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Man entitled to damages following excavation of home without notice

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In reviewing a case in which an attorney appointed guardian of an adult male unilaterally decided to tear down his home without providing notice to the man, the Indiana Court of Appeals found the attorney violated the man’s due process rights and damages were necessary.

In David L. Stalker v. Mary C. Pierce, No. 61A04-1008-GU-562, Mary Pierce, a Parke County attorney and appointed member of the Parke County Board of Health, was appointed permanent guardian over David Stalker and his property at Stalker’s consent. The two originally had a good relationship as they had worked together when Pierce helped organize his finances so he could work on his home. Stalker has a mental disability and is unable to care for his personal needs or manage his home. His home had fallen into disrepair and needed a lot of work inside and out, but it was never condemned by the board of health.

After a few months, Stalker asked the court to end the guardianship, as he was unhappy with Pierce’s oversight. He repeatedly asked the court to remove her as his guardian, but the court refused. At some of these hearings he had a court-appointed attorney. Pierce had taken away the keys to his home and relocated him to an apartment 10 miles away. He only had a bike for transportation, so it made getting back to his house to fix it up difficult. He worked on the outside and made progress, which Pierce acknowledged. But a week after telling the court that she was willing to keep an open mind about returning the house keys to Stalker, Pierce ordered the home excavated. She did not tell Stalker, who came upon the process after he rode his bike to the house to mow the lawn. He was devastated because he wanted to move back into the home and many family photos and items were destroyed in the excavation.

Pierce never told Stalker that his home was going to be demolished and she didn’t petition to the court for permission. Stalker never was able to collect any items out of his home. The trial court later allowed her to sell the vacant land, which was purchased for $37,500. She used the proceeds to buy Pierce a scooter and prepaid funeral plan, although he wanted the money spent on a car and an attorney so he could have his brother appointed his guardian.

As a result of the demolition of the home, Stalker went to Indianapolis and opted to live homeless. He objected to the amended accounting, alleging Pierce breached her fiduciary duty, failed to act in his best interest, and denied his due process rights. The trial court denied his objection and motion to correct error.

Pierce violated her fiduciary duty to protect, preserve, and manage Stalker’s property, the appellate court determined. There was no evidence that his home had to be destroyed because it was a threat to his well being or that tearing down the house actually improved the value of the land, as she had argued.  

“We find the degree of care and prudence displayed by Pierce in her decisions as a guardian was well below that which an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in her own affairs. We are dismayed at her callousness to demolish Stalker’s property without getting a formal appraisal, without notifying Stalker or the court, and most importantly without providing him with an opportunity to, at the very least, collect his sentimental possessions. We are convinced that Pierce would not have made similar choices with respect to the management of her own property,” wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

The judges also found that Pierce breached her fiduciary duty of loyalty to him because she used information she gleaned as his guardian to fulfill her duties as a member of the board of health. By disclosing information she got about Stalker’s house without prior court approval or notice, her duty as guardian conflicted with her personal obligations as a member of the board of health.

Pierce also violated Stalker’s due process rights as she never informed him that his home was going to be torn down or gave him the chance to retrieve items from the home. As a result, Stalker is entitled to damages, which the trial court will determine on remand.
 

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