Colorado Supreme Court clamps down on litigious Aspen attorney
Robert Francis’s frivolous lawsuits harassed parties and stressed court system, ruling says
The Colorado Supreme Court has ordered an Aspen attorney to stop representing himself as a plaintiff in any future litigation in the state, citing his “abusing the judicial process for the purpose of harassing his adversaries for the better part of a decade.”
In a written ruling delivered Sept. 13, the high court reprimanded lawyer Robert Francis for being a serial litigator by filing dozens of lawsuits tied to his and his family’s long-running feud with an Aspen condominium association.
The ruling said the Supreme Court had no other choice but to restrain Francis from filing suits on behalf of himself, his relatives and any other entities in the state of Colorado. Francis had filed 27 lawsuits in the state’s court system — 21 of them in Pitkin County — related to the same dispute since 2010, the ruling said. Additionally he has taken three cases to the appellate courts and filed at least two federal suits related to the same disagreement.
“No one is entitled to use the judicial process for the purpose of harassing his or her adversaries,” said the ruling. “And when someone like Francis insists on doing just that for the better part of a decade, including after courts have warned him, reprimanded him, and sanctioned him, and after his law license has been suspended, it is incumbent on us to step in and say ‘enough.’”
Francis ignored repeated court warnings and rulings and when he filed his 20th lawsuit, Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin warned him to stop suing over the same matter on a pro se basis, “without first obtaining an accompanying certification by an attorney that the pleading is well-grounded in fact and law.” Pro se is the term used for litigating under one’s own representation and without a hired attorney.
“State courts have warned, reprimanded, and sanctioned Francis — all to no avail,” said the Supreme Court’s order. “Even the suspension of his law license has failed to deter his appalling conduct. Under the circumstances, the extraordinary injunction requested is amply justified.”
Francis said he disagreed with and wanted more clarification on the court’s ruling. Pitkin County Combined Courts received the order and will abide by it moving forward, according to a court clerk. The ruling does not apply to Francis in the event he wants to defend himself pro se. He also is allowed to participate as a plaintiff in a lawsuit, but only if he has hired counsel.
Francis said he has practiced law for more than five decades and also previously worked in the public sector, has volunteered and been a solid community member, and the high court’s ruling is an unfair and unjust swipe at his character. The ruling was based on false testimony from parties trying to bring him down, he added. According to the Colorado Supreme Court’s website, Francis was admitted to the state bar in October 1971. He called the ruling “bulls–t” and said he is working on finding a way to challenge it.
“I’ve been a part-time assistant district attorney, a lawyer for more than 50 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this,” he said. “And I’m finding out recently that there is a concept of litigation by grievance. This is a classic example of when somebody is backed against the wall, they try anything.”
The Supreme Court’s 36-page opinion, delivered by Justice Carlos Samour Jr., came after a Grand Junction attorney asked the court to enjoin Francis, through an injunction, from making any more pro se filings in the state. The ruling was unanimous, with no dissenting opinion made.
The attorney, Benjamin Wegener of the firm Wegener, Scarborough, Younge & Hockensmith LLP, has been representing Aspen Mountain Condominium Association in its legal feud with Francis that dates back more than a decade. The more recent contests have been over attorney and legal fees.
“Mr. Francis is incorrect and the ruling speaks for itself,” said Wegener, when told of Francis’ characterization of the Supreme Court’s order being influenced by dishonest testimony from the association’s attorneys.
“I”ll just leave it to what the Supreme Court had to say,“ said Aspen attorney John Lassalette, who also has represented the association in its disputes with Francis over HOA assessments and attorneys fees related to the litigation. “I think the justices worked hard to understand the gravity of the situation and took it very seriously and were able to capture what’s been going on the last 10 or 11 years with their ruling.”
The dispute originally landed in Pitkin County District Court in 2010, when Francis, through another attorney and not himself, sued the condo association over water damage to an unit he controlled at Aspen Mountain Condominiums, which he said originated from sewage drain backup in the building’s common elements. Francis also sued the association for what he claimed was an unjust hike to his unit’s assessment rate, made through a declaration change passed by the association’s board of directors, but not unanimously. The condominium complex is located on South Mill Street at the base of Aspen Mountain.
“These two events — the damage to Unit 1-A from the sewage drain backup and the 2010 amendment to the declarations — acted as the catalysts for the protracted litigation that prompted Petitioners’ request for relief,” the Supreme Court’s ruling said. “It all started in 2010, but a decade-plus later, the Francis parties are still at it.”
Francis also stopped paying his unit assessments to the association, prompting it to sue him over the unpaid dues, also in 2010. Francis, however, maintained he paid the assessments.
The court merged the two suits, and though Francis had legal representation in the litigation, he began to make pro se pleadings associated with the consolidated case.
“He did so even after the district court entered an order barring him from submitting pro se filings while represented by counsel,” the Supreme Court’s ruling said.
In 2015, the district court in Pitkin County ruled that the 2010 condo assessment Francis had fought with a lawsuit was valid, ordering him to pay the association unpaid assessments at a rate of 9%. The court also issued a “stipulation of partial dismissal with prejudice” related to Francis’s claims about the sewage drain backup.
Francis won on appeal related to the condo assessment, and the district court in turn lowered the rate to 8% but also ordered Francis to pay the association $285,447 in assessments due, collection costs, and attorney fees and costs.
Again Francis appealed, but this time a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the lower district court’s judgment except for the attorney fees and costs.
In March 2020 the district court awarded attorney fees and costs to the association, and Francis again appealed. In February, a division of the appellate court dismissed Francis’s latest effort to appeal.
“Francis has forced our courts to play what has essentially become a game of judicial whack-a- mole,” the ruling said. “He simply refuses to stop litigating the same successive and stale claims, harassing his opponents in the process.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling went on to summarize the additional 26 suits Francis filed on behalf of himself, family members, or trusts associated with the condo unit. Over the course of the lawsuits — all tied in one way or another to the 2010 complaint — Francis sued insurance companies, condo board members, a property management firm, a law firm, a title company and several attorneys, among others.
“Importantly, before the years-long litigation in (the 2010 consolidated case) finally came to an end, the Francis parties initiated numerous other legal proceedings related to the same disputes,” said the ruling.
Also referenced in the ruling was a November 2019 warning from Pitkin County Judge Chris Seldin, who was presiding over some of the Francis’s litigation, to stop the duplicative filings or there would be consequences.
“Should this pattern continue, the Court will likely conclude that the Francis parties are engaging in vexatious litigation, and restrict future filings from them,” said Seldin’s warning.
Yet “Judge Seldin’s warning went unheeded,” the Supreme Court’s ruling said, which prompted Seldin to bar him from carrying out any more pro se suits in Pitkin County.
Francis, however, ignored the order and filed complaints in Pitkin County and carried out similar actions in Denver County, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
In November 2020, the Supreme Court suspended Francis’ law license, a status under which it remains today, according to public records. That suspension, however, didn’t stop Francis from filing four suits in Denver this year over the same matter dating to 2010. In its ruling last week, the state’s highest court noted Francis was “undeterred by the sanctions imposed and the injunctions issued (not to mention Francis’s suspended law license).”
The same court concluded there was no other option but to outright ban Francis from filing suits without legal representation. While access to the courts is a constitutional right, Francis abused that right, the court said.
“Francis has stubbornly disregarded warnings, reprimands, orders, and sanctions from courts — even after having his law license suspended,” the ruling said in regards to the suspension of his license in 2020. “We have not only the authority but the responsibility to intervene at this point to protect our courts, litigants, and the public from Francis’s improper and abusive tactics.”
A trust associated with Francis sold the Aspen Mountain Condominium unit in July 2018 for $1.25 million, according to property records.
Coloradopolitics.com first reported on the Supreme Court’s order on Sept. 14. The public can access the ruling on the Colorado Judicial Branch’s website.
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