Texas: Millionaire widow loses battle in guardianship struggle with sons

Photo: LELAND A. OUTZ /SPECIAL TO THE EXPRESS-NEWS; Hattie Poole attempted to get Judge Tom Rickhoff recused. Photo: LELAND A. OUTZ /SPECIAL TO THE EXPRESS-NEWS; Hattie Poole attempted to get Judge Tom Rickhoff recused.

Note from AAAPG:

We think this is a tragic example of how the relationships that develop over years between judges and attorneys who represent their clients in front of that judge, can create gross injustice for the Ward, especially in what should be non-adversarial, judicial administrative proceedings.

The client — who typically before going into court has no idea that their attorney has drawn the animosity of the judge — finds out only after it’s too late, that they will never receive a fair hearing in court, because the judge hates their attorney. 

And when there’s a $3 Million estate at stake, you can be sure the one course of action the judge will not take is to let such a prize catch get away. “Once a Ward, always a Ward.”

San Antonio Express-News
September 26, 2015

You could spend a few years observing court hearings and never see anything more awkward than the scene I witnessed Tuesday morning.

Seated side by side at a small table in Probate Court No. 2, you had two attorneys: Phil Ross and Carmen Samaniego. Based on their physical proximity, you’d naturally assume that Ross and Samaniego were legal partners collaborating on a case.

And it’s true that they share the same client. But Ross and Samaniego were battling against each other, like coaching rivals forced to share the same sideline.

It was merely the latest turn in the bitter case involving millionaire widow (and prominent local philanthropist) Hattie Poole. Poole, 85, is fighting for control of her life in a guardianship battle that has pitted her against her three middle-aged sons.

Duane Poole, Hattie’s husband of more than 60 years, passed away in 2012. When Hattie subsequently built a relationship with Ben Marek, a man 30 years her junior, her sons grew concerned. Last December, when she attempted to transfer $225,000 to Marek, Frost Bank froze her account and the case was referred to Adult Protective Services.

The case has taken on the contours of many adult guardianship cases, which divide families and raise nagging questions about whether people are motivated by protectiveness or self-interest.

Poole’s daughter supports her mother and accuses her brothers of being driven by greed. They counter that their mom no longer has the mental capacity to make her own decisions.

Three neuropsychological exams found that Poole suffers from mild but substantial loss of memory and executive function. Poole’s daughter dismisses those results as the products of overwhelming stress and points to a more positive recent evaluation as proof that her mother has the capacity to enter into contracts.

Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff appointed a guardian for Poole and determined that she wasn’t fit to hire her own attorney. So Rickhoff appointed Samaniego to fill that role, and Poole — who wants Ross to represent her — has found herself forced to pay for a lawyer she doesn’t want. She has also been unable to touch her estate of more than $3 million.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Ross attempted to get Rickhoff recused from the case, on the grounds that the judge has demonstrated a personal bias against Ross over the years. (Eight months ago, Rickhoff filed a grievance against Ross with the State Bar of Texas, accusing Ross of putting him through “the most bizarre behavior I’ve ever encountered from one lawyer.”)

Administrative Judge David Peeples accurately termed the situation a Catch-22.

Because Rickhoff appointed Samaniego to represent Poole, Peeples concluded that Ross did not have the legal authority to file anything on Poole’s behalf. In Peeples’ view, Ross would have to gain legal authority before he could proceed with the recusal filing, but, of course, he’d never be granted that legal authority from Rickhoff.

“I’m sure what Miss Samaniego would say is that if you don’t have authority to represent Miss Poole, you don’t have the authority to file a motion to recuse,” Peeples told Ross. “Just as a matter of logic, that would be right, wouldn’t it?”

Ross responded: “I’ve represented in sworn pleadings that I have a contract with my client and it’s my belief that she has the capacity to enter into that contract for legal services. I’m acting on her behalf. So I think that’s probably all the proof the court needs to proceed on the motion for recusal.”

Peeples didn’t buy it.

The tragic part of this legal drama is the toll it has taken on Poole. She sat in the courtroom Tuesday, maintaining a dignified stoicism while attorneys openly dissected her mental capacity. With the old-world gentility that marks everything she does, Poole greeted Samaniego with a warm smile when the attorney approached her in the courtroom, even though Poole regards Samaniego as someone who is aiding the opposition’s cause.

Poole may not think of herself as Samaniego’s client, but the feeling isn’t mutual. During the hearing, Samaniego told Peeples, “I don’t think it’s fair to my client or to her estate to continue on incurring costs to her, or apparently now to her family, to have this representation.”

Of course, it also seems unfair to deny someone the basic right to hire the attorney they want to help them fight for control of their own life.


Twitter: @gilgamesh470