Continued from PART I
(TABLET) The nightmare story of state ward Virginia Wahab’s guardianship battle is not drawn from a dystopian fantasy. It is happening today all over America, where Probate Courts employ an exponentially growing network of professional, for-profit guardians.
I talked at length to six other families—in Michigan, Arizona, New York and Illinois respectively about their experiences with predatory guardians; some are court appointed professionals, others are family members granted leave by Probate Courts to cut their siblings out of a ward’s life.
The tapestry of each story was as complicated as it was heartbreaking. Each narrator pulled on the memory of each thread of that tapestry and found tears, despair, rage and frustration behind it.
Dr. Sam J. Sugar, MD is the founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG) and the author of the May 2018 book Guardianships and The Elderly: The Perfect Crime.
“In 2003 in Florida, there were 23 professional guardians,” he said. “Today, there are 670.”
According to Sugar, these guardians are sometimes no more than high-school graduates with little or no experience and are often untrained, uncertified and unlicensed. Yet they can make $85-per-hour-per-ward-per-day. An income potential of $100,000-per-year can be earned simply by opening the daily mail belonging to half-a-dozen wards.
“The stated occupation of one of the most prominent guardians in the State of Florida is ‘dog walker’,” Sugar said. “But she has control over the lives of elderly people and multi-million or billion-dollar estates.”
Speaking generally, and without addressing Munger or any other guardian, Sugar described what he said was a common pattern.
“The first thing the guardian does, within the first 30 days, is to collect every nickel the ward owns. It’s called ‘marshaling the assets’,” he explained. “Then they seize recurring revenue streams. If you’ve ever worked, been in the armed services or had a pension, you represent a tremendous amount of income because the guardian now controls your Medicare or Medicaid. They seize and divert social security payments or veteran’s benefits and change beneficiaries on life insurance policies.”
Sugar added that the power guardians are given concerning a ward’s home or estate can result in “Strawman Sales.”
In a Strawman Sale, a guardian will appraise a home for a low amount for which he will secure court approval to sell. After ransacking it and taking whatever is of value, the guardian will then use a colleague, friend or associate to purchase the home at the court-approved rate. The court will then be sold at its full value allowing the guardian to keep profits never reported to the court.
“There are an endless number of ways for a guardian who is a layer to profit particularly from one ward,” he said.
Meanwhile, the family members who fight in Probate Courts to have their loved ones restored to them are systematically drained both emotionally and financially; punished for daring to oppose a system which is completely out of control and has all but been left unchecked, except by those few who have run afoul of it and fought back through ceaseless activism.
For eight years, Sugar has made it a life mission to raise awareness about guardianship abuse.
The son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, who met in a Swedish refugee camp after liberation, Sugar arrived in the United States with his parents in 1949 and settled in Chicago. After a successful practice in internal medicine and a directorship of medical services at a North Chicago hospital, Sugar retired with his wife to Florida proud to leave the work of continuing the family legacy to their four children and eleven grandchildren.
Prior to eight years ago, Sugar was like many Americans. He was, he said, unaware of a nationwide industry that, in his opinion, was created around hijacking seniors and plundering every last item of value from them.
Sugar’s own family became involved in a legal matter involving guardianship—one he still cannot discuss today because, like the family courts who dispense judgment on the future of minors, those charged with rendering decisions on the elderly routinely issue the same non-disclosure gag orders which, under the auspices of privacy, also serve to shield court employees from accountability from the media or from legislators.
One thing Sugar can talk about was the effect the case had on him.
“It seemed to me that this was a system unbelievable for it to be occurring in the United States,” he said. “It was so off the charts, so unexpected and cruel that I decided to get educated. I had thought we were the only ones but, very quickly, I ran into people who had the exact same thing happen to them.”
“I wish I had never heard the term ‘guardianship’,” Sugar wrote in his book. “Our entire American legal system hinges on the faith and trust of the American citizen. Our country’s three foundational documents take great pains to enumerate and guarantee the unique ideals that countless Americans have been willing to die for. Our tacit understanding of government is that, if we abide by the laws of our land, our sacred rights will be guaranteed. In guardianship, however, everything is different. Innocent individuals can be stripped of their rights by probate courts. In fact, most wards have even fewer rights than do convicted serial murderers.”
“Who would believe such a thing?” Sugar wondered aloud, in an interview with me.
Brun and Wahab do. They have been living it. And they’re not the only ones.
In October, 2017 WXYZ television in Lansing, Michigan launched an investigation into the Oakland County Probate Court and its court appointed guardians Barbara Andruccioli and Thomas Brennan Frasier whom a family member accused of neglecting and financially exploiting her parents Lorrie and Sandy Kapp.
Andruccioli and Brennan have yet to respond to these allegations.
The Oakland County Probate Court judge in the case, Daniel A. O’Brien, issued an ex parte order denying WXYZ the ability to show the Kapp’s faces.
Andruccioli was subsequently fired as a public administrator and has become part of a still ongoing criminal investigation by both the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office and the Sherriff’s office yet she still remains conservator and guardian for cases at the Oakland County Probate Court.
According to court documents from the Michigan Court of Appeals, in 2011, Hallmark appointed Munger as guardian to Angela M. Robinson who had been declared legally incapacitated. In 2012, her parents Remo and Marie Marzella petitioned Hallmark to remove Munger as guardian and transfer her to their care. They claimed Munger “had not investigated Angela’s best interests or made proper decisions regarding her future care.”
Following an evidentiary hearing, Hallmark denied the petition.
“I am not going to remove Mr. Munger at this point,” she said. “I don’t find that Mr. Munger did anything wrong.”
In a subsequent 2014 lawsuit, the Marzellas accused Munger of committing legal malpractice. Among the complaint’s allegations, Munger “failed to investigate and ascertain Angela’s best interests with respect to her living arrangements, advocated for Angela to live in an institution instead of with her family” and “failed to foster Angela’s family relationships and family involvement in her care and life.”
“Angela and her special needs trust were subsequently shorted and she and her family suffered economic and non-economic damages,” the complaint added.
Munger claimed that, because Hallmark had already ruled he “did nothing wrong” during the petition for his removal, the Marzellas were barred by “collateral estoppel” (preventing an issue from being relitigated.)
In 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that “no discovery was even conducted before [the evidentiary] hearing. Simply stated, the probate court’s decision not to remove Munger as Angela’s guardian was not tantamount to a finding that Munger did not commit legal malpractice or breach fiduciary duties owed to Angela.”
It concluded that the Marzellas “never had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues underlying their claims.”
The same court dealt with the 2007 case of Brenda Cupp—who suffered head injuries after a car accident. According to court documents, her sister Dana Browning had been appointed as guardian. After Cupp’s attorney contested the case, Munger was appointed co-guardian and co-conservator of Cupp’s special needs trust.
Five weeks later, Munger petitioned the probate court for Browning’s removal as co-conservator “on the basis that she acted erratically during Cupp’s independent medical examination [IME] and Munger heard second-hand that Browning intended that the money in Cupp’s estate would not be used to pay legal fees.”
The petition was granted.
In 2010, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled “the IME incident was not sufficient good cause to remove Browning from her co-conservatorship position a mere five weeks after her appointment” and that “the probate court abused its discretion in finding that good cause existed to remove Browning as co-conservator.”
In 2002, Joseph Ehrlich, was sanctioned over $113,000 by a Michigan Court for “pursuing frivolous litigation” in a case disputing the estate of John J. Fannon, Jr.
Ehrlich appealed in 2005 and, in denying that appeal, the court stated that “The record reflects that, when they joined the case, Ehrlich and his firm continued to file pleadings and documents that lacked factual and legal support. The record clearly reflects that Ehrlich failed to make reasonable inquiry into the factual and legal merit of the claims he asserted on behalf of plaintiff when he knew or should have known that they lacked such support.”
On his website, Munger claims to be an Oakland County Public Administrator although an email from State Public Administrator Michael Moody reads “Mr. Munger’s appointment as an Oakland County Public Administrator was terminated on October 6, 2017.” Munger is also not among the Oakland County Probate Court’s list of Public Administrators.
According to Sugar, Public Administrators serve as professional guardians for a Probate Court. He added that professional guardians who also function as attorneys can bill the ward for legal fees.
Between June 29, 2016 and September 19, 2017 Munger’s statement of fees and services billed for his guardianship of Wahab totaled $12,282.
I reached out to Munger by email and telephone and was told by his office secretary that he had no comment.
I reached out to Ehrlich via email and telephone. His office secretary responded that Ehrlich had never received the email. When I asked to speak to him in person, she concluded the conversation.
Abuse of the elderly by Probate Courts, attorneys and professional, for-profit, guardians across the United States is not a new issue However it is one that has yet to gain significant traction with the general public or legislators on a State or Federal level despite investigations conducted by both local and national media outlets which reveal activities that take exploitation to unprecedented and sickening heights.
As early as 1987, the Associated Press was raising the alarm about this issue, in a story headlined “Guardians of the Elderly.” The report described a process that “uproots people, literally ‘unpersons’ them [and] declares them legally dead.” A Las Vegas television station KTNV reporter Darcy Spears conducted an exhaustive investigation in 2015 during which one alleged victim of professional guardian April Parks described the horrors he and his wife suffered as akin to “Nazi Germany.”
Spears has been relentless in her pursuit of those allegedly engaged in guardianship abuse.
Similarly, an October 2017 New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv meticulously detailed a litany of Parks’ alleged crimes, particularly against Rudy and Rennie North. According to the story, Parks forced them from their home and into a senior living facility while she drained them of every cent they owned. Although Parks had operated with the continual support of a Las Vegas probate judge, once the media got wind of her activities, that support quickly vanished. Parks was eventually charged with several felonies. She is currently awaiting trial.
On June 3, HBO comedian John Oliver addressed the guardianship issue.
Yet, many of those organizations who advocate for the elderly against guardianship abuse still face a continual challenge in raising awareness about the nationwide scope of the problem.