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In re Estate of Birch

Supreme Court of Idaho

February 8, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF: RUTH BIRCH, DECEASED.
v.
BRUCE H. BIRCH, Respondent-Appellant. LINDA BAILEY, Personal Representative, Petitioner-Respondent,

          Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonneville County, Hon. Bruce L. Pickett, District Judge.

          Birch Law Office, Payette, for Appellant. Michael D. Moscrip argued.

          Smith, Driscoll & Associates, PLLC, Idaho Falls, for Respondent. B.J. Driscoll argued.

          HORTON, JUSTICE.

         Bruce Birch appeals the decision of the district court affirming a decision of the magistrate court to award attorney fees against Birch. The magistrate court awarded attorney fees to Linda Bailey, the personal representative of the estate of Ruth Birch. In this appeal, Birch argues that the magistrate court's award of attorney fees was an abuse of discretion because it did not comply with the requirements of the Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure. We reverse the decision of the district court.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case concerns the disposition of the estate of Birch and Bailey's mother, Ruth Birch. Ruth executed a last will and testament that intentionally omitted Birch. After Ruth's death in 2011, Bailey was appointed as the personal representative for her estate. In 2012, the magistrate court approved a compromise agreement that allowed Birch and another intentionally omitted sibling to receive equal shares of the estate.

         After approval of the compromise agreement, Bailey requested that Birch pay the estate's attorney fees for preparing the agreement. Birch objected, filed a motion to remove Bailey as the personal representative, and filed several other motions. On August 18, 2016, the magistrate court granted Bailey's request for attorney fees against Birch on equitable grounds "[i]n light of the multiple unsuccessful attempts by [Birch] in his repeated challenges . . . ." This first award of attorney fees in the amount of $10, 314.50 was assessed against Birch's interest in the estate. On March 23, 2017, the magistrate court entered a supplemental order in which it acknowledged that it did not have the equitable power to assess fees, and instead cited Idaho Code section 15-3-720 as the basis for the award of fees.

         In September 2016, Bailey filed a memorandum of attorney fees and costs claiming entitlement to a second award of attorney fees and costs against Birch in the sum of $10, 665.85. Birch did not object to this memorandum. On October 20, 2016, the magistrate court entered the Estate Closing Order and Decree of Distribution (the Closing Order) which awarded the requested fees and costs. The Closing Order approved an attached Schedule of Final Distributions. Although styled as a schedule of "distributions," the schedule required Birch to pay $8, 621.96 in attorney fees and costs in equal payments of $4, 310.98 to his sisters, Bailey and Cheryl Simmons. The Closing Order does not identify a prevailing party, nor does it identify a statutory or contractual basis for the award of fees. The Closing Order contains no written findings regarding the merit of Birch's challenges and is silent as to whether the magistrate court considered the Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 54(e)(3) factors when awarding attorney fees.

         On appeal to the district court, Birch challenged both awards of attorney fees. As to the first award, the district court held that the magistrate court did not have the equitable power to assess the fees against Birch and the statutory ground subsequently identified by the magistrate court was not applicable. Therefore, the district court reversed the magistrate court's first award of attorney fees. Neither party challenges this decision.

         As to the second award, the district court ruled that Birch had waived any challenge to the second award of attorney fees by failing to object to Bailey's memorandum of costs and fees within fourteen days as required by Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(5). Birch timely appealed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When this Court reviews the decision of a district court sitting in its capacity as an appellate court, the standard of review is as follows: "The Supreme Court reviews the trial court (magistrate) record to determine whether there is substantial and competent evidence to support the magistrate's findings of fact and whether the magistrate's conclusions of law follow from those findings. If those findings are so supported and the conclusions follow therefrom and if the district court affirmed the magistrate's decision, we affirm the district court's decision as a matter of procedure."

Bailey v. Bailey, 153 Idaho 526, 529, 284 P.3d 970, 973 (2012) (quoting Losser v. Bradstreet, 145 Idaho 670, 672, 183 ...


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