Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Court Blasts Lawyer Over Estate, Refers Matter to D.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday called on the State Bar and the Santa Barbara district attorney to investigate the conduct of a West Hollywood attorney whom the court said took advantage of a dying client in order to gain the man’s $5 million estate for himself.
Div. Six affirmed a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge’s order invalidating John A. Patton’s will and trust and awarding his estate, plus more than $1.2 million in attorney fees, to his nieces. Judge Colleen Sterne also denied attorney John F. LeBouef’s request for trustee fees, attorney fees, and reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses and property management expenses, saying any such award would reward the lawyer’s misconduct.
LeBouef “used his license to take advantage of an elderly and mentally infirm person to enrich himself,” Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote for the appeals court. “The trial court factual findings are disturbing, fatal to appellant’s contentions, and suggest criminal culpability.”
State Bar records show that LeBoeuf was admitted in 1974 and has no record of discipline. He did not return a MetNews phone call.
Patton was a noted interior designer who moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. He died in June 2011 at the age of 73, and medical testimony indicated he suffered from physical and mental disabilities, including depression that followed the death of his partner in 2004.
He was said to drink heavily and often appear emotionally out of control.
Witnesses said LeBoeuf was a social acquaintance of Patton who frequently came up to visit him after his partner died. Patton was said to have complained that LeBoeuf was overbearing and visited too often, and that he was moving Patton’s money around.
In December 2006, Patton allegedly changed his will, created a trust primarily for LeBoeuf’s benefit, and gifted a vintage car to a friend of LeBoeuf. Previous wills, executed in 1994 and 2000, had gifted the estate to his nieces and a longtime friend.
In challenging the new estate plan, the nieces proferred evidence of eight previous incidents in which LeBoeuf had allegedly persuaded an elderly person to name LeBoeuf or LeBoeuf’s partner as principal beneficiary of a will or trust. Sterne admitted evidence of two of those incidents as proof of prior bad acts under Evidence Code §1101(b).
In one instance, a woman named Irene Grant, who had been the caretaker for Walter Pick, inherited $2.5 million from Pick under a will drafted by LeBouef. LeBouef then married Grant, who was 20 years older than he was, drafted a trust naming himself as her principal beneficiary, and obtained the bulk of her estate when she died in 2006.
In 2003, LeBouef befriended an elderly widow, Audrey Cook, and drafted four amendments to her trust. The final amendment left the bulk of her estate to LeBouef’s “life partner” and business partner Mark Krajewski.
When Cook died in 2007, age 90, a successor trustee sold her house and distributed $1.3 million to Krajewski. A suit by family members, who claimed the house did not belong to the trust, was settled for more than $1 million.
Cook’s accountant testified that Cook did not know Krajewski and would not have given a huge gift to a stranger. The accountant had been her trustee and said he did not know of the amendment removing him from that position until after she died.
The successor trustee turned out to be a friend of Krajewski and LeBouef, as well as having been LeBouef’s next door neighbor. Prior to that, he lived in an apartment building that had been gifted to Krajewski pursuant to a trust drafted by LeBouef.
LeBouef denied having drafted Patton’s will and trust, saying it was done by an attorney he could not identify. He claimed that the original trust document had been lost in a burglary just before he was deposed by the nieces’ attorney.
An expert, however, testified that the Cook and Patton trust instruments were almost certainly drafted by the same “entity,” given their similarities in terms of misspellings, structure, and grammatical and punctuation errors and font usage.
Statement of Decision
Sterne issued a 56-page statement of decision, finding that LeBouef either drafted or transcribed the Patton trust document, creating a presumption of undue influence under Probate Code §21380, and that LeBouef was disqualified under that section. She also found that the loss of the original trust instrument was “intentional” and that it prevented the court from determining whether a page containing the disposition of trust assets had been replaced.
She described the burglary, in which LeBouef’s laptop and a box of documents that included the trust instrument were allegedly among “a handful of random items taken…from a house filled with valuable objects” as “very peculiar.”
Yegan, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected the argument that the prior-bad-acts evidence was inadmissible. The drafting of the Cook, Grant, and Patton trusts, in the same time period and involving the same cast of players, strongly supported a finding of a common scheme or plan, the justice said.
Besides, given the expert testimony that the Cook and Patton trusts were drafted by the same person, and the uncontroverted fact that LeBouef drafted the Cook trust, any error in admitting the prior-acts evidence was harmless, the jurist said.
He went on to say that substantial evidence supported the finding that LeBouef drafted or transcribed Patton’s trust, and thus could not take under it without rebutting the presumption of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence.
In directing the court clerk to forward copies of the opinion to the State Bar and district attorney, Yegan said, the court was not expressing an “opinion on discipline and/or the decision to initiate criminal prosecution.”
The case is Butler v. LeBouef, 16 S.O.S. 2920.
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