The Connecticut Supreme Court heard a case October 24 asking whether conservators, court-appointed attorneys who oversee the estates of people with disabilities, have judge-like immunity from lawsuits alleging misconduct.
The case is being closely watched by a range of advocacy groups for people with disabilities and the elderly, including the National Disability Rights Network and the American Association of Retired Persons, who fear the court could block an important remedy for ensuring court-appointed individuals properly protect the interests of their clients.
“Connecticut courts should use all means feasible to protect conserved persons, including civil liability, to protect wards from abuse and misconduct by court-appointed conservators,” according to the NDRN court brief filed in November 2010.
The lawsuit centers on the case of Daniel Gross, a New York resident capable of living independently who was involuntarily committed to a Connecticut nursing home in 2005. At the nursing home, he was placed with a convicted felon, who assaulted him. Ten months later, a Superior Court judge granted his habeas corpus plea to be removed from the facility, calling the situation a “gross miscarriage of justice.” Gross died at age 86 in 2007.
Gross’ family filed a misconduct lawsuit against his conservator, who did not object to Gross’ being involuntarily committed. The state argued that the conservator is immune from misconduct lawsuits under state law.
In most states, certain individuals, such as judges and other officials appointed by the court, are immune from misconduct lawsuits. However, this immunity rarely extends to individuals such as public defenders, whose job titles imply a degree of responsibility to their clients.
Under Connecticut law, this question of whether this immunity applies to conservators is so murky that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit remanded the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court to clarify this issue in 2009.
For disability advocacy groups, a court ruling granting immunity for conservators could eliminate an essential way for people with disabilities to ensure conservators are properly managing their personal and property interests. For the NDRN, the concern is especially applicable to states such as Connecticut, which has no criminal statute specifically addressing financial abuse of the elderly or vulnerable.
“(The majority of courts) recognize that the fiduciary role of a conservator, by definition, requires accountability,” the NDRN stated in its brief.
DisAbility Rights Washington, the sponsor of DisAbility Rights Galaxy, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.