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New York Trusts & Estates Litigation

Exception to the American Rule: Shifting Objectants’ Legal Fees to the Surcharged Fiduciary

Posted in Fiduciaries

Jurisdictions within the United States have generally rejected the British concept of the prevailing party’s shifting the burden of litigation expenses to the losing party. Instead, we follow what is commonly known as the American Rule, under which each party typically bears the burden of his own legal fees, win or lose. However, like most other rules we face in the legal profession, certain circumstances are considered exceptions. Surrogate Glen of New York County recently addressed the question of whether a particular situation rose to the level of such an exception in Matter of Lasdon, 11/19/10 NYLJ 25 (Sur Ct, New York County).

In Lasdon, objectants to two trust accountings sought leave to reargue three of the Court’s rulings in its June decision that addressed the conduct of one of the co-trustees, and resulted in a surcharge. At the core of the contested accounting was the co-trustee’s delay in making the final distribution upon each trust’s termination, which resulted in trust assets declining in value. His delay was intentional, attributable to his desire to resolve certain issues pertaining to other family trusts with his sister and co-trustee, prior to making the distribution.  

In seeking reargument, objectants contended that the Court erred in denying their requests that (1) the co-trustee be barred from receiving his attorneys’ fees from the trust; (2) that the co-trustee be disallowed commissions; and (3) that the co-trustee be directed to absorb the objectants’ legal fees. Addressing the objectants’ motion, the Court explained that it did not misapprehend the law or overlook the facts in determining that the surcharged co-trustee is entitled to annual commissions and to have his legal fees and costs paid by the trusts. Nonetheless, Surrogate Glen noted that the issue that objectants raised in connection with the co-trustee’s payment of their legal fees warranted further discussion.

Although New York courts generally follow the American Rule, Surrogate Glen explained there are some exceptions. Hence, a prevailing party’s litigation costs may be shifted to the loser in situations where there is a statutory or contractual provision that when strictly construed, supports such a shift. Further, and most relevant here, a prevailing party’s legal expenses may be shifted when the losing party is a fiduciary who has been surcharged for causing harm to his estate or trust (Matter of Lasdon, 11/19/10 NYLJ 25 [Sur Ct, New York County], citing Matter of Garvin, 256 NY 518 [1931]; Matter of Hidden, 243 NY 499 [1926]; Matter of Marsh, 265 AD2d 253 [1st Dept 1999]). 

The court referred to the Court of Appeals’ holding in the seminal case of Matter of Hidden, supra, as instructive. There, it was determined that the estate of an incompetent suffered a loss as “direct results of wrong found” on the part of her committee.   Accordingly, the Court held that the expenses of litigating to protect the estate’s interests were “amounts ‘for which the delinquent fiduciary may be held accountable’” (Matter of Lasdon, supra, at *5 quoting Matter of Hidden, 243 NY 499 [1926]).

The Surrogate went on to explain that the Hidden decision itself gave no indication that every surcharged fiduciary should pay the legal expenses of every objectant, nor have the cases that followed it. Rather, Surrogate Glen interpreted Hidden and its descendant line of cases as warranting exceptions to the American Rule when fiduciaries enrich themselves “at the expense of the funds with which they have been entrusted” (id. at *6), or, in at least one case that did not involve bad faith, where the fiduciary’s actions caused “manifest . . . deficiencies in the administration of the estate” (id. quoting Matter of Campbell, 134 Misc 2d 960 [Sur Ct, Columbia County 1987], aff’d 138 AD2d 827 [3d Dept 1988]).

Applying the foregoing rationale to Lasdon, the court noted that while the co-trustee had been surcharged for his misconduct, there had been no self-dealing. Further, applying the reasoning of Campbell, the court stated that the Lasdon co-trustee’s delaying in the final distribution “[did] not unequivocally bespeak a malign or self-serving purpose” (Matter of Lasdon at *8). Consequently, it held that the facts did not warrant the imposition of the objectants’ litigation expenses upon the surcharged co-trustee.

It appears that the rationale for applying the exception to the American Rule in fiduciary situations is extremely similar to that applied when analyzing whether a fiduciary’s misconduct is so egregious as to result in his individual responsibility for his own legal fees. Indeed, if a fiduciary’s malfeasance rises to the level contemplated by Hidden and he must individually compensate the prevailing party for his litigation expenses, why should the cost of defending his improper actions be borne by the trust or estate that he was entrusted to serve? I would submit that in the vast majority of cases it should not. Thus, litigators should keep this exception to the American Rule in mind. Perhaps requests that a fiduciary be individually charged with his legal expenses when appropriate should routinely be coupled with requests to shift to the fiduciary the litigation costs of the prevailing objectant as well.

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