Rick Green on probate injustice

Is Probate Court Injustice So Rare? I wonder.
Rick Green
September 22, 2010
Hartford Courant

Hurrah. The leaders of Connecticut’s probate court system are suddenly concerned about Bryan Meccariello’s behavior now that an oversight panel has censured the Southington judge for “egregious” mistakes and “evasive and disingenous” testimony.

“While the mishandling of a case is rare, even a single instance is unacceptable,” Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim said.

This is more than ironic. Over the last few years I have uncovered a stream of these rare mishandled cases in the murky world of probate court.

From Waterbury to Greenwich to North Haven to East Hartford to Southington, these single instances are piling up. If most of our probate judges are doing a good job – and I don’t necessarily disagree — how is it that a newspaper columnist who spends a few days a month paying attention to probate finds so much injustice?

The problem is that probate operates out of the public eye with too-little scrutiny over the qualifications of judges, who are elected, and the lawyers who work for and appear before the court. This allows for a handful of bad apples to sour the entire reputation of probate court.

As with the latest case in Meccariello’s court, the issue again involves a judge who allows a court-appointed conservator to plunder the civil rights of an elderly, sick person. When nobody pays attention, this is what you get.

It didn’t seem to bother probate court leaders when the Southington flim flam was onfolding. Meccariello allowed a dying woman’s will to be gutted, removing Sam Manzo as beneficiary and paving the way for a local developer to acquire Josephine Smoron’s coveted farmland.

Manzo, the longtime caretaker of the Smoron farm, tried repeatedly to get the probate court administrator’s office to step in. Manzo, with no money and little knowledge of probate, eventually filed a complaint with the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct. It didn’t hurt that the case became front-page news.

For the second time in three years, the council admonished Meccariello — a judge who had advised the probate court system on ethics. The “censure” carries no punishment, other than a rare public airing of the very dirty probate laundry.

Judge Daniel F. Caruso, who leads the association of probate judges,  declared that Meccariello’s behavior “warrants extensive soul searching” – whatever that means.

Until probate court is a part of our public and more transparent superior court system, the problems will continue.

State Council Censures Meccariello In Smoron Case
Ken Byron
September 21, 2010
Hartford Courant

Southington Probate Judge Bryan Meccariello has been censured by a state probate council for his handling of the estate of Josephine Smoron, an elderly woman who wanted to leave her estate to her longtime caretaker.

The Council On Probate Judicial Conduct, which released a report Tuesday in a months-long investigation into a complaint against Meccariello, said the probate judge committed a “grave injustice.”

Meccariello was accused of disinheriting Smoron’s designated heir — caretaker Sam Manzo — and giving her estate to three local churches, which in turn planned to sell her Southington dairy farm to a developer who wants to build an $18 million sports complex on the property.

In its report, the Council On Probate Judicial Conduct said Meccariello failed to meet the standards of conduct for probate judges and condemned his actions in harsh language.

“There is no justifiable reason why a judge of probate, knowing of a pre-existing will which documents the ward’s testamentary intent, should approve the creation of a trust that vitiates the purpose and language of the will,” the council said in its decision.

“Such an action constitutes a blatant transgression against the lawful rights and interests of the constituent ward and the beneficiaries named in her will. Nor can it be denied that a certain degree of hubris on the part of Attorney [Jack] Nugent and Judge Meccