The recommendation is a rebuke of Florida’s fledgling efforts to regulate professional guardians for older people with disabilities
Rejecting Florida’s fledgling efforts to regulate professional guardians for older people with disabilities, an administrative judge recommended that the state drop its first effort to revoke the registration of a professional guardian – Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt of Palm Beach County.
Savitt is the wife of former circuit judge Martin Colin. Families and guardianship reform advocates have long cited the couple as an example of a guardianship system that aims to extract a lifetime savings fee from older people with disabilities and adults with disabilities.
Colin’s fellow judges – especially family friend Circuit Judge David French, who once oversaw the majority of his cases – were named in a report written by the Inspector General of the Clerk’s Office and the Palm Beach County Comptroller Finding “Corruption and Collusion of Judges and Lawyers at Delray Beach for Financial Gain.”
But it seems – for now – that the goal of the new state trusteeship office to end Savitt’s career as a guardian in Palm Beach County has resulted in failure and failure.
Savitt “had no conflict between her and Judge Colin because he didn’t appoint her or preside over her cases (professional guardian),” Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy wrote in a recommendation of the 21st. December at the Department of Seniors Affairs.
And while the appearance of the potential conflict should have been better disclosed, Creasy said Savitt did not take advantage of it and that no elderly in her care were harmed.
Creasy, however, found that Savitt violated guardianship laws and abused his power by levying a fee on his wards’ savings before court approval.
But the judge said the new Office of Public and Professional Guardians had no jurisdiction under the law of the state he cited to punish Savitt for acting “clearly against the best interests of the wards.”
“It is the exclusive jurisdiction of the circuit court that appointed (the professional guardian),” Creasy wrote in the filed decision. She said those judges ultimately approved the charges after Savitt improperly took them.
Repeatedly in his 35-page recommendation, Creasy said the state guardianship office had failed to prove his case with clear and convincing evidence. As a result, Creasy recommended that the office drop its lawsuits against Savitt – a blow to the state’s novice efforts to discipline guardians.
Savitt was quick to declare victory.
“As the court found, there has been no irregularity in the handling of guardianship cases involving retired judges Martin Colin and David French or any other judge,” Savitt said in an email.
“There was not enough evidence that I violated the wardship statutes as charged and there was no evidence that any of my wards were harmed by me.”
However, Creasy’s recommendation is only a recommendation for now. The trusteeship office falls under the Department of Seniors Affairs, which will ultimately decide Savitt’s fate.
Ashley Chambers, spokesperson for Elder Affairs, said the Trusteeship Office disagreed with Creasy’s findings and would submit “exceptions” to the department, which has until March 21 to file its final order. . Savitt will have the opportunity to challenge any final decision in a court of appeal.
“Our Office of Public and Professional Guardianship (OPPG) will always pursue appropriate disciplinary action when an investigation of a complaint reveals that a guardian has violated their legal responsibilities or failed to act in the best interest of the neighborhood,” said Chambers.
Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and an ethics expert, said it was clear that Creasy believed the state trusteeship office “had done a terrible job in presenting his case and was not unwilling to release him “.
He notes that Creasy has said Savitt’s actions of not disclosing his marriage and taking fees before court approval is eroding public confidence in the guardianship system. But the administrative judge added that “they are not liable to prosecution as charged” by the guardianship office.
“Savitt was very lucky,” Jarvis said. “If the OPPG had done a good job of advocacy, I have no doubt that Judge Creasy would have concluded that Savitt should be punished.”
Dr Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said he sees the judiciary protecting his own once again.
“If there was any reason to question the integrity of the Florida court system, it’s Exhibit A,” Sugar said.
“It’s a moment of deep shame that only reinforces the idea that the Black Dress Mafia has nothing to fear and can continue to rule over us in any way their fancy dictates.”
The state trusteeship office formed the basis of his administrative complaint from a detailed report prepared for him by Anthony Palmieri, the deputy inspector general of the office of the clerk and comptroller of Palm Beach County.
“If the experience and expertise of Anthony Palmieri and the OPPG is insufficient to create a lawsuit that is legally sufficient and powerful to rid Florida of a single blatant guardian, then the rest of us in this state do “There’s no hope of ever getting a fair shake out of the probate courts,” Sugar said.
The clerk referred all questions to the state trusteeship office.
North Palm Beach probate and guardianship attorney Mitchell Kitroser said the majority of guardians and judges appear before they work incredibly hard with far too little support. And despite Creasy’s recommendation, he believes the state guardianship office’s investigation of Savitt will serve as a reminder that public perception and confidence in the court process is of paramount importance.
“One of the results of this investigation will be a greater sensitivity to the appearance that the public gets when a sitting judge and a close relative work in the same division of our legal system in the same county,” he said. -he declares.
“Avoiding even the appearance of impropriety would, I believe, help give the public greater confidence in the impartiality of our justice system, which is essential to the proper functioning of our legal system. “
Savitt’s work as a professional was revealed in January 2016 in the Palm Beach Post’s investigative series, “Guardianship: A Broken Trust”.
Some of the attorneys who represented Savitt and channeled his guardianship appeared before Colin, relying on him to approve large fee claims in probate cases.
Following The Post’s report, Colin was transferred out of the probate division in February 2016 and retired at the end of the same year. A criminal investigation into Colin was opened by the state attorney’s office, but resulted in no charges.
Complaints from families about Savitt can be found in several of his guardianships. The majority of Savitt’s cases were before French, a friend of the couple, who routinely dismissed complaints from wards’ family members about Savitt.
In a guardianship case, Savitt attempted to annul a ward’s marriage, which the wife feared would deprive her of any inheritance. In two other cases, families accused Savitt of funneling money to relatives in the neighborhood.
Savitt also took over $ 20,000 in what she called down payments on her ward’s savings before court approval – behavior Creasy called a violation of guardianship law.
Then there was the time when former lawyers for Frances Berkowitz, 86, a ward of Savitt, claimed that $ 400,000 was missing from the senior’s account. Their efforts to open an investigation were interrupted by a circuit judge, who found the lawyers lacked standing.
Savitt often points out that she was never taken out of wardship by a judge and that no judge has ever found any wrongdoing on her part.
When the families fought against Savitt, they found themselves embroiled in unsuccessful legal cases, resulting in significant legal costs for Savitt and his lawyers. All of these fees in a guardianship are paid by the incapacitated ward, whose money was almost always under Savitt’s control.
After the Post’s articles in 2016, Palm Beach County Circuit Chief Justice Jeffrey Colbath passed guardianship reform in October 2016. He responded to numerous complaints about Savitt, banning warrants and establishing a wheel to fight against any perceived favoritism towards certain guardians.
Savitt, in her email, noted that she hoped that with Creasy’s recommendation, The Post and the clerk’s office would end “their unhealthy obsession with me and my family.”