Legal Aid of Palm Beach County v. Guardianship of Jaffe

Legal Aid Soc'y of Palm Beach Cnty., Inc. v. Guardianship of Jaffe, 178 So.3d 527 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015)

This case involves a dispute under Florida's Public Guardianship law following a trial court's order allowing one guardian to withdraw and appointing Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc. ("Legal Aid") in its place.  

This situation was created by an apparently difficult ward who had at least six court-appointed guardians, the most recent being Ferd and Gladys Alpert Jewish Family & Children's Service of Palm Beach County, Inc. ("AJFCS").  Unable to control the ward, AJFCS sought to withdraw as guardian and suggested that the Statewide Public Guardian be appointed its place.  It did not put the Statewide Public Guardian or Legal Aid (the local public guardian) on notice, as required by Florida Probate Rule 5.560(c).  The probate court approved of AJFCS's resignation and appointed Legal Aid as the successor guardian.  

Legal Aid immediately sought a rehearing, asserting that it could not accept the appointment because if it took another ward it would exceed the statutory ratio of staff-to-wards provided in F.S. 744.708(7).  The probate court granted the rehearing, and to remedy the over-capacity concern, it ordered AJFCS to "swap" with Legal Aid, and take over as guardian of a ward of Legal Aid.  

On appeal, the Court held that the trial court had no authority to appoint Legal Aid as guardian of the ward.  It reviewed the history of Florida's Public Guardianship law and the statutes governing public guardianship offices throughout the state. It found that F.S. 744.708(7) does not allow a trial court to compel the public guardian to exceed the statutorily imposed ratio.  Nor can a trial court appoint the public guardian without notice to the public guardian under Florida Probate Rule 5.560.

The Court was concerned with the trial court's proposal to "swap" the wards to allow Legal Aid to remain within its ratio of staff-to-wards.  The Court disagreed that swapping was a solution to the issue, because wards are not fungible - every ward has a guardianship plan, public guardians must personally visit their wards quarterly to develop some rapport with the ward, and a guardian is only able to withdraw if the court is assured that the ward's interest will not be placed in jeopardy.  The Court recognized that the trial court was in a difficult position, and suggested that if the ward was truly a danger to herself, the court could have approved an involuntary hospitalization or placement, or could have requested the involvement of the Statewide Public Guardianship Office and the chief judge to review the capacity of the public guardian in Palm Beach County.

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