One afternoon three years ago, Skender Hoti received an unusual call from a neighbor asking whether he was moving out of his Lake Worth home.
Hoti rushed to the house to find a moving truck packed with furniture, heirlooms and valuables owned by him and the elderly woman he called mom. The lock on his front door was bashed in and the house ransacked.
But this wasn’t breaking and entering by a street thug. This was an attorney operating under a court-ordered guardianship.
Hoti’s “mom” was deemed incapacitated by a judge at the behest of her brother, Kenneth Davis, who along with his wife were granted temporary guardianship by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
Currently, there are several bills in the Legislature looking to tighten oversight of professionals who serve as guardians. The legislation came about because of fear of guardians looting estates of the elderly, among other concerns.
Hoti’s case, though, shows the power a probate attorney can wield through the family member serving as guardian.
“Adult guardianship is a joke. It’s a scam. They are working with each other to take advantage of people,” Hoti said.
The action centered on Gwendolyn Batson, then an 88-year-old who, along with her late husband, had unofficially adopted Hoti three decades prior. She often could be found at Hoti’s restaurant, Little Italy, in Lake Worth.
Hoti said Batson attended his wedding in Europe and they intermingled finances like any family. She gave him power of attorney in 2011. “I don’t know what to say. She loved me and my family,” he said.
But in early 2012, Batson’s brother claimed Batson had Alzheimer’s disease and that Hoti was taking advantage of her. Davis hired Delray Beach attorney Sheri Hazeltine, who successfully petitioned a judge to name Davis and his wife temporary guardian and moved her to their Alabama home.
Hazeltine, one of the most prolific probate and elder law attorneys in Palm Beach County, hired a moving crew in February 2012 to confiscate the possessions in the home where Batson lived. The residence, though, was owned by Hoti and contained a lot of his possessions, even though he lived with his family elsewhere.
“When I went to my room, I was in tears. I didn’t see my gun, I didn’t see any of my jewelry. The wedding chain for my wife, which is traditional for us, was gone,” said Hoti, who was born in the country now known as Kosovo and has lived in Palm Beach County since the early 1980s.
“How can you allow this to happen in America? I lived in a communist country and they wouldn’t even do this.”
Court records shows that there was no legally required examination of Batson within five days of the appointment of temporary guardians to determine whether she was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease.
Hoti and Hazeltine and her clients, Batson’s brother and sister-in-law, clashed often. No less than three reports were generated by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office between January and April 2012. Hoti told police that Hazeltine and her clients, the temporary guardians, took Batson against her will to Alabama.
The deputies also were called back to the Lake Worth house when Davis tried to have Hoti forcibly removed from his own home. Deputies refused.
In a court pleading, Hoti said that Hazeltine mocked him in his home. “She was laughing and waving the house key in the air stating, ‘I have a key and a court order. I come into this house anytime I want.’ ”
Deputies ordered Hazeltine, against her strenuous objections, to return all the items taken from Hoti’s home after he proved he had title to the house, according to an offense report. Hoti claims many of the valuables are still missing and there were at least three confrontations between the parties at the home.
“This was breaking and entering. This was part of the scam,” Hoti said.
Kathy Graves, the neighbor who alerted Hoti to the moving van, said she came into his house and confronted Hazeltine and those assisting her. “I told them at some point I was a real estate agent and they said we might want to put this property on the market. They asked me how much the home was worth,” she said.
Hazeltine claimed in court documents that Hoti was a felon — he had a conviction in the 1980s — and then told the court that Batson had “severe dementia” and was being taken advantage of by him. “In fact, Mr. Hoti does not care about Mrs. Batson,” she wrote.
The strategy didn’t work. Circuit Judge James Martz overturned Colin’s previous ruling finding Batson incapacitated and appointing Davis as emergency temporary guardian. Martz interviewed Batson, finding her to “be delightful.”
Martz is no longer in the probate division and doesn’t miss adult guardianship cases.
“Guardianship cases are incredibly hard to get a handle on when family members are fighting,” the judge said. “Unfortunately, sometimes there is alleged to be greed with one family member saying they are just doing this because they want the house, the condominium, they want this or that.”
After Martz’s ruling, Hoti was able to keep Batson in South Florida. She died on April 2013.
Hazeltine, in an email response to The Palm Beach Post, remained resolved that Batson all along was being scammed by Hoti. “This was a case where the guardianship system failed to protect a vulnerable elderly person,” she wrote.
Hoti said he had been taking care of Batson for nearly two decades and that Hazeltine’s clients simply wanted her property. Davis declined to comment, saying he and his wife just want to forget the incident.
Hoti’s former attorney Debra Rochlin of Fort Lauderdale was also highly critical of Hazeltine, saying the elder law attorney “just made up stuff as she went along.”
“It was a miracle the judge (Martz) saw the light and saw what was going on. He understood. He was upset,” she said. “I think what happened to Skender was a crime.”