Suzanne Araneo’s memories were gone. And so was just about everything else.
returning home last year following a months-long stay at Anchor Care
& Rehabilitation in Hazlet, the 67-year-old retiree said she
discovered her house in Keyport had been emptied.
were her treasured family photo albums. So was a turquoise box with
crystal rosary beads given to her by her parents when she was 7 years
old. A collection of CDs and her jewelry were all missing. Her bank
accounts had been cleared out.
her Christmas tree has been carted off, along with her clothing, her
computer and stereo equipment, her bed and all her furniture — some of
which she later discovered being sold through Facebook Marketplace. In
fact, her small, two-bedroom house had been put up for sale as well.
was like a knife through my heart,” said Araneo, 67, recalling the
scene when she returned. “There was not one single thing left.”
She had not been the victim of a random break-in.
to a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Monmouth County, she had been
coerced while heavily medicated to sign what is known as a durable power of attorney agreement that essentially handed over total control of her life to someone she had never met.
agreement gave Shmuel “Sam” Stern, who became Araneo’s
“attorney-in-fact” the authority to collect monies owed on her behalf;
to sell her property; conduct banking powers; manage her investments;
borrow against her real estate and personal property; sell her car;
conduct business in her name; prepare, file and sign tax returns on her
behalf, access her safety deposit boxes, and sell any and all assets in
her possession, according to the lawsuit. Stern also barred her from
seeing or having any contact with family, her niece alleged.
The agreement also allowed him to use her assets to pay himself compensation, the filing claimed.
fact, Araneo alleged that everything she owned was subsequently stolen,
sold off or just thrown away in the trash, all without her knowledge or
to the lawsuit, at play was a financial scheme to force Araneo, against
her will, to become a permanent, long-term resident of Anchor Care by
stripping her of all of her assets and enabling her to qualify for
Medicaid. In turn, Stern took all of her money and other assets, the
my client told Anchor Care multiple times that she did not want to
destitute herself and live in the nursing home, they stole her money
from her bank account, sold her car, and even tried to sell her house,”
said Araneo’s attorney, Deborah Gough of Hackensack, reiterating the
claims made in the lawsuit.
lawsuit charged that within days of signing that agreement all of
Araneo’s possessions would be taken, liquidated or converted. Furniture
was sold off, personal papers discarded and bank accounts raided.
How the money was spent remains unknown, although Araneo said none of it came back to her.
complaint, which included accusations of false imprisonment, unjust
enrichment, and breach of contract — as well as a violation of her
rights as a nursing home resident — named Anchor Care, along with Stern.
Also charged was Stern’s company, Future Care Consultants of Brooklyn and Lakewood, which according to its website provides financial and accounting services for nursing homes.
|Attorney Deborah Gough, left, with her client Suzanne Araneo at home in Keyport. “What happened to my client is like a Category 5 hurricane that came without warning in a flash and swept her life away,” Gough said.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media|
Care and its attorneys did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
But the nursing home and its operators in their own filing in response
to the complaint said there had been “no deviation from any applicable
standard of care” in the case of Araneo, nor did they breach “any duty
with respect to any care, treatment or services.”
did not return messages left with his office. However, attorney,
Richard J. Kozel of Clifton, who represents Stern and Future Care’s said
his client’s involvement in the matter was “solely with regard to
Medicaid eligibility for the long-term care that Ms. Araneo’s medical
team believed she needed.”
a statement, he said, “Thankfully, Ms. Araneo recovered and was able to
leave the long-term care facility and return home,” adding that Future
Care Consultants “had no involvement in Ms. Araneo’s medical care or
‘THINGS GOT FOGGY’
to the court filing, Araneo’s nightmare began after she became ill and
entered Hackensack Meridian Health Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank
for treatment of a number of medical issues, including hypomagnesemia
and acute kidney failure.
an 11-day stay at the hospital, Araneo, who lives alone, was admitted
to Anchor Care in February 2021 for what she expected to be a short-term
period rehabilitation. She then had hoped to be discharged home not
long afterward, the lawsuit stated.
those first few weeks at the nursing home, Araneo said an Anchor Care
employee “repeatedly suggested that she should destitute herself, enroll
on Medicaid,” and move into the nursing home for the remainder of her
serves as a safety net to help with medical costs, including nursing
home care, for those with limited income and resources. But in New
Jersey, one cannot have more than $2,000 in assets to qualify for the
state and federal program. Under the rules, one also cannot have gross
income — including Social Security or pension payouts — of more than
$2,523 per month to receive Medicaid assistance.
That requires individuals with any sort of savings or assets to “spend down” their money on nursing care and other specifically allowed personal expenses, before they are eligible for Medicaid assistance.
the time, Araneo said she was receiving Medicare benefits and
supplemental insurance, and repeatedly told Anchor Care that had no
interest in doing anything but returning home.
according to the lawsuit, she was soon placed on a number of
psychiatric medications at the nursing home for treatment of anxiety and
depression that, taken with other drugs that had been prescribed for
neuropathy, frequently result in serious side effects — including
dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating.
got foggy,” Araneo recalled in an interview. “It was almost like I was
having hallucinations. Sometimes they were dreams and I thought they
were real. I was under that fog until I left there.”
|The cabinets were empty when Araneo finally returned home. Dishes, forks, knives were all gone, including all of her photo albums, furniture, clothing. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media|
in that “fog,” the lawsuit said she was presented with a durable power
of attorney agreement in March of 2021, which she had no recollection of
signing, naming Stern as her attorney-in-fact.
complaint, though, argued that Araneo had not been mentally competent
at the time to sign any legal agreement. It alleged that Stern and
Anchor Care “knowingly and intentionally manipulated and took advantage”
of her, getting her to sign a power of attorney agreement for the
purpose of converting her assets to qualify for Medicaid and force her
to become a long-term resident of the nursing home.
In their own court filings, Stern and Future Care denied any misconduct or liability.
acknowledging that nursing home residents were indeed required to spend
down their assets to obtain Medicaid benefits, the filing by Stern and
Future Care refuted that there was any aim “to render patients
filing added that Araneo did in fact execute a general durable power of
attorney with the full understanding of its terms and conditions being
necessary in order to obtain Medicaid benefits.
in a counter claim, they also charged that the allegations in Araneo’s
complaint were made in bad faith and “for the sole purpose of attempting
to otherwise threaten, intimidate and scare” Stern and Future Care to
seek “undeserved monetary compensation.”
A FAMILY IN THE DARK
Araneo was under the care of the nursing home, meanwhile, her niece,
Rachel Paskitti, said she was blocked from any contact with her aunt.
two had long been close, with Paskitti often traveling to New York with
Araneo to catch shows on Broadway when she was much younger. Suddenly
cut off from her aunt, she said she was not allowed to visit and unable
to reach her by phone.
|Araneo walks into her bedroom. After returning home, she slept for a time in her empty home on a donated couch.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media |
she tried calling, she said she was told her aunt did not want to speak
with her. When she tried to visit, she was told any visit had to be
scheduled through Stern, who she said would not allow it.
At the same time, she said she was unaware of what was happening at the house in Keyport.
after arriving at Anchor Care, Araneo left the nursing home for a
second hospitalization in June of 2021, where she demanded to be allowed
return home. It was then, she said, that she began to realize what had
happened. According to the lawsuit, she was told on multiple occasions
that she could not make decisions for herself and that she could not be
discharged home from the hospital without the permission of Stern. Her
brother then went to court seeking to obtain a guardianship, said the
was ultimately found competent in October and only then was she
discharged. When she finally returned home, she said just about
everything she owned was by was no longer there.
that had hung on the walls were gone, their absence noted by a shadow
of sun-bleached paint or paneling faded by time. Her television set had
been taken. So was her car. As was all the money in her bank accounts.
For a time, she lived day-to-day sleeping on a donated couch.
|Rachel Paskitti in her aunt's home in 2014. Upon her return, she bought Araneo a new Christmas tree to replace the one taken from the house.Photo courtesy Suzanne Araneo|
welcomed her aunt back home by getting her a new Christmas tree. Months
later, the artificial tree remains in place in front of her fireplace,
within a house that was taken off the market and has since been
furnished by many donations.
