|Jack Meagher says his court-appointed guardian, Rebecca Fierle, doesn't
respect his wishes, and he doesn't need someone to make decisions for
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James “Jack” Meagher Jr. was always a proud man, those who knew him said.
When a judge declared him incapacitated in 2018 and put him under the care of former Orlando guardian Rebecca Fierle, the Winter Springs man fought in court and in the press to prove he was capable of making decisions about his life. Meagher, who was disabled, traveled with his motorized wheelchair to get groceries, took photos of meals he cooked and dressed himself.
“[Fierle] is not looking out for my best interests,” a then 67-year-old Meagher told the Orlando Sentinel in 2019.
It was a rare victory Meagher was only able to enjoy for four months — he died Aug. 13 of pancreatic cancer that had metastasized, his daughter Melanie Meagher said.
“He was reborn after guardianship,” said Sam Sugar, founder of the South Florida-based organization Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, who knew Meagher from his work. “To have his new life cut short by a physical injustice, it’s really just tragic.”
The stories of Meagher and other Fierle clients and reporting by the Sentinel exposed widespread flaws in Florida’s guardianship system, prompting the Legislature to pass reforms aimed at reducing conflicts of interest and creating additional oversight for the court-appointed decision-makers, who assume full control over the lives of their wards.
Meagher, 68, was an Irish American who was born in New Jersey. He married Darcy Meagher in 1972 and had four children. They moved to Central Florida in 1979 and Meagher started A Budget Tree Service in 1981, a business which he eventually passed down to his son Dale Meagher, his daughter said.
“Dad worked from sunup till sundown,” said Melanie Meagher, 44. “He was always fixing something. ... People were inspired by that work ethic.”
After his wife’s death in 2014 from cancer, Meagher’s health declined and he needed care, his daughter said.
“It was difficult for Jack to lose function of his physical body,” she said. “He needed the assistance but he was a very proud man. Asking for help in his generation as a man was unheard of.”
Melanie Meagher said her family was desperate to get care for her father.
Her siblings sought a risk protection order against him — under a provision of Florida’s “red flag” law that allows a judge to prohibit someone considered a risk to themselves or others from possessing weapons — and later opted for guardianship, thinking that would provide him the best care possible, she said.
Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester appointed Fierle, a private guardian, to make medical, financial, housing, legal and personal decisions for him Nov. 5, 2018. Wards like Meagher can lose the right to marry, vote, travel or have a driver’s license. They also lose the right to decide where they live, how they spend their money and what doctor they go to.
Fierle came under fire after the death of an incapacitated client, 75-year-old Steven Stryker.
Stryker died at a Tampa hospital in May 2019 after medical staff were unable to attempt to save his life because Fierle had signed a “do not resuscitate” order against his wishes and the protests of his daughter, health-care surrogate and psychiatrist.
Fierle also insisted Stryker’s feeding tube be capped, despite being warned that he could choke and die, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Days later, Stryker aspirated and died.
The disgraced guardian, who was arrested in February on charges of aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly person, has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty. Multiple investigations found Fierle routinely filed DNRs on her incapacitated clients and unearthed conflicts of interest in her handling of cases, including that AdventHealth Orlando paid her nearly $4 million over a decade to care for vulnerable patients — a financial arrangement not allowed without court approval.
“I don’t want to die,” Meagher told the Sentinel after the Stryker case came to light, when he was still legally under Fierle’s care.
Court records show Fierle said she had no DNR order in place for Meagher. He accused her of ignoring his wishes and ridiculing him.
“We trusted the state and the guardianship ... only to find out that was a very neglected department where they weren’t doing things correctly,” Melanie Meagher said.
After Fierle’s resignation, Nicola Fitchner was appointed Meagher’s guardian. Meagher hired attorney David Yergey III to get him out of the guardianship and restore his rights, Yergey said.
Through her attorney David Brennan, Fitchner asked a judge for the authority to sue Dale Meagher and the tree-trimming business Jack Meagher had handed down to him for using his father’s properties. Brennan said Fitchner didn’t endorse Meagher’s efforts to restore his capacity.
“This latest attempt to obtain the ward’s restoration to capacity is a strategy to preempt the guardian’s ability to recover assets and income for Mr. Meagher,” Brennan wrote in a court filing.
Lester restored Meagher’s rights April 8.
“He was very excited and wanted to know when he could get his driver’s license back,” Yergey said. “I remember he wanted to go out and do stuff but he couldn’t because of the whole [COVID-19] situation. ... It was my accomplishment of the year. I used my law license for something that carried a greater purpose.”
Meagher’s family and Fitchner are still fighting in court over fees and expenses the guardian and her attorney are trying to collect from his estate — $19,231 for Brennan’s law firm and nearly $4,365 for Fitchner for work they did from Aug. 1, 2019 to May 11.
Dale Meagher’s attorney, Lisa McCrystal, said her client has been wrongfully accused by the guardian of exploitation when in fact he had been helping with the costs of his father’s care. McCrystal said she’s objecting to fees she considers “unnecessary work.”
“Everything in guardianship is supposed to be for the best interests of the ward,” she said. “... We felt the guardian was [taking legal action] because they wanted to inflate the amount of the ward’s estate. In guardianship and probate proceedings, the amount of fees is directly tied to the estate.”
Brennan called McCrystal’s statement a “malicious accusation of dishonesty.”
“It is patently defamatory,” he said. “The ’unnecessary work’ she claims is the time spent trying to get her client, the loving son, to pay a reasonable amount for use of this property.”
Melanie Meagher said her parents passed along their business to her brother years ago and called the guardian’s involvement an “abuse of authority.” The last thing Jack Meagher said to his children was “I love you” before dying peacefully at hospice care, she said.
“My father was this big, burly tough guy with squishy insides,” she said. “He had a big heart. He was proud of his life, proud of the children he raised. My mom was his best friend and his rock. I’m glad they’re together again.”
Full Article & Source:
Former ward of disgraced guardian Rebecca Fierle won his rights back. Then he died