Connecticut’s highest court ruled that conservators and court-appointed attorneys representing people in conservatorship proceedings are not automatically immune from liability for their actions.
In Connecticut, a person named as conservator (the term some states use for guardian) for an incapacitated person has broad power to make decisions about the person’s health, living conditions, property and social interactions with friends and family.
When a court appointed a conservator for Daniel Gross, it did so over his objections and without providing him notice of the hearing, thereby depriving him of his opportunity to contest the appointment and show that he was capable of managing his affairs. As a result of decisions made by the conservator, Gross was placed in a locked ward in a nursing facility where he was robbed and assaulted, family members were not allowed to visit him, and his house was broken into and ransacked. Ultimately, the conservator was dismissed and conservatorship dissolved. Gross then sued the conservator and attorney appointed by the court, claiming violations of Gross’ civil rights. Defendants argued that they were protected from liability by the same immunity that protects judges. The federal appeals court hearing the matter asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to rule on the question since it is a matter of state law.
AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend of the court brief with the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long Term Care and the National Senior Citizens Law Center. The brief urged that conservators not be given judicial immunity, pointing out the substantial loss of personal rights and freedoms when someone is placed under conservatorship, the tremendous power that conservators have over vulnerable incapacitated persons, and the need for greater accountability and enforceable remedies against those who abuse their powers. The brief noted that because courts are unable to closely monitor all cases to detect fraud and abuse, it is critically important that individuals be able to bring private suits to enforce rights and compensate victims of abuse.
The Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed. It ruled that conservators and court-appointed attorneys in these proceedings only enjoy immunity when carrying out specific orders, authorizations or directives approved by a court, and that outside of that limited immunity, they may be held liable for their actions in lawsuits filed by the victims of their misdeeds.
What’s at Stake
Conservators, who are given the duties to manage the most fundamental aspects of a person’s life and to control all of their assets, must be held to the strictest accountability. This is particularly true as the population ages and as conservatorships are likely to become more common.
The case of Gross v. Rell is back before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which requested an opinion on the specific question of immunity from the Supreme Court of Connecticut.
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