Issues of guardianship abuse
have long been rife in the long-term care industry. A U.S. Senate
Special Committee on Aging in 2018 cited a number of incidents where
“unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight” used court
proceedings to obtain control of “vulnerable individuals” and liquidated
assets and savings for their own personal benefit.
issue in Araneo’s case was not a court-appointed guardian, but rather
of an individual ostensibly acting on her behalf as her
“attorney-in-fact,” a legal route that is sometimes taken to avoid the
possibility of guardianship.
But that, too, can be problematic.
there can be some very bad actors out there,” said Ann Kohler, New
Jersey’s former Medicaid director and a retired national health care
Earlier this year, a New Mexico woman who held power of attorney for a nursing home resident in that state was sentenced to five years in prison
after representing that funds belonging to the resident were being held
in a Medicaid trust. Prosecutors said no such trust existed. Instead,
she spent that money on trips, a car payment, spa visits, online dating,
pet grooming, and other personal items.
In Pennsylvania, a 54-year-old woman was sentenced to two years of probation
in May after pleading to theft charges involving $74,000 taken from the
accounts of a 92-year-old woman she claimed to be her mother to obtain
power of attorney. The victim had reportedly been under 24-hour care in a
nursing home at the time, authorities said. None of the money was used
for her care, prosecutors said.
in Florida, the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in May arrested a
man who allegedly used a power-of-attorney agreement to steal $40,000
from an elderly victim residing in a Medicaid-receiving facility.
Officials said the individual made multiple withdrawals from the
victim’s bank account for personal use, including back-rent to a marina.
The state Attorney General’s office said the money should have been
spent on medical bills, property taxes and care for the victim.
has so far been no accounting for how Araneo’s money was spent, or how
much, if any, was applied toward the cost of her care while in the
nursing home, her attorney said. But a person acting under a
durable power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility toward the
individual who signed the agreement, said Reid Weisbord, a Rutgers Law
School vice dean and law professor whose focus includes wealth transfer
and elder law.
attorney-in-fact has to act in the best interest of the principal,” he
explained. While a durable power of attorney agreement confers the power
to act on behalf of someone, those decisions must still be evaluated
from the perspective of that individual, he said.
such an agreement, for example, the attorney-in-fact could not exercise
the power to take all that person’s money for personal use, unless
there is language in the agreement that allowed it.
“It’s not in the normal action to give away everything to those who take care of you,” Weisbord observed.
he was not familiar with Araneo’s litigation, he said much will depend
on how the proceeds were spent and whether the Stern had a financial
relationship with the nursing home, which could constitute a conflict of
interest. According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid
Services, Stern is listed as an officer of Anchor Care.
Weisbord said the argument could be made that what was being done was
in Araneo’s best interest, if in fact the money was being spent on her
other question, though, said Andrea McDowell, a Seton Hall Law School
professor who teachers elder law, is whether the power of attorney
agreement was even valid.
obtained when Araneo lacked the capacity to sign it, as she claims,
then there would be a matter of whether it had been granted
fraudulently, McDowell said, noting as well that Araneo’s signature
would have had to be acknowledged before an attorney or notary, while
adding that the witnesses to that agreement were employed by Anchor
Care, according to the lawsuit.
“He owes her a duty of loyalty,” said McDowell of Sam Stern.
Today, Araneo’s home remains mostly empty.
Despite the donations, what she misses most are the things that cannot be replicated.
“If I could have all my pictures back, I could give a damn about everything else,” she said.
her attorney, said that Araneo trusted that Stern and the nursing home
would help her in a time of ill health and great vulnerability, and that
they betrayed that trust.
happened to my client is like a Category 5 hurricane that came without
warning in a flash and swept her life away,” she said.
Life is the memories we make, she said.
everything that you possess, that you have earned, that you have
created, and that gives your life meaning, is taken from you, then there
is no more you,” she said. “It’s devastating.”