Widow, 84, Gets Justice; Lawyers Get Her Money

Embedded somewhere within most civil court files, deep down among the motions, the petitions and the depositions, are buried some of the most interesting documents ever devised by man.

Well, interesting might not be quite the word. Chilling would be closer to it. The documents are itemizations of attorney fees. They tell us just how far astray things can go in pursuit of justice.

Consider 95-4-04820-7, a case in King County Superior Court. This is a guardianship case that began two years ago when a petition was filed asking the court to appoint a legal guardian for Violet Sullivan, an elderly Green Lake resident.

I've written before about instances where guardianship petitions were filed for older people even when it didn't seem the best way to help them. All the petitions seem to do then is set the clumsy machinery of the judicial system in motion on issues that are often too delicate to withstand it.

The courts often end up doing more harm than good to the very people they are trying to help. They destroy the village in order to save it.

Violet Sullivan, though, needed help. A widow, she owned an estate valued at more than three-quarters of a million dollars. In a little less than a year, however, more than $100,000 in cash disappeared. Court documents allege a relative with a drug problem was to blame. The petition sought mainly to get the relative's hands out of Violet's bank accounts.

This is good, right?

Well, maybe. The initial guardianship petition was filed in November 1995. Since then, two guardians, two temporary guardians and more lawyers than you could shake a briefcase at have gotten involved.

Violet has been moved out of her house, into and out of one adult-care facility in Redmond, into and out of a hospital, and finally into another care facility.

As you might guess, this does not come cheap. In one 12-month period - the only period for which there has been a complete accounting - all of these activities and people cost Violet $220,927 - twice as much, in other words, as was alleged to have been siphoned by the relative.

Where did the money go?

Some expenditures were unavoidable: $50,000, for example, was repaid to a late brother's estate after it was determined it had been distributed prematurely. And since Violet is 84 years old, there were medical expenses, but they amounted to a relatively modest several thousand dollars.

Some were unusual. For example, the guardian, a professional company called Care Planning Associates, spent $38,000 to repair Violet's house. That's a lot of repair, especially since they had already moved her to a nursing home, which, by the way, cost $32,000 for the 10 months she was in it.

The biggest single items in that year were "professional fees," which amounted to $63,727.81. By far the bulk of these were lawyer's fees. How could they spend that much?

Look at this, one of dozens of similar entries in the court files.

"12/02/97: JMS Telephone call to Henry Judson, Jennifer Gilliam. 1.20"

"JMS" are the initials for Julie M. Schisel, a lawyer who has been appointed by the court to review how well the guardianship is working. She is paid $140 an hour to do this. Henry Judson is the lawyer for Care Planning Associates. He charges $135 an hour. Jennifer Gilliam is the court-appointed lawyer for Violet Sullivan. She charges $110 per hour.

All three lawyers billed the estate for their time. So Violet ends up paying a court-appointed lawyer to confer with her court-appointed lawyer and with the lawyer for her court-appointed guardian. That one phone call cost her $462.

What do the lawyers talk about?

Well, here's one thing. This week they went to court and asked the judge to seal the records in the case so public examination of them will no longer be possible. There is no clear reason to do this, but all the lawyers agreed, and the judge went along with the recommendation.

So the next time they have a $462 phone conversation, there will be no way for anyone to find out about it.

Sweet deal, huh?

Terry McDermott's column appears Tuesday and Thursday. His phone message number is 206-515-5055. His e-mail address is: tmcd-new@seatimes.com