Allegations of legal malpractice against Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese survived judicial scrutiny and will probably go to trial, Mesa County District Judge Richard Gurley ruled in a split decision signed last weekend.
The ruling increases the chances at least one of two civil lawsuits pending against Pugliese will be heard by a jury. Gurley simultaneously tossed out a second claim, which alleged Pugliese "aided and abetted" two law clients who breached fiduciary duties they owed another.
The judge ruled on a motion for summary judgment filed by Pugliese's lawyers. In essence, the motion asked the judge to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed against Pugliese by Jeanne Hostetler.
Hostetler's lawsuit contends Pugliese injured her financially when the commissioner gave false legal advice while acting as her lawyer.
The case is part of a family dispute playing out in Mesa County District Court that pits estranged sisters against Pugliese in two lawsuits alleging erroneous legal advice she gave that caused them financial damages. Both complaints claim legal malpractice.
The other lawsuit, filed by Marie and Karol Ramstetter, Hostetler's estranged sisters, is pending before District Judge Valerie Robison. Rulings on motions to dismiss are pending in that case.
Mesa County District Judge David Bottger already ruled Pugliese gave incorrect legal advice in connection with a will dispute between the sisters that went to trial in 2014. Bottger invalidated a settlement agreement between the sisters that Pugliese wrote based on the bad advice.
Summary judgment allows a judge to take decisions away from a jury and find for one side or the other before trial when there is no real disagreement about the most important facts or the governing law of the case.
Gurley dismissed the aiding and abetting allegations in part because the Colorado appellate courts have never recognized such a claim against an attorney. In effect, the judge said Hostetler could sue Pugliese for legal malpractice or for aiding and abetting without regard to her professional role, but not both.
Colorado courts will eventually recognize lawsuits against attorneys for aiding and abetting breaches of fiduciary duty, the judge opined, suggesting an appeal of that part of the ruling is likely.
According to an expert opinion filed in support of Hostetler's legal malpractice claims, Walter Kelly, a Denver attorney, concluded Pugliese failed numerous times to act as a competent attorney should when representing multiple clients. Among other failures, she allegedly:
■ Failed to obtain a fee agreement from the sisters outlining the scope of her representation and the identity of her clients.
■ Failed to disclose potential conflicts involved with her prior representation of the Ramstetter sisters, including business dealings she had with Marie Ramstetter and her husband and the social friendships she enjoyed with Karol and Marie.
■ Failed to provide proper legal advice about Colorado joint tenancy law or to investigate or research it.
Pugliese could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.