Elder Law

Cases raise questions about adult guardianship and lawyer-hospital relationships

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Cases in Michigan and South Carolina are raising questions about lawyers who receive guardianship appointments as a result of their relationships with hospitals.

A Michigan judge removed lawyer Catherine Jacobs from several cases in which she served as a guardian or conservator after raising questions about a conflict of interest, the Lansing State Journal reported last week. Judge Richard Garcia of Ingham County also referred Jacobs for a possible ethics investigation, then refused her request to remove himself from her cases, the Lansing State Journal reports in another article.

Garcia had removed Jacobs after noting an undisclosed agreement with a hospital in which she was paid to petition for guardianship of certain patients. In at least two of the cases, the hospital paid Jacobs for time spent with the patients after she was appointed guardian, according to the Lansing State Journal story.

Garcia also said Jacobs’ granddaughter and the granddaughter’s boyfriend had lived in the home of a woman for whom Jacobs is guardian and conservator.

Jacobs’ lawyer, Donald Campbell, told the Lansing State Journal that Jacobs has a “pristine record” and follows rules regarding conflicts of interest “to the ‘T.’”

An alleged conflict of interest was at issue in a second case in South Carolina involving a hospital general counsel who agreed to serve as a patient’s guardian and conservator. The lawyer, Lisabeth Kirk Rogers, received a public reprimand (PDF) on Oct. 4 in an agreement for discipline by consent. The Legal Profession Blog noted the case.

Rogers billed more than $8,600 for her time as conservator and paid her son $700 to do repair and cleaning work at the patient’s home. At some point, Rogers’ son moved into the home without her knowledge; she had meningitis and was hospitalized for three months during the time period. The son also vandalized the patient’s home and sold the patient’s car after forging her name on a car title, the reprimand says. Rogers reported her son to police when she discovered what had happened.

Rogers didn’t immediately respond to an ABA Journal request for comment.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, is raising questions about the guardianship system in Clark County, Nevada, in which elderly people were removed from their homes without notice and without a lawyer to represent them.

“Hundreds of cases followed the same pattern,” the article reported. “It had become routine for guardians in Clark County to petition for temporary guardianship on an ex-parte basis. They told the court that they had to intervene immediately because the ward faced a medical emergency that was only vaguely described: he or she was demented or disoriented, and at risk of exploitation or abuse. The guardians attached a brief physician’s certificate that contained minimal details and often stated that the ward was too incapacitated to attend a court hearing.”

The article focused on one guardian, April Parks, who was awarded a guardianship once a week, on average, and had up to a hundred wards at a time. There was evidence that Parks visited hospitals and lawyers to build relationships and generate leads for potential clients.

Debra Bookout, an attorney at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, told the New Yorker that some hospitals were eager for a guardianship appointment. “When a hospital or rehab facility needs to free up a bed, or when the patient is not paying his bills, some doctors get sloppy, and they will sign anything,” she said, referring to the physicians’ certificate used to obtain ex parte guardianships.

Parks was indicted last March for perjury and theft in a case that focused on alleged double billings and sloppy accounting, the New Yorker reported.

Nevada is reforming its guardianship system; a new law will entitle all wards to be represented by lawyers in court. The New Yorker questions whether that is enough. The guardianship commissioner who approved Parks’ appointments was transferred to dependency court but didn’t lose his job. And another guardian who is considered “the godfather of guardians” in Nevada is still listed as a trustee and administrator in several cases.

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