Guardianship News:

Florida: Attorney – ‘Courts have allowed this culture’, Part 4

Ellen Morris, attorney for court-appointed guardian John Cramer who works for Savitt, has also practiced in front of Savitt's husband, Judge Colin (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post) Ellen Morris, attorney for court-appointed guardian John Cramer who works for Savitt, has also practiced in front of Savitt's husband, Judge Colin (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The forth in a series of articles from Florida’s Palm Beach Post, written by John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, and produced by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia

Read Judge, wife benefit from frail seniors’ money, Part 1, here.

Read Judge’s history of debt: Foreclosures, IRS liens, Part 2, here.

Read Judge appears to routinely violate Florida Judicial Code of Conduct , Part 3, here.

 

The conflict created for Colin by his wife working as a professional guardian is a frequent topic of conversation among probate and elder law attorneys. But many told The Post that they fear reprisals for themselves or their clients if they speak on the record about Colin, particularly on matters involving his wife.

“I blame the courts because they have allowed this culture,” said one attorney, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Savitt acts with impunity because she has the wind behind her.”

Probate attorney Edward Shipe said Colin’s conflict of interest at the very least “doesn’t look right, doesn’t feel right.”

“I can’t sit here and deny that,” Shipe said. “So we got this wife and she wanted to do guardianship cases so she started a guardianship business. It was talked about before it happened. I was scratching my head a little bit, thinking, ‘You are going to have problems doing this.’”

Professor Jarvis questioned whether attorneys who represent Savitt hope to get an edge in front of Colin.

“Are they doing this either to curry favor with Judge Colin or to avoid his wrath?” Jarvis said.

Savitt often hires attorneys Hazeltine, Ellen Morris and John Pankauski, prolific practitioners in elder law. They or members of their firms practiced in front of Colin before he began recusing himself from their cases last year. From 2009 to 2014, Colin’s recusals totaled 30. Since the beginning of July, he’s taken himself off 133 cases — 115 involving his wife’s lawyers.

Attorney Sheri Hazeltine, left, during a hearing regarding attorney fees. Elizabeth Savitt, seated right, is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Attorney Sheri Hazeltine, left, during a hearing regarding attorney fees. Elizabeth Savitt, seated right, is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Hazeltine, Morris and Pankauski or their firms — as well as the guardians they represent — have had fees in non-Savitt cases repeatedly approved by Judge Colin, The Post found.

Clifford Hark of Boca Raton refers cases to Savitt. He has also earned fees approved by the judge in other cases. For example, Colin signed off on $51,000 from the estate of retired Judge Stanley Hornstine in September 2013.

One of O’Grady’s daughters, Kathleen Osterbuhr of Derby, Kan., wrote the court to say Hark promised the family to fight Savitt’s petitions for lucrative fees in court, but never followed through.

Mayes said in another letter that “Hark has made mistakes and prolonged this case for his benefit” and that Savitt’s “conflict of interest has caused more problems than it has solved.”

Hark told The Post he has been practicing for 28 years in South Florida and does not “rely on Judge Colin for my livelihood.”

“I represent and zealously advocate for my client’s interest regardless of Ms. Savitt’s involvement in the case,” he wrote to The Post in an email.

He pointed out that in some guardianship cases Savitt has opposed his fees and that Colin has also not awarded him the entire amount of fees sought by his firm.

Hark did say that he was unaware of complaints about her by attorneys or family members in the O’Grady case, which he referred to Savitt, and the guardianship of Lorraine Hilton, in which the family accuses the judge’s wife of financial mismanagement. But, Hark reiterated that he recommends other guardians besides Savitt and that the decision, in the end, rests with the families.

Most of Savitt’s attorneys also spoke to The Post but were limited in what they could say on the record.

O’Grady’s son, Mayes, said Savitt capitalized on family turmoil, sending their conflicts to court to be resolved, where the litigation generated more fees.

“That was a fix,” Mayes said in an interview. “I was still doing all the work, but she and her attorneys were billing and kept stirring it up with the family.”

The family learned that Savitt was married to a judge when Judge Rosemarie Scher, then presiding over their case, said she’d been out to dinner with the couple and described the judge’s wife as “part of the judicial community.”

“Savitt never told us beforehand, which I thought she should have,” said Mayes. “The lawyers never told us. I figured he was in another division, but he was in probate.”

…. To be continued….

To read this complete article online at the Palm Beach Post website, click here.