DECEMBER 15, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 24
Sherri K. apparently thought her stepfather Clifford H. (the court opinion does not disclose family names) needed protection. She asked the California courts to appoint her as conservator, and she alleged that there was an emergency requiring immediate action. Without giving notice to her stepfather or other family members she scheduled a hearing and secured appointment as temporary conservator of Clifford’s person and estate.
The court’s order specifically directed the other family members to surrender Clifford to Sherri’s custody, but they refused. In response Sherri filed a request that the rest of the family be held in contempt of court for refusing a valid court order. She also filed petitions alleging that Clifford had been subjected to elder abuse, and the court then issued orders restraining the family and directing them to appear to “show cause” why the orders should not be made permanent.
Although unusually nasty and litigious, the tragic story of Clifford H. would not, unfortunately, be all that uncommon—except that Sherri is herself an attorney. The legal proceedings that followed demonstrated that lawyers have a special responsibility to see to it that the courts are not misused.
Sherri’s mother Jean H. hired a lawyer of her own and objected to the conservatorship and to the temporary orders. The court appointed an attorney to represent Clifford, and that attorney also objected. Sherri ultimately withdrew some of her requests, and the court denied the rest. Then the question of attorney’s fees had to be resolved.
Though she had been unsuccessful, Sherri sought over $45,000 in fees and costs for herself and her attorney. Meanwhile, her mother and siblings asked the court to order Sherri to pay their attorneys’ fees of almost $18,000.
The court ordered Sherri to pay her own attorney’s fees, but did allow her $15,000 in fees and costs to be paid from her stepfather’s estate. At the same time, however, the court ordered Sherri to pay $10,000 of her mother’s and siblings’ attorneys’ fees.
Sherri appealed, arguing that she should have been awarded all her own attorney’s fees and not required to pay any of her family’s fees. The California Court of Appeals forcefully disagreed, going so far as to rule that her appeal was frivolous.
In addition to the earlier order Sherri was directed to pay over $10,000 more in fees to her mother to cover the costs of the appeal. Noting that the conservatorship and the appeal were obviously motivated by Sherri’s hatred of her family rather than a desire to achieve a just result, the court also ordered her to report herself to the State Bar of California for disciplinary action. Conservatorship of Clifford H., November 21, 2003.