement that attempted to satisfy objections Hostetler had to the distribution of property from the will.
But the agreement failed to resolve the sisters’ differences.
The dispute eventually landed in Mesa County District Court. Pugliese was a key witness who testified during the four-day probate hearing, court documents show.
In his Feb. 9 ruling, Bottger invalidated the agreement, based on the sisters’ mutual mistake about its purpose.
The sisters believed the settlement agreement Pugliese drafted was the only way to resolve Hostetler’s objections to the will.
That mistaken belief was based on an incorrect legal opinion expressed by Pugliese, Bottger ruled.
The complaint subsequently filed by Marie and Karol Ramstetter, and a separate complaint filed by Jeanne Hostetler, both allege legal malpractice by Pugliese and her law firm.
Pugliese declined to be interviewed for this story through a statement prepared by her lawyer, Avery.
“Unfortunately, based on my advice, Ms. Pugliese will not participate in any such interviews at this time as it is my very strong belief that it is inappropriate for clients or counsel to comment on pending litigation. While we deeply respect the role of the newspaper, it is my belief that lawsuits should be tried in courts of law, and not in newspapers,” Avery wrote.
In her role as county commissioner, Pugliese is guided legally by the county attorney, who at the time of the tax hearing vote was acting County Attorney David Frankel.
Frankel in November last year was hired as the city attorney in Westminster and was not reachable Saturday. Current Mesa County Attorney Patrick Coleman was also not reachable Saturday.
Pugliese’s vote was described as a “no-brainer” by Brownlee, the county’s assessor, citing the routine administrative process that led up to the Ramstetter decision.
Bottger’s Feb. 9 probate ruling followed more than two years of legal wrangling over Louise Ramstetter’s estate.
Although the ruling was publicly available, exhibits and transcripts of testimony by witnesses describing Pugliese’s conduct and relationships — including testimony by Pugliese herself — are sealed by court order, said Bruce Smith, a lawyer for Jeanne Hostetler.