controversial guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt out of the South County Courthouse over apparent concerns about favoritism and conflict of interest involving her husband, a judge, after an investigation by The Palm Beach Post.
This month, out of
the public’s view, Savitt lobbied the chief judge to allow her to move
her cases back to Delray Beach, saying her wards would save money if she
and her lawyer didn’t have to drive to Palm Beach Gardens, where the
cases are now.
She asked that her guardianships be in front of Judge Howard Coates,
who recently ruled in her favor. Coates blocked efforts to remove her
as a guardian in a case where her ward’s former lawyers have alleged
that $400,000 of the ward’s assets are missing.
Coates, a former Wellington councilman, recently was transferred to the South County Courthouse.
made the request to Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath in a Jan. 18 letter
from her attorney, Ellen Morris, that was obtained by The Post.
inquiries by the newspaper, Colbath on Tuesday wrote to Savitt’s
attorney to say her current six guardianship cases will remain in the
North County Courthouse in Palm Beach Gardens. However, he said Savitt
would be allowed to have new cases, appointed at random, in the south
Colbath transferred Savitt’s cases in February 2016 after The Post’s investigation, Guardianships: A Broken Trust.
Post reported that thanks to Savitt’s job as a professional guardian,
the life savings of incapacitated seniors flowed into the household of
her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, who sat in the Probate
& Guardianship Division in south county.
Savitt took thousands
of dollars in fees prior to a judge’s approval and families complained
she manufactured legal work to increase her fees, among other
They said the judge’s wife appeared to be bulletproof.
worked most of her cases in the same courthouse where Colin was a
powerful judge. Though she didn’t appear in front of her husband, most
of her cases were in front of a family friend: Circuit Judge David
French. It was French who routinely dismissed concerns about her work
from families of her wards.
Savitt’s guardianship attorneys appeared in front of Colin in other cases and he approved their fees.
The Post’s investigation, the chief judge acted quickly. He transferred
Colin out of south county and out of the Probate & Guardianship
Colbath required the judges in south county to recuse
themselves from Savitt’s cases and he moved her cases north. Colin
announced his retirement and did not seek reelection in November.
Then in October, Colbath announced sweeping changes
to the county’s guardianship system, addressing many of the complaints
that families had about Savitt — including taking so-called “retainer”
This month, after French was transferred to the Civil
Division in West Palm Beach, Savitt’s attorney sent her letter to
Colbath asking that the six guardianship cases be sent back to south
county and be consolidated in front of Judge Coates.
Coates had presided over Savitt’s cases in north county before replacing French in Delray Beach.
In December, Coates said he would dismiss a motion with prejudice to remove Savitt as guardian for Frances Berkowitz.
The senior’s former attorneys wanted to know what happened to the estimated $400,000 that was in the senior’s savings account at the time Savitt became her guardian. Savitt has said no such amount was in the account.
former attorneys said they wanted Coates to allow the case to go
forward so they could get bank statements and other evidence in
Donna Solomon Greenspan, one of Berkowitz’ former attorneys, asked Coates point-blank why there appeared to be many roadblocks.
wanted to protect our client and we put our client in the hands of the
court, saying please give her a guardian who would protect her,” she
said. “But this client — who we had been working with for years — was
put in the hands of Betsy Savitt.”
Solomon told The Post that the
chief judge did the right thing by denying the request to transfer the
six cases back to south county.
“Cases are not transferred based
on an ex parte letter from an attorney,” she said. “Transfers should be
requested by proper motion, under the rules, with notice and the
opportunity to be heard.”
Berkowitz died on Dec. 31. Her probate
case initially was assigned early this month to south county, but the
Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller’s Office transferred it to Palm
Beach Gardens last week.
Attorneys representing two men who have
fought Savitt in guardianships said they, too, are concerned that the
professional guardian attempted to go outside a courtroom to get the
cases moved back to Delray Beach in front of Coates.
This is called ex parte communication, they say.
Palm Beach attorney Valentin Rodriguez is not involved in any cases
involving Savitt, but as a criminal and civil litigator, he says there
are only a few situations where ex parte communications are appropriate.
He said if the issue is general rather than case-specific, it is often
more acceptable — especially if the other attorneys in the case were
“Generally speaking, the one rule of thumb is that
lawyers from either side never discuss ongoing litigation with the judge
assigned to the case without it being done in the presence of the other
lawyer,” Rodriguez said. “Justice is blind, and sees only the truth,
but when one side gets the ear of the judge in the case, then that
notion of justice withers away.”
Morris said in her letter that
she already had spoken on the phone with the offices of Colbath and
Circuit Judge Rosemarie Scher, who is currently assigned the six cases.
Morris’ letter said that the chief judge’s office told her to put her
request in a letter and also said that Coates had agreed to take back
“Fundamental and basic rights for litigants in the
American legal system consists of notice and the opportunity to be
heard,” attorney William J. Maguire wrote Colbath on Jan. 20. He
represents a Boca Raton man who has steadfastly opposed Savitt in a
guardianship for a stroke victim.
Attorney Thomas Dougherty said
his client, who opposes Savitt’s actions in the guardianship of Albert
Vassallo Sr., doesn’t feel the issues in south county are resolved in
regard to the professional guardian.
“Savitt created the
circumstances that required the cases to go to north county,” Dougherty
said. “The move back to south county could be considered judge
Morris said there was no ex parte communication or
judge-shopping because all of the lawyers were copied on her letter to
the chief judge.
“Just trying to reduce fees for going to north
county by returning to original courthouse I was assigned to,” she wrote
in an email response.
Neither Judge Colbath nor Coates responded to requests for comment for this story.
hasn’t received an appointment to a new guardianship since The Post’s
investigation was published in January 2016. But she may get new cases
as one of about 30 professionals who are now part of a new assignment
wheel, a random method of assigning cases, established by Colbath to
eliminate any appearance of favoritism. Judges who appoint a
professional guardian must now rely on the wheel to make their choice.
representing Savitt, argued to Colbath that the cases should move to
Coates because of additional time it takes for her and Savitt to travel
to the North County Courthouse — time that translates into fees charged
to the senior.
Maguire rejected this notion in his own letter to Colbath on Jan. 20.
He represents Daniel Schmidt, who litigated for months to force the
resignation of Savitt as guardian for stroke victim Carla Simmonds.
Schmidt is now Simmonds’ guardian and is fighting Savitt’s fee requests
His lawyer told Colbath that Savitt and Morris could
have saved Simmonds thousands of dollars in fees by resigning but
instead chose to vigorously litigate with Schmidt for months.
Ms. Savitt and her counsel request ex parte relief to transfer the
guardianship to a single judge, ignoring the court’s administrative
orders regarding judicial assignments and rotations,” Maguire said.
“All of which ostensibly are in place to avoid the appearance of favoritism, forum shopping, etc.”
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Chief judge thwarts guardian’s effort to move cases