MAY 12, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 45
Financial exploitation of vulnerable seniors is hardly a new problem, but both the frequency and the severity of abuse have increased dramatically in recent years. Many seniors (or their concerned friends and family members) turn to the legal system for help and protection. Sometimes protectors become abusers themselves. That was the case with New York attorney Charles Butin.
Mr. Butin was ultimately disbarred by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division—but not until he had taken tens of thousands of dollars belonging to at least three women he had been hired to help protect.
Martha Reifforth hired Mr. Butin to initiate guardianship proceedings with regard to her close friend Marie Edelman in 1996. Ms. Edelman had become unable to handle her own affairs, but not before she had signed powers of attorney giving Ms. Reifforth authority to take care of her financial affairs. Mr. Butin told her that she needed to sign a number of blank account withdrawal forms, and then began transferring Ms. Edelman’s money into his own office bank account.
Ultimately Ms. Reifforth fired Mr. Butin and hired a new lawyer to try to recover funds still in his control. Although he had transferred at least $144,300 into his own accounts by the time of Ms. Edelman’s death in July, 2000, Mr. Butin only had $38,036.60 left in his office account—and he had made no distributions for Ms. Edelman’s benefit. He estimated that his fees for work done on her behalf totaled between $25,000 and $75,000, though he had never submitted a bill.
In two other cases Mr. Butin represented guardians of elderly, incapacitated women, and took charge of handling their accounts. In both cases he paid himself substantial fees without getting approval from his clients or the court, and failed to pay the women’s bills on time. In one case his client was held in contempt and sentenced to five days imprisonment, though the judge later set that sentence aside when it became apparent that Mr. Butin’s client was unaware that he was in serious trouble with the courts—because Mr. Butin did not tell him about the contempt proceeding.
Mr. Butin asked for a lesser punishment, pointing out that he had been active in bar association activities, had donated many hours of free legal time, and had emotional and family problems that contributed to his admittedly wrongful behavior. In ordering his disbarment the court noted that he "targeted clients who were likely to be vulnerable to his manipulation, including the elderly or the incapacitated." In the Matter of Butin, November 18, 2002, as amended March 12, 2003.