HOUSTON – Southern District Chief Justice Lee H. Rosenthal recently issued a landmark ruling allowing a wrongful death lawsuit against a Houston probate judge to proceed in an adult guardianship claim.
Sherry Johnston sued Harris County Probate Judge Christine Butts in 2016, alleging that her elderly mother Willie Jo Mills suffered broken bones and a rapid, preventable decline, which contributed to malnutrition and death when Mills was a ward of the State of Texas under guardianship.
A ward is typically a senior citizen experiencing cognitive decline or a younger adult with physical or developmental disabilities.
“Construing the allegations in the light most favorable to Johnston, she has alleged a plausible claim against Judge Butts’s bond under § 1201.003,” Judge Rosenthanl states in her May 15, 2018 Decision.
Issued by Texas Bonding Company and Harris County, Judge Butt’s public official bond is valued at $500,000, according to court records.
Judge Rosenthal’s ruling comes at a time when the adult guardianship system in Texas is under fire, according to a press release.
Bexar County Probate Judge Kelly Cross was admonished this month by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for labeling a proposed ward in another case “Mr. Maggot” and “Maggot Man” while the Spectrum Institute’s Legal Director Tom Coleman has requested records from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht to determine whether a self evaluation of the state’s guardianship system is underway. On April 18, the Texas Judicial Council’s David Slayton announced to Congress in Washington, D.C. that nearly half of adult guardianship cases in the state are out of compliance with reporting requirements.
“Johnston does not allege that Judge Butts failed to conduct the annual examination,” wrote Judge Rosenthal in her May 15, 2018 Memorandum and Opinion. “But she does allege that Judge Butts ignored requests for emergency relief, including a request made two days before Mills died. The context and timing of these requests are enough to state a claim that Judge Butts did not exercise reasonable diligence to determine whether Dexel and Lott were performing their duties as Mills’s guardian. The claim is limited to the amount of Judge Butts’s bond.”
According to court records, successor guardian Ginger Lott settled with Johnston in April 2018.
Judge Rosenthal dismissed claims against Harris County and guardian ad litem Clarinda Comstock however claims against Judge Butts and David Dexel will continue with a status conference on May 29, 2018 at 10:30a.m.
Section 1201.003 of the Texas Estates Code (TEC) specifically states that a judge is liable on a Judge’s bond to those damaged if damage or loss results to a guardianship or ward because of the gross neglect of the judge to use reasonable diligence in the performance of the judge’s duty under this subchapter.
“It creates a limited waiver of judicial immunity, allowing recovery for losses directly tied to the judge’s duties under the subchapter,” wrote Rosenthal in her decision.
Johnston sued David Dexel for breaches of his fiduciary duty based on allegations that he improperly billed and received attorney’s fees at $300 per hour in many instances instead of billing at a Guardian’s rate of $100 per hour.
According to Judge Rosenthal’s order, claims against Dexel include discontinuing physical therapy for Johnston’s mother, which Johnston alleges made her mother’s muscle problems worse.
“The allegations as to Dexel’s conduct as Mills’ guardian and the allegations as to his conduct in the probate-court proceedings support one claim for breach of fiduciary duty,” Judge Rosenthal’s order states.