Rick Green, the Hartford Courant
- June 24, 2008
There is the unbelievable. Then there is the probate court.
Before we travel to Waterbury Probate Court, recall the case of Daniel Gross. You may remember the outrageous story of Gross, the elderly New York man who was held against his will in a Waterbury nursing home in 2006 by order of the probate court, merely because he happened to get sick in Connecticut. He was freed when a Superior Court judge intervened, calling the Gross case "a terrible miscarriage of justice."
On that day almost two years ago I sat in Superior Court Judge Joseph Gormley's courtroom in Waterbury and thought justice had finally been served. Gross subsequently left Connecticut — quickly — and lived in his home on Long Island
until last October, when he died at age 87.
Gross has become a symbol for families across the country who believe the rights of the elderly and infirm are being violated by overzealous courts eager to appoint conservators and lawyers who earn fat paychecks "representing" the unfortunate.
Now, in a scene from a horror tale, Gross' former court-appointed conservator, Kathleen Donovan, has returned to Waterbury Probate Court — the place Superior Court Judge Gormley said had no jurisdiction and no business inserting itself into this old man's life. She is seeking $39,195 from Gross' estate for her work keeping this elderly gentleman locked up in a local nursing home. That consists of 261.3 hours of work at $150 per hour.
"The accounting speaks for itself," Donovan's lawyer, Thomas Riley, told Probate Judge Walter A. Clebowicz Monday afternoon at the scene of the original crime, probate court in Waterbury. At the hearing Clebowicz said he will rule next month on whether Waterbury probate has jurisdiction here.
That this filing suddenly and curiously pops up on the probate court docket again, years later, without warning, is provocative enough, but first let's review what Judge Gormley said about jurisdiction on July 13, 2006.
"The statute is absolutely clear that you can't appoint a conservator of someone's person unless that person is domiciled in the state of Connecticut or resides in the state of Connecticut," Gormley said. "This gentleman ... has never lived in the state of Connecticut, has lived and raised his three children in New York, his only assets were in New York, his house and his bank account, his driver's license is in New York, his registration is New York, his mail goes to New York. There is to me not a scintilla of evidence supporting residency."
"You can't appoint a conservator of the person for someone who lives out of state ... the man lives somewhere else," Gormley said. "This case has disturbed me from day one."
It is still disturbing. Donovan, Gross' former conservator, is trying to get paid, handsomely, for busywork that kept him here against his will for more than 10 months.
The Gross case led to limited reforms enacted by the state legislature. But in the dark corners of Connecticut's 117 probate courts, the old backslapping game continues, where lawyers and conservators are appointed under questionable circumstances. Most recently we saw this in North Haven where a German woman from New York City was held involuntarily in Connecticut until Legal Aid lawyers turned the lights on.
I called Judge James Lawlor, administrator of the probate court system, and asked whether he was concerned that a court with no jurisdiction was taking up paying the bills of a woman it had no business appointing in the first place.
"From my point of view it's wait and see how this is disposed," Lawlor said. "I think this one does need to get straightened out."
You've got that right. Some of us thought this was straightened out two years ago.
"It's unlawful that they are bringing this back to probate court, where they had no jurisdiction in the first place," said Carolyn Dee King, Gross' daughter, who fought valiantly for her father's freedom two years ago. "It's all devious."
"I am just appalled. There is no end," King told me, shortly before Monday's hearing. "They will try anything."
Some day, when we have a unified, properly supervised probate court system similar to our Superior Courts this will change.
Until then, it is wise to remember King's words.Rick Green's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com
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