The case of a court-appointed guardian who took control of an 80-year-old woman’s life has taken a turn.
By Patrick Sullivan | July 14, 2018
Jennifer Rodgers walked into a courtroom July 3 and got something that seemed for months to be out of her reach: permission to spend time with her mom.
The court ruling arrived just in time for Rodgers — and friends and family of her mom, 80-year-old Martha (pictured above, at right) — to get together for a Fourth of July cookout.
The breakthrough occurred after Martha’s legal guardianship and conservatorship transferred from Leelanau County to Grand Traverse County. Some fresh sets of eyes noted problems that had occurred in Martha’s case, which had languished as court-appointed guardian Jill Case took almost complete control over Martha’s life.
That’s all changed. Grand Traverse County Probate Judge Melonie Stanton appointed Jennifer Rodgers as co-guardian of her mom. And she said she would have to issue an arrest warrant for Case after Case failed to show up for that hearing. (Most recently, Case missed another deadline on July 11; an arrest warrant was expected to be issued for her arrest through the probate court.)
“I’m very happy that there’s some clarity,” Rodgers said after the hearing. “It’s been a long road, and we just had to be patient until the situation exposed itself as an injustice.”
Lynn Hackenberger, Martha’s lifelong friend who filed one of the petitions to have Case removed, said after the hearing that she also was delighted with the outcome. She praised the manner in which Stanton handled the case. She said it was unlike her experience while the case was pending before Probate Court Judge Larry Nelson in Leelanau County.
“It was night and day,” Hackenberger said. “You had a judge that was willing to listen. In Leelanau, he didn’t give anybody a chance to say anything. He had his mind already made up.”
A COMPLETE BREAK-DOWN
At the July 3 hearing, a dozen friends and family showed up to support Rodgers. At the other side of the room, Rodgers’ adversary and estranged brother, Simeon Rodgers, stood alone. Jennifer Rodgers alleges that her brother took advantage of guardian and conservator laws in order to insinuate himself back into his mother’s million-dollar-plus estate after he had been left out of her will.
After the hearing, Simeon Rodgers said he had no comment and expressed anger about an earlier Northern Express article about the case. The complicated, heartrending saga was profiled in “Fighting for Mom,” a story that appeared in the Nov. 18, 2017, edition of Northern Express.
The case began when Simeon Rodgers and his son, Spencer, along with a state Adult Protective Services worker and Case, alleged that Jennifer Rodgers had taken advantage of and neglected her mother in late 2016 and early 2017, despite evidence that Jennifer Rogers had attempted to make arrangements for her mom.
Jennifer Rodgers was almost immediately stripped of legal control of her mom’s affairs even though Martha herself had legally declared — while she had been in good health — that she wanted her daughter to care for her if her health should decline. Nevertheless, APS and Nelson put Case in charge of Martha’s health and financial affairs.
The move infuriated Jennifer Rodgers. As Martha’s health faltered, Case enabled Simeon Rodgers, who had been written out of his mother’s will following a long-ago dispute, to get back into his mother’s life.
Relations between Jennifer Rodgers and Case deteriorated and soon, Jennifer Rodgers’ visits with her mom were strictly controlled by Case. After the publication of the Northern Express article in November, Case moved Martha from a nursing home in Northport to an undisclosed location (which turned out to be in Traverse City) that she would not reveal to Jennifer Rodgers or Martha’s friends in her hometown of Suttons Bay, apparently fearing they would inform Martha’s daughter of Martha’s location.
A NEW LOOK INTO WHAT HAPPENED
When Martha was moved to Traverse City and jurisdiction of the case transferred to Grand Traverse County, a new lawyer was appointed to independently represent Martha’s interests. Attorney Janet Mistele looked into what was happening, and she was disturbed by what she found, according to a report she filed with the court.
Missile’s report, dated June 28, chronicled how Jennifer Rodgers had been named Martha’s heir in 2007, and that Simeon Rodgers had been excluded from his mom’s affairs; moreover, Jennifer Rodgers had been named power of attorney and Martha’s guardian. In 2014, Martha updated her estate plan and named Jennifer Rodgers her patient advocate. Simeon Rodgers, meanwhile, remained written out of the will.
Martha showed signs of dementia in early 2017, and while Jennifer Rodgers temporarily went to Florida for work, Simeon Rodgers’ son, Spencer, arrived from out of state and called APS, charging abuse and neglect of Martha. His claims led to Jennifer Rodgers being stripped of any say over her mother’s affairs and she was eventually forbidden to see her mom without permission from Case.
Mistele found that state and Leelanau County officials had somehow unquestioningly sided with Simeon Rodgers.
Mistele wrote: “Despite Marty’s extensive estate planning, when APS received a referral from Simeon’s son alleging financial exploitation and physical neglect of Marty, rather than doing a proper fact-based investigation and attempting to confirm or dispel information from and about Marty’s daughter, APS accepted as true hearsay and other unverified information provided by Marty’s previously estranged family.”
Mistele noted that Case, in an abuse of her authority — and in favor of a son who had been cut off and against a daughter who had been appointed heir and decisionmaker — ignored her legal requirement to make Martha’s location available to her loved ones and apparently informed only Simeon Rodgers of the new location. Martha was cut off not just from her daughter, but also from contact with many friends.
Mistele wrote: “The Guardian refused to reveal Marty’s whereabouts to her daughter and friends and has failed to notify the Court of Marty’s change of address at any time in the past seven months, contrary to her statutory duty to do so.”
Case did not return messages comment.
At the court hearing, Simeon Rodgers repeated allegations that Case had made earlier, that his sister had upset their mother with talk about the guardianship and her finances.
Mistele said she was disturbed by those allegations and how they were used to separate daughter from mother because she’d checked with staff at the two nursing homes where Martha has lived and found no evidence to support Simeon Rodgers’ claims. Furthermore, she said, she observed Jennifer Rodgers with her mother and found them to have a normal, loving relationship.
“That has been a serious, ongoing issue in this case,” Mistele told Stanton. “It is shocking to the conscience.”
Some of Martha’s friends agree.
Jone Antetucci, a member with Martha in a Suttons Bay social group called “The Cottage Quilters,” also petitioned the court to have Case removed from control over her friend’s life. Antetucci wrote that Martha’s friends were confused when Simeon Rodgers re-emerged to gain control over his mother’s affairs.
“She told several of us that her son had been hostile and dishonest, bankrupting the family business left in his care after his father’s death.” Antetucci wrote in her motion. “Consequently, they had not spoken to one another for 10 years.”
QUESTIONS OVER JEWELRY AND MONEY
All the attorneys at the hearing — including an APS attorney — stipulated that Case be removed as guardian and conservator. (Once a person is deemed unable to take care of themselves, a guardian can be appointed by the court to look after their health and well-being; a conservator is appointed to manage their financial affairs.)
Simeon Rodgers argued that he didn't believe his sister should be appointed guardian because of the neglect and abuse that was found in the initial — now questionable — APS investigation.
“I don’t see how her being involved is going to solve anything. We’re going to be right back where we were 18 months ago,” said Simeon Rodgers, who was representing himself at the hearing. “I just strenuously object to having her have any part of the guardianship.”
Stanton responded that she doesn’t believe in punishing people by denying them access to loved ones unless there is a real medical reason to do so.
“I’m not going to deny you access to your mother. I’m not going to deny anyone access to their mother,” Stanton told Simeon Rodgers.
Stanton removed Case as conservator and put an independent professional third-party in control of Martha’s finances. She also removed Case as guardian and named the third party and Jennifer Rodgers as temporary co-guardians until a full hearing can be held on the matter in a month or so.
Case did not appear at the hearing to defend her actions.
In court, Simeon Rodgers offered an explanation for Case’s absence from the hearing: “She’s missing from this hearing because she has a once-a-year vacation with extended family in the Upper Peninsula.”
Stanton responded that this was not the first recent instance of Case failing to show up at a hearing. There have been other instances in the past three months in other cases, Stanton said.
“Sadly, Jill Case is not here today,” Stanton said. “She received notice of this hearing. She should be present at this hearing today. I have had to issue, sadly, a bench warrant for Miss Case’s arrest because of her failure to cooperate.”
Stanton ordered Case to file an accounting of her guardianship and conservatorship over Martha by the end of July or face being held in contempt of court.
