James “Jack” Meagher thought he was capable of managing his own affairs, but his sons said their father was mentally ill, suicidal and abusive, and needed a guardian to manage his money and health-care decisions. They went to court in 2018, asking a judge to declare their father legally incapacitated.
The judge turned to Seminole County’s Guardianship Examining Committee, a roster of doctors, psychiatrists and other experts who help determine whether someone is incapable of caring for himself or his property. Florida law requires a three-person committee to examine someone before he can be declared incapacitated, and one member must be a psychiatrist or physician.
After being examined, the judge ruled Meagher incapacitated and placed him under the care of Orlando-based professional guardian Rebecca Fierle, who was suddenly in charge of making every decision in Meagher’s life.
Meagher, 67, was surprised to learn, months later, that Fierle had a close connection with Thomas Sawyer, the doctor who helped declare him incapacitated: Sawyer’s son-in-law is Thomas Moss, an attorney who has frequently represented Fierle in dozens of her guardianship cases across Central Florida.
“That seemed a little strange,” said Meagher of Winter Springs. “It made me think he already had a preformed opinion because he’s buddy-buddy with Rebecca.”
Fierle is currently under criminal investigation after it was revealed that she had filed unauthorized “do not resuscitate” orders on incapacitated clients, sparking a scandal that has embroiled Florida’s guardianship program. She has since resigned from all her cases.
Experts say cases like Meagher’s reflect another flaw in Florida’s system meant to protect the state’s most vulnerable adults: The examining committees relied upon to help judges decide the fitness of potential wards are often made up of a small pool of people with existing ties to the guardianship industry, despite state statutes meant to prevent potential conflicts of interest.
Sawyer and Moss denied any impropriety.
“The relationship of my wife and me to my father-in-law has become well-known by those in Central Florida’s guardianship court system and those who handle guardianship matters,” Thomas Moss said in a statement. "The fact that Dr. Sawyer is my father-in-law has never been hidden and in fact, has been disclosed. Such disclosure is the reason you will find that Dr. Sawyer has rarely been appointed by the Courts in our cases.” (Click to Continue)
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Florida’s troubled guardianship system riddled with conflicts of interest, critics claim | Special Report