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In re Koller

Court of Appeals of Utah

February 5, 2018

Mark Koller, Appellee. Kathryn Prounis, Appellant,

         First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. Maynard No. 073100106

          Matthew N. Evans and Matthew M. Cannon, Attorneys for Appellant

          James K. Tracy, Robert S. Tippett, James C. Dunkelberger, and Trevor M. Crowley, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate A. Toomey and David N. Mortensen concurred.


          ORME, JUDGE.

         ¶1 After several years of litigating with her siblings, Appellant Kathryn Prounis[1] successfully moved to have herself appointed as permanent guardian of her ailing father, Evan O. Koller, and permanent co-conservator of his considerable estate. Upon his death, Kathryn moved for the first time to charge her father's estate for her services. Her siblings opposed her motion, arguing, among other things, that she was equitably estopped from claiming compensation due to her many representations made during and after her father's life that she would serve "on a pro bono basis." The district court agreed with Kathryn's siblings and denied the motion. Kathryn now appeals that decision. We affirm.[2]


         ¶2 This family dispute blossomed into litigation in October 2007, when Kathryn filed an objection to her siblings' petition to appoint a guardian and conservator for Evan. Altogether, Kathryn has five siblings: her three sisters are LuAnn, Kayleen, and Julie; her two brothers are Dan and Appellee Mark Koller.

         ¶3 Kathryn reached an agreement with her siblings in June 2008, stipulating to the appointment of both a professional guardian and professional conservator on the condition that she and Dan be appointed co-conservators. The district court then found Evan to be an incapacitated person and appointed Eldercare Consult, Inc. and Stagg Eldercare Services as guardian and conservator, respectively. Both companies resigned from their appointments within a year, however, citing excessive interference from the co-conservators.

         ¶4 Following the fiduciary companies' resignations, Julie and Kayleen petitioned the court to appoint an emergency temporary guardian for Evan. In their petition, they argued that the guardian should be a professional "because there is presently no one with authority to provide health care directions to the in-home care providers or to make decisions regarding health and medical care." They further alleged that the in-home providers were "receiving conflicting directions from various children of [Evan]." Kathryn objected to her sisters' petition on the ground that the court "intended for the Co-Conservators to assume certain of the responsibilities that were performed by Evan Koller's previous Guardian." She further represented that, until the court reached a decision on the matter, she would be willing to serve as an interim guardian "indefinitely and without compensation."

         ¶5 The district court sided in this instance with Kathryn, appointing her as temporary guardian as well as temporary co-conservator with Dan. Soon after, in a motion joined by Dan, Kathryn urged the court to set aside the siblings' stipulation and make her appointments permanent, representing that she had "been diligently performing [her] duties . . . for no compensation."[3]

         ¶6 The court held a hearing in August 2009 on the issue of appointing a permanent guardian and conservator. At the hearing, Julie and Kayleen once again argued for the appointment of a professional fiduciary, maintaining that the appointment was necessary to ensure the siblings' in-fighting did not interfere with their father's care. Kathryn responded by arguing that a professional fiduciary would be an unjustifiable drain on Evan's estate and that she "ha[d] been doing the guardianship voluntarily and ha[d] been saving [the estate] a substantial amount of money" by doing the work herself. Evan's attorney and Dan agreed with Kathryn, emphasizing that they, too, wished to avoid "depleting the estate" and stating that Kathryn "deserved a medal" for "dramatically reduc[ing] the drain on the estate." Finally, Mark did not object to Kathryn's receiving the appointments, but he did ask the court to appoint two other siblings as co-guardians and one additional co-conservator to counterbalance Kathryn's sway over Evan.

         ¶7 "Greatly influenced" by her representations that she would serve without compensation, the court granted Kathryn permanent guardianship over Evan and, with Dan, permanent co-conservatorship. Kathryn and Dan held these positions on an uninterrupted basis until Evan passed away in April 2014, a period of just under five years. Although Kathryn's siblings did not divest her of her appointments during Evan's life, it was not for lack of trying. On the contrary, her siblings filed numerous motions and objections alleging that Kathryn was mismanaging the assets of the estate and taking affirmative steps to isolate them from Evan.

         ¶8 Throughout her tenure as permanent guardian and co-conservator, Kathryn's siblings frequently expressed concern that she was paying herself and her attorney from the funds of the estate. Yet Kathryn adhered firmly to the position that she was working without compensation, insisting that any money she was taking from the estate was limited to reimbursement of her out-of-pocket expenditures on Evan's behalf. Consistent with these representations, Kathryn did not include a request for compensation in the final guardian's or conservators' reports upon Evan's death.

         ¶9 Dan, on the other hand, occasionally vacillated on the issue of compensation. At the hearing on the issue of appointing a permanent guardian and conservator, his counsel represented that, while serving as temporary co-conservator with Kathryn, Dan had not been "depleting the estate." But at a February 2012 hearing held in connection with the co-conservators' annual accounting, Dan took the position that he had never agreed to forgo payment altogether; on the contrary, he intended to enter a request for "reasonable compensation . . . in the not too distant future." And indeed, Dan did include a request for compensation in the final conservators' report, which he and Kathryn jointly filed in October 2014. As none of the siblings opposed Dan's request, the court granted it.

         ¶10 Several months after the final guardian's and conservators' reports had been filed, Kathryn surprised her siblings with a motion for compensation, wherein she requested over $475, 000 for the services she performed between March 2009 and April 2014. While LuAnn stipulated to Kathryn's request, Dan, Julie, Kayleen, and Mark all objected to it, maintaining, among other things, that Kathryn was estopped from making it due to her many representations that she would serve without compensation.[4] Kathryn filed a reply memorandum in which she largely ignored her siblings' estoppel argument, instead making several statutory arguments.[5] At no point did any party request an evidentiary hearing on the motion.

         ¶11 The district court held a hearing on Kathryn's motion on June 4, 2015. At the hearing, Kathryn maintained she had never taken the position that she did not expect to be compensated for her services at some point. Rather, she argued, the only reasonable interpretation of her previous representations is that she did not intend to seek compensation during Evan's life. She explained that, in postponing her request, her aim was to ensure that the estate had sufficient funds to provide for Evan's care while he lived. But the court was unconvinced. It found instead that Kathryn had "made numerous representations to the Court and the parties that she would serve as guardian and conservator without compensation, " and, further, that her siblings had only supported her appointments because of these representations. Accordingly, it ruled that Kathryn was equitably estopped from seeking compensation for her services as guardian and co-conservator.

         ¶12 Following the court's ruling, Kathryn filed a motion to reconsider. The court denied her motion, explaining that Kathryn had "not cite[d] an applicable rule of civil procedure to support her motion" and that, in any case, her arguments were "substantively identical to those previously considered and rejected at the June 4, 2015 hearing." This appeal followed.


         ¶13 Kathryn raises four issues for our review. First, Kathryn argues that the district court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue of equitable estoppel. Second, she argues that the district court erred in concluding she was equitably estopped from requesting compensation for her services as guardian and co-conservator. Third, she argues that the district court's decision to deny her compensation for her services was grounded in a misapplication of the Utah Uniform Probate Code. And fourth, she argues that the district court "improperly discriminate[d] against [her] by denying her any compensation while granting compensation to her brother."


         I. The Court's Failure to Hold ...

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