Court Opinions- Feb 22, 2021

Ryser v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co.

After Kent Ryser and two of his co-workers returned from a work trip together in one of his coworker’s vehicles, the driver fell asleep at the wheel, causing an accident and leaving Ryser with significant injuries. The Colorado Supreme Court was asked to address the interplay between the uninsured/underinsured motorist statute in section 10-4-609 of the 2020 Colorado Revised Statutes and the Workers’ Compensation Act of Colorado in sections 8-41-102 and -104. 

Specifically, the court needed to decide whether an injured passenger riding in a vehicle negligently driven by one co-worker and owned by another co-worker, when all three were acting within the course and scope of their employment, may recover UM/UIM benefits under the vehicle owner’s insurance policy.

Although the parties disputed the meaning of the phrases “legally entitled to recover” and “legally entitled to collect” under section 10-4-609, the court didn’t need to resolve that dispute because assuming without deciding that Kent Ryser’s interpretation is correct, the court concluded that he still cannot prevail. The Supreme Court ruled an injured co-worker is barred by operation of the WCA’s exclusivity and co-employee immunity principles from recovering UM/UIM benefits from a co-employee vehicle owner’s insurer for damages from the accident in which the injured party was an authorized passenger.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the decision of the division for different reasons.

In re Marriage of Zander

After divorcing and settling assets in 2018, Denise Zander attempted to enforce an oral agreement she entered into with her husband to exclude the couple’s retirement accounts and inheritances from being considered “marital property,” which is subject to equitable division in a dissolution proceeding. The district court found the agreement existed, but the Colorado Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the agreement was valid despite being oral, and, alternatively, whether the parties’ partial performance could otherwise render the oral agreement valid.

The General Assembly declared property acquired during a marriage is generally considered “marital property.” But there are four statutory exceptions to this rule. One of those exceptions is property excluded from the marital estate by a “valid agreement” of the parties. 

The specific issue dealt with by the court was whether the parties’ agreement to exclude their retirement accounts and inheritances from the marital estate had to be in writing and signed in order to be a “valid agreement.” Like the Colorado Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court answered the question in the affirmative. It held the parties’ 2007 oral agreement was not a valid agreement because, at the time, Colorado statutory law required that all agreements between spouses be in writing and signed by both parties. The Supreme Court further held the Court of Appeals correctly determined the parties’ conduct after entering into the oral agreement could not be treated as partial performance that satisfied the writing and signature requirements. The court affirmed the judgment and remanded with instructions to return the case to the district court for further proceedings. 

In re Marriage of Blaine

The Colorado Supreme Court needed to determine whether a spouse’s conveyance of his interest in a home through an interspousal transfer deed automatically overcomes the presumption of marital property in the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act, provided there is proof the conveying spouse intended to exclude the property from the marital estate. 

The court concluded it does not. Under the UDMA, “marital property” is subject to equitable division in a marriage dissolution proceeding. The UDMA creates a “presumption of marital property” with respect to “all property acquired by either spouse subsequent to the marriage and prior to a decree of legal separation.” But this presumption “is overcome by a showing that the property was acquired by a method listed” in one of four statutory exceptions. 

The Colorado Court of Appeals correctly acknowledged the ITD executed in this case did not fall within the statutory exception that allows couples to exclude property from the marital estate through a “valid agreement.” Yet, without the benefit of findings in the record as to whether any of the other exceptions applied, and without itself exploring those exceptions, the Court of Appeals concluded the ITD was an effective means of conveying, as separate property, a spouse’s interest in a home acquired during the marriage, given that there was evidence of the conveying spouse’s intent to exclude the property from the marital estate. 

The Supreme Court held that a party may overcome the marital property presumption in the UDMA only through the four statutory exceptions set forth in the statute. 

Because the Court of Appeals improperly created a new exception to the presumption, the Supreme Court reversed its judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

People in the Interest of A.M.

A.M. was placed with her father’s stepsister after testing positive for heroin at birth and after both biological parents tested positive for illegal drugs. The trial court subsequently adjudicated A.M. dependent and neglected as to both parents and adopted appropriate treatment plans. The People filed a motion to terminate the rights of both parents, alleging they had not complied with their treatment plans, that no modifications to the plans could be made to enable them to regain parental fitness, that no less drastic alternatives to termination existed and that termination of the parent-child legal relationship was in A.M.’s best interests. 

The Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the decision of a divided panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals holding that a trial court must deny a motion to terminate parental rights that has been proven by clear and convincing evidence if a less drastic alternative to termination exists even though it is not in the child’s best interests. It also reviewed whether a trial court must make express findings regarding less drastic alternatives to termination, and whether the panel majority substituted its judgment for the factual findings of the trial court.

The Supreme Court held the panel departed from well-established jurisprudence regarding the best interests of the child standard in termination cases; that a trial court is not required to make express less drastic alternative findings, though it is certainly the better practice to do so; and that the majority substituted its judgment for that of the trial court. The court reversed. 

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