Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lady Worth 1.3 Million Now Dependent on State Support After Being Fleeced

by Laurie Roberts, Maricopa Co. Arizona

A Maricopa County probate judge has been asked to punish a pair of attorneys in the case of the old lady who was worth $1.3 million and now depends on taxpayers for support.

No, it’s not the attorneys who collected tens and even hundreds of thousands dollars from the old lady’s trust who could be in trouble.

It’s the attorneys who worked for free, the ones who tried to stop the wholesale draining of Marie Long’s account, who could be on the hook.

Sun Valley Group is asking that attorneys Pat Gitre and Dan Raynak be sanctioned and ordered to pay $13,518 of the company’s legal fees for suing Sun Valley.

This, apparently, is what you get in probate for trying to advocate for a defenseless widow.

Meanwhile, there is a glimmer of good news for Marie, who came under the protection of probate court after having a stroke in 2005. She may have a shot at getting some of her money back. It seems Pro-tem Judge Lindsay Ellis slipped up and didn’t approve the final $66,000 Sun Valley contends it’s owed — for 13 months of guardian work in December 2008 and 2009 – before washing her hands of the case last month. She also didn’t approve nearly $38,000 requested by one of Sun Valley’s attorneys for work in the 10 months before Marie’s trust was finally sucked dry. This, according to the court commissioner who inherited the case.

It now appears that Ellis only allowed a small army of probate “protectors” to collect $786,000 from the old lady — fees Ellis deemed “reasonable, necessary and for the benefit of the ward” – not the nearly $890,000 as originally thought.

In a hearing this week, Commissioner David Cunanan said that Ellis’ 21-page ruling didn’t cover the 2009 portion of Sun Valley’s fee request. “She (Ellis) could have approved SVG’s fees and she could have approved the other attorney’s fees, but she didn’t,” he said.

Cunanan set a hearing for later this month on Sun Valley’s final fee request. If approved, that’ll boost Sun Valley’s total take from Marie to more than $417,000.

Speaking of Sun Valley, its attorneys this week took up a suggestion by Ellis and went after Gitre and Raynak, the attorneys for Marie’s sisters. Ellis, in her March ruling, blamed Gitre and Raynak along with Marie’s attorney Jon Kitchel for driving up fees, citing their “venomous” and “hateful” attacks on Sun Valley and various probate attorneys as they repeatedly objected to the drain on Marie’s account.

Sun Valley, in its request for sanctions, contends that Gitre and Raynak had no legal standing to sue for breach of fiduciary duty, saying the suit was filed “to harass SVG in an attempt to force the resignation of SVG as guardian.”

The lawsuit, filed in May 2009 on behalf of both Marie and her sisters, claimed that Sun Valley had a duty to investigate whether the Arizona Department of Veterans Services would have served as Marie’s guardian for a fraction of the nearly $183,000 in guardian fees paid to Sun Valley. (Court records say ADVS would have served as Marie’s guardian for $75 a month because she was the widow of a veteran.) They also claimed Sun Valley violated a Supreme Court rule against self dealing by hiring itself to also provide companion care to Marie and that it charged unreasonable fees.

Sun Valley, in its request for sanctions, notes that it offered $50,000 to settle the suit but “Marie Long and her sisters demanded $240,000” and ultimately got nothing because the case was dismissed.

Sun Valley is absolutely right about that.

Marie’s attorney and her sisters did demand $240,000 – for Marie’s care. In settlement negotiations last fall – as Marie’s account was running dry — the sisters proposed that Sun Valley provide 88-year-old Marie with $10,000 a month for the rest of her life, to provide for her needs. Sun Valley offered $50,000, an offer that came with a requirement that none of this become public, according to an e-mail outlining the offer. Kitchel then countered with $240,000 and Sun Valley never responded.

In the end, Marie got nothing.

Ellis dismissed Marie’s portion of the lawsuit last fall, saying she’s incapacitated and thus can’t sue Sun Valley to get any of her money back. Ellis also ruled that Marie’s attorney lacked the authority to sue Sun Valley to get any of her money back. Then in her ruling last month, Ellis threw out the sisters’ suit, saying they, too, couldn’t sue Sun Valley to get any of Marie’s money back.

In the world of probate court, nobody, it seems, can sue to get any of Marie’s money back – at least nobody who actually would.

Handy, how that works, isn’t it?

Editor’s note: Roberts’ sister, Appellate Court Judge Ann Timmer, is chairing a committee to review Probate Court practices. The Republic is disclosing the relationship to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.


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