The attorneys who fought to have the case moved to Grand Travers County, Adam Lett, who represents Hackenberger, and Andrew Shotwell, Jennifer Rodgers’ attorney, were delighted by the turn the case had taken, but they said that they remain concerned over irregularities in the handling of Martha’s finances.
There is a lockbox missing, and there have been suspicious withdrawals from Martha’s accounts, Lett said. The lockbox contained hundreds of thousands dollars’ worth of jewelry, and it’s been missing since Case was appointed.
In her report, Mistele described strange bank withdrawals: “Ms. Case was withdrawing large (in the mid-five-digit range) sums of money, something Marty had never done. When the [financial] advisor and his business partner questioned [Case] about this, she moved the account to another investment firm. This writer has repeatedly asked [Case] for her annual Accounting and Report of Guardian, but neither has been filed with the Court, despite having a May 12 due date.”
Stanton issued a protective order so that the newly appointed conservator could search for and take possession the lock box, whether it’s in a safe deposit box at a bank or in possession of one of Martha’s caregivers.
THE SCRAPPED SNOWBLOWERS CASE
This isn’t the first time disturbing questions have been raised about Case.
In 2014, Case’s then-boss at her day job at the Grand Traverse Commission on Aging suspected that Case improperly sold off county equipment.
Georgia Durga, the former COA director, told investigators that years earlier Case had sold two snowblowers to a recycling company where her brother-in-law worked for $11 each and later returned to purchase one of them back for a price much lower than its value. In 2013, Case was also believed to have sold five supposedly scrapped lawn mowers to the same company — equipment that was later determined to have been in good working condition, according to a police report.
One employee told a state police detective that he and another employee took one of the snowblowers to the scrap yard at the direction of Case, and he couldn’t believe that they’d sell it for $11. He estimated the machine was worth $600 to $800.
“He was also surprised when Jill Case began informing people she went right back that night and bought it for her personal use,” the detective wrote.
The man also told the detective that Case repeatedly bragged about the bargain snowblower in front of other staff; he said, however, that other witnesses would be unlikely to speak about what they’d heard because they feared retribution or termination from Case.
“One of the first things Jill Case had said to [a witness] when he started is she had the power to terminate his employment,” the detective wrote in his report.
Amid the investigation, Case learned that the state police detective had been asking about the scrapped equipment and she showed up at the Traverse City post to see the police report. A trooper told her that since the investigation was open, she would not be given a copy of the report. The trooper asked whether Case, since she was there, would like to answer some questions. Case agreed.
Case said she’d heard about the investigation from her brother-in-law and that she didn’t understand what it was about since she followed COA protocol when she disposed of county property. Case denied that she’d bought back the snowblower or that she’d contacted her brother-in-law to ask him to purchase it.
Ultimately, prosecutors declined to press charges, but the police report prompted Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Robert Cooney to write a letter to the county’s then administrator/controller expressing concerns about Case.
“Although I found the proofs insufficient to charge a criminal offense, I am sending you the police report because it contains some facts you might find concerning,” Cooney wrote.
Cooney listed three suspicious sales of supposedly scrapped equipment that had taken place at the COA: a snowblower, scrapped for $10.75, which had an estimated value between $600 and $800; a lawnmower sold for scrap value that was then resold to a lawncare business where the owner estimated its value was $1,200; and another lawnmower sold as scrap, repurchased for $125, and later sold by the purchaser for $900 after the carburetor was rebuilt with a $15 kit. Cooney recommended that the county change its policy and require public auctions for scrapped property and prohibit employees and their families from bidding.
“I also have concerns about the appearance of impropriety where COA property, supposedly worth hundreds of dollars, is scrapped one day and purchased the next by the brother-in-law of the COA supervisor who made the decision to scrap the snowblower in the first place,” Cooney wrote.
COA Director Cindy Kienlen praised Case and said she was aware of the 2014 investigation but believes it exonerated Case.
“I am aware of what happened — I know she was cleared,” she said.
She said Case only spends time on guardianship clients when she is not on the clock at COA.
“I’ve known Jill for nine months now. I’ve never had any one slight red flag,” Kienlen said. “She just always goes above and beyond.”