August 14, 2013

Power of Attorney Abuse

A power of attorney is a very practical tool that can make life much easier for the principal (the person granting power of attorney). For example, if the principal is unable to manage their financial affairs or is out of the country, their agent can step into their shoes to execute the task. 

The danger though is that occasionally the principal can be exploited by an unscrupulous agent. The reason being is that the agent generally has unfettered discretion to act on the principal's behalf. Thus, the agent can access bank accounts, sell real property and change title to financial accounts even if not in the principal's best interest.

Anne and Lee Nutting lived in Berkeley, CA. A neighbor of theirs was Paul Seeman, an attorney who practiced juvenile law. In December 1998, Lee fell at the residence and needed medical assistance. Following an investigation of the residence by authorities, the Nuttings were determined to be hoarders and the house was found to be as uninhabitable. Consequently, they were forced to re-locate to a nearby hotel. Mr. Seeman then stepped in to assist with their situation. He was granted durable power of attorney for the couple in January 1999. Later in 1999, when Mr. Nutting passed away, Mr. Seeman began to engage in deplorable behavior.

As the agent for the Nuttings, Mr. Seeman was entrusted with acting in the best interests of the Nuttings. Unfortunately, Mr. Seeman failed spectacularly as their agent. This culminated in pleading guilty to 2 felonies, one count of elder abuse and one count of perjury, in Alameda County Superior Court in August 2013. According to police reports, Mr. Seeman placed his name on Mrs. Nutting's bank accounts as a joint tenant, named himself as the beneficiary of Mrs. Nutting' investment accounts and sold 2 Santa Cruz County properties owned by the Nuttings even though Mr. Nutting had passed away before then. None of these actions performed by Mr. Seeman were proper for an agent to commit.

What makes this case particularly troublesome is that Mr. Seeman became an Alameda County Superior Court judge during the time he first became the Nuttings' agent and then his conviction. From 2004-2009, he served as a court commissioner for Alameda County Superior Court. Then in March 2009 he was appointed to the bench of Alameda County by Gov Schwarzenegger. 

As part of his plea deal, he will be stripped off of his law license and be prohibited from ever serving as power of attorney for another elderly person again. He previously agreed to resign as a judge and to never seek another judgeship again.