Hon. Ellen Sickles James (Ret.) has handled a wide variety of probate, estate, wills and trust matters over the course of her judicial career and during her nearly 15 years with JAMS. Judge James has extensive experience with matters involving the division of personal property, businesses, and investments where there are issues of contested conservatorships, guardianships, or inheritances. She is also skilled at dealing with questions of appraisal value, undue influence, mental capacity, fiduciary breach, or elder abuse. In addition, she is familiar with underlying tax issues that can have a substantial impact on settlement value.
Judge James is particularly effective in matters where there are high emotions among family members, due to her ability to connect to counsel and clients in both a personal and professional manner. She is widely respected for her ability to diffuse emotions and focus parties on achieving settlement. Judge James has been known to incorporate creative settlement terms as a means to bridge the divide among parties, and bring them the closure they seek.
- Trustee and successor trustee of living trust sued by decedent’s daughter for fiduciary breach, surcharge and accounting on an estate estimated to include properties and a business totaling more than $40 million. Trustee was also the contractor for major renovations on decedent’s home costing more than $12 million and was charged with conflicts of interest between these two roles.
- Will contest by sole surviving daughter against decedent’s second wife involving an $800,000 estate and issues regarding mental capacity of decedent and undue influence.
- Decades of disagreements resulting in litigation between five children of the decedents involving trustees fees, compensation for one sibling for parental care, tangible personal property distribution, accounting issues and final distributions from several trusts.
- Pre-litigation mediation between siblings over distribution of their parent’s estate, their respective and complex interests in a multi-million dollar residence and the procedure to appraise that property, division of their respective interests in investment properties, and existing foundations.
- Pre-litigation mediation between two siblings concerning $20 million of family assets, including their parents’ trust, a family partnership and a family LLC.
- Probate petition challenge to an inter vivos trust amendments by the parties’ late mother involving assets in the two family trusts valued at about $11 million, consisting of primarily real estate properties.
- Contested estate plan signed by decedent in the hospital less than two weeks before her death. The new plan was signed with an attorney and the daughter present and left everything to her only daughter. The pre-existing estate plan left 50% of the residue to decedent’s brother’s family who for the last 10 years had provided emotional support and helped decedent with her physical care and personal needs as her physical and mental condition worsened. Legal issues of undue influence and elder abuse.
- Issue of whether trustor who did not establish an estate plan while he was well, had capacity after beginning to suffer from dementia and whether he was vulnerable to undue influence at the time he established a trust.
- Trust case where objectors (4 siblings) allege that petitioners (2 siblings) were attempting to deplete the assets of the family trust for their own financial gain at the expense of the other 4 siblings. They allege that despite the fact that the parents set up the Trust to equally divide the assets among all the children, the two petitioners took advantage of their mother and convinced her to enter into a self serving agreement which diverted the Trust assets to them, away from the Objectors. The Petitioners allege that the mother's written agreement to repay from her living trust two of her children for their generosity during her life is valid.
- Mediated appraisal valuation issues related to distribution of decedent’s portion of ownership in several bars.
- Recognized as a "Top Neutral," Daily Journal Top California Neutrals List, 2013
- Member, Gender Task Force, JAMS, 2008-present
- Distinguished Mediator of the Year Award, San Francisco Trial Lawyers' Association, 2008
- Member, Committee on Mediator Ethical Guidance, American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section, 2006-present
- Adjunct Professor at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California 2002 and 2003
- Lecturer for The American Bar Association, CEB, The Rutter Group, and numerous local Bar Associations and community groups
- Above and Beyond Award, Alameda County Trial Lawyers Association, 1998
- Served on the Judicial Council Complex Litigation Task Force, 1997-1999 and the Judicial Council Task Force on the Quality of Justice, 1997-1999
- Chairperson, Contra Costa Superior Court Trials Committee and Civil Bench Bar Committee, 1991-1997
- Organized Contra Costa Judicial Council Trials Management Program, 1991
- Trial Judge of the Year, Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association, 1987
- Member, Judicial Council Blue Ribbon Panel of Experts on Arbitrator Ethics
- Presiding Judge, Civil Division, Contra Costa County Superior Court, 1991-1997
- Superior Court Judge Liaison to First District Court of Appeal, 1990-1997
- Presiding Judge, Superior Court Appellate Division, 1986
- Associate Justice, (pro tem), First District Court of Appeal, 1985
- Judge, Mt. Diablo Judicial District Municipal Court, 1976-1982; (elected Presiding Judge, 1978)
- J.D., University of California, Berkeley School of Law (formerly Boalt Hall School of Law), 1969
- B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1965
- "The mediator [Judge James] was terrific...Settling at this stage made sense. We couldn't possibly have settled (we tried) on our own"
-Partner at Seattle Law Firm
- “Judge James’ reputation as a miracle worker is WELL deserved and hard-earned… She is just outstanding, and incredibly insightful.”
- Well recognized litigator
- “[Judge James’] unique blend of talent, experience, people skills, and perseverance was masterful [and] perhaps more impressive than anything I have experienced was [her] continued involvement with the process long after a ten-hour session of mediation.”
- Prominent founding partner of a nationally recognized law firm
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