Ruling ends effort to find $400K missing in Savitt guardianship

Attorneys Webb Millsaps and Donna Greenspan Solomon spent years trying to right the wrong done to senior Frances Berkowitz.

Millsaps and Solomon recovered $835,000 they say was stolen from Berkowitz before deciding to seek the protection of a guardianship, fearing further fraud. Instead, they found themselves fighting controversial professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, watching their legal work get undone.

Particularly vexing to Millsaps and Solomon was what they said appeared to be $400,000 missing from Berkowitz’s accounts around the time they sought court-ordered guardianship protection for Berkowitz.

But they were shut down by a circuit judge in their efforts to remove Savitt in order to see what happened to Berkowitz’s money. So this week they ended up at the 4th District Court of Appeal where judges talked about how the guardianship system in Florida had gone awry and how the Berkowitz case was a prime example.

But the lawyers and the heirs of Berkowitz, who died in December at 86, were dealt a legal fatal blow on Thursday. Not only did the DCA panel affirm Circuit Judge Howard Coates’ decision to not allow Millsaps and Solomon standing to challenge Savitt, they didn’t even say why.

The one-page decision was only three words: “Per curiam. Affirmed” by Judge Cory Ciklin, Judge Mark Klingensmith and Associate Judge Mark Belanger. The ruling is a dead-end for Millsaps and Solomon.

The silence of the order was deafening considering that the problems in guardianship have spurred not only reforms on the state legislative level but also in the county. Then-Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbalth handed down new rules last year, many directed at complaints by families of wards of Savitt.

“It’s disappointing,” Solomon said. “I had hoped that the court would issue an opinion to highlight the serious guardianship problems in Florida recognized by the court in oral argument.

And indeed, Ciklin, in particular, lamented the state of guardianship in Florida during Tuesday’s hour-long oral argument.

“The absurdity of all this to some extent is that the ward ends up paying for everybody,” Ciklin said. “And all the while the ward’s estate is just being sucked dry.”

Attorney Roger Levine, arguing on behalf of Savitt on Tuesday, told the DCA panel that Millsaps, despite being the one who sought guardianship protection for his client, had no standing under the law to challenge Savitt’s decisions.

Klingensmith, though, said Tuesday that he read the law as giving broad authority to allow such a challenge to Savitt.

The panel, though, was concerned about what kind of relief they could actually give Millsaps and Solomon, who argued the appeal. Solomon said that a decision overturning Coates on the standing issue would allow the Berkowitz heirs to unwind a settlement made by Savitt that failed to hold liable a bank and a Miami lawyer who assisted a caretaker in what court documents characterize as the original fraud.

Ellen Morris, the attorney for Savitt, reveled in the ruling, calling it a “great victory for the Berkowitz guardianship and the trial court, Judge Coates.”

She also criticized The Palm Beach Post’s award-winning series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, which outlined complaints against Savitt by families of her wards and the conflict of interest her work as guardian created for her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

Colin was moved out of the guardianship division after the series and announced his retirement. Morris called the ongoing series “publicized meritless claims” and “fake news.”

“By upholding the decision of the trial court, the Court of Appeals firmly denounced the contentions of those who persistently make unfounded assertions against our hard-working judges, lawyers and guardians,” Morris said.

The law firm of Judge Ciklin’s brother — Ciklin, Lubitz & O’Connell — recently got hit with a $16.4 million verdict for running up fees in a guardianship in front of Colin. Pending appeal, the parties recently settled for an undisclosed amount.

Now, the Berkowitz heirs will have to decide whether to pursue civil litigation against Savitt in order to get a judge or jury to weigh the merits of the claims made by Berkowitz’s former attorneys.

Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of the Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said the ruling made no sense given Ciklin’s comments from the panel at Tuesday’s hearing.

“Given his prior remarks, it seems he feels that whatever the lower judge decides will stick no matter how outrageous,” Sugar said. “This may be a shot across the bow to anyone who dares challenge a lower court ruling in these transparently crooked equity courts.”

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