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Nessel intervenes in Macomb County guardianship case

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday her office is intervening on behalf of a Macomb County family embroiled in a controversial guardianship case.

In the highly publicized case, the daughter and stepdaughter of Robert Lee Mitchell and Barbara Delbridge complained that the elderly couple's guardians, Caring Hearts Michigan, had denied them visits and that the agency was appointed guardian and conservatorship of the couple over the objections of relatives.

The state Attorney General's office also has filed an objection to the final account of fiduciary by Caring Hearts Michigan.

“It is absolutely incumbent on the courts to ensure that the state’s guardianship system is providing properly for the vulnerable and that the court-appointed conservators fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to those in their custody,” Nessel said in a news release. “That does not appear to be happening in the case of Caring Hearts, which was appointed by Judge Kathryn George as guardian and conservator for Robert Lee Mitchell and Barbara Delbridge.”

Judge Kathryn George of Macomb County Probate Court.

Nessel said "of significant concern" to her is the "web of connections"  between Caring Hearts of Michigan Inc., a guardian agency owned by Catherine Kirk, and two companies also owned in part by Kirk or her husband: Executive Care, a 24-hour in-home care company, and Kirk, Huth, Lange and Badalamenti PLS, a law firm owned by Kirk’s husband. 

Caring Hearts hired Executive Care to provide in-home care for Mitchell and Delbridge. Legal counsel for the couple was — again at the direction of Caring Hearts — provided by Kirk’s husband’s law firm, according to Nessel.

“The law is very clear on this issue,” she said. “The Court shall not appoint as guardian an agency, public or private, that financially benefits from directly providing housing, medical, mental health or social services to the legally incapacitated individual. In fact, the Estates and Protected Individuals Code specifically prohibits certain financial self-dealing by the guardian with respect to the ward.”

Caring Hearts of Michigan backed out of the case in June. The company's attorney Edward Nahhat said Monday that "the attorney general has no reason other than overreach" to intervene in the case because the couple's family has "competent attorneys" to represent them.

Nahhat added while the attorney general has a right to intervene, "she has misapplied the statute" in this case. Nahhat said he plans to file a response to Nessel's petition.

Last month, Nessel relieved four public administrators in Oakland and Macomb counties, including two who have been linked to guardianship problems in the two counties. One of the attorneys is  Robert Kirk, the husband of Catherine Kirk.

Efforts to reach Catherine Kirk, Robert Kirk and Judge Kathryn George were unsuccessful Monday. George's office referred questions to Macomb County Circuit Court administrator Julie Bovenschen, who could not be reached.

The case now proceeds into discovery, where the parties can seek information as well as file additional motions. Chief Judge James M. Biernat of Macomb County Circuit Court set Jan. 10 for a settlement conference and the end of discovery.

The attorney general's move come less than a month after a statewide Elder Abuse Listening Tour where the "single most complaint" Nessel and Supreme Court Justices Megan Cavanagh and Richard Bernstein heard concerned guardianships, according to Nessel's office.

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