Dorothy Luck finally nabbed a break in her ongoing battle against a Tarrant County probate court that has seemed bent on bleeding her dry financially in an ironic attempt to protect her.
Judge Steven King signed an agreement this month that frees Luck from guardianship in a controversial case that removed her rights — including her ability to hire an attorney — even as it sucked an estimated $1 million or more of her savings (“Grabbing the Purse,” Sept. 4, 2013).
“I wanted you to be the first to know,” Luck told Fort Worth Weekly after receiving the news. “Your article had everything to do with it.”
Over the past six years, the Weekly has published several stories spotlighting the county’s two probate judges (King and Pat Ferchill) and their web of attorneys, investigators, bankers, social workers, and others who sometimes appear overzealous in their attempts to manage — and sometimes benefit from — the lives and bank accounts of elderly and disabled residents.
The first story (“Saving Katia,” July 2, 2008) chronicled Kathie Seidel’s attempts to overturn Ferchill’s decision to remove her adoptive daughter from the Seidel home, place her under guardianship, and heavily restrict her communication with relatives. The judge made the decision in a closed hearing without the mother’s input. Seidel is still fighting to get what her now-adult daughter wants: restoration of her rights or at least a more family-friendly guardian.
Seidel sees the recent action in Luck’s case, along with a couple of other recent guardianship reversals, as victories for everyone trying to protect the rights of wards, which is what the guardianship system is supposed to do.
“This is an important decision,” Seidel said. “They [probate courts] are trying to tidy up questionable rulings.”
Seidel credits several factors in addition to media scrutiny led by the Weekly. She and others have been storming the Texas Legislature in recent years, decrying the power that probate judges wield. Social networking has enabled a previously fractured population of defendants and advocacy groups to align themselves and wield more political power. One example is the creation of Guardianship Reform Advocates (GRADE), a statewide group that seeks to protect the disabled and elderly.
King and Ferchill are typically re-elected without facing challengers, although the activists have recently been threatening to recruit opponents for them in the future. Both judges have long held up Tarrant County as a model of guardianship efficiency. The backlash they’ve been feeling from high-profile cases is changing the way they’re running their courts, said an activist who asked not to be named because she has an active case in a local probate court and fears retribution.
“They’ve got other judges [across the state] looking at what they’re doing, and a lot coming out of Tarrant County doesn’t look good,” she said.
Another Weekly story (“In Whose Best Interest,” Sept. 8, 2010) described how the probate system ensnared an elderly woman named Mary. The judges and their guardianship workers say they initiate cases only as a last resort. But Fort Worth attorney Steve Katten, who works frequently in both probate courts and donates to local judges’ political campaigns, initiated the guardianship case against Mary. She had a large amount of money, and Katten wanted to park it at Wells Fargo Bank, the court’s bank of choice in many local guardianship cases.
At the time, Katten was board president of Guardianship Services Inc., a pseudo-governmental group of guardians who act as surrogate decision-makers for incapacitated people. Tarrant County funds them. One of Katten’s fellow board members was a Wells Fargo bank vice president.
The case served as another example of how a tight-knit, lightly regulated system enjoyed near carte blanche in deciding people’s fates. The judges appeared to scrutinize and lean heavily on defendants and relatives while downplaying the obvious conflicts of interest involving the court and its cast of players.
One of GRADE’s activists is Houston resident Latifa Ring, who called the Weekly last year to push for an investigation into Luck’s case. She applauded King’s recent decision to free Luck from guardianship but is still steamed that it took more than two years for it to happen, after many hundreds of thousands of dollars were taken from Luck.
“They haven’t told her how much money she has left, but it will all come out in the end,” Ring said. “I heard Judge King wanted out of it, and a lot of it had to do with your story. Too much pressure.”
Ring remains dismayed that probate judges, with little proof, can deem people as mentally incapacitated and take piles of money from them — and then reverse the ruling after all the lawyers and bankers have been paid.
“It exonerates everybody from what they’ve done,” she said.
Luck met with court-appointed attorneys to hash out the details prior to King’s decision, and she recorded the meeting. On the tape, one of the attorneys is heard saying, “The court is a little bit afraid of you.”
Later, when the tape wasn’t running, the same attorney elaborated. “He said, ‘That little rag [the Weekly] really did get their attention,’ ” Luck recalled.
Luck got sucked into the guardianship system after relatives sued her over a property dispute. Luck refused to settle the case and demanded a jury trial. Instead, her relatives’ attorney, who works closely with King’s court, threatened to put Luck in guardianship if she didn’t cooperate. Luck, a proud and independent woman of 85, wouldn’t bend. That began a courtroom drama that led to her being stripped of her basic rights and access to her money.
King prevented her from hiring her own lawyer and forced her to work with court-appointed attorneys whom Luck believed were working against her interests. The relatives said they never intended for Luck to be placed under guardianship and tried without success to stop the court from doing so. Luck accused King of running a “kangaroo court” filled with bullies and thieves.
“Some kid can steal an apple and get 10 years in jail, and yet this court can come and do this to me?” Luck said. “Where’s the legal system going? It’s pitiful.”
King’s decision wasn’t a complete victory for Luck. She was forced to put her house and car in trust and name a beneficiary, but she will continue to use both. Most importantly for Luck, King’s decision means she’ll be able to drive, vote, and control her own money. She suspects the estimated $1 million in court-related costs taken from her accounts is the tip of the iceberg and is awaiting a final accounting of her assets.
“What have I done to anybody to cause them to be so mean?” she said. “They have done things to me constantly by mail, by phone, by every means they can conjure up. For a judge not to give me a voice and then try to strip me of everything I’ve worked for since I was 15 years old is the most preposterous thing.”
Seidel said she appreciates the news media’s efforts on behalf of people like Luck but wishes the courts would act fairly without the added scrutiny.
“It is very sad that we have to go to the media for things to be done properly in court,” she said. “Nobody wants to go to the media. Who wants your life to be an open book for everybody? I just want to have my daughter back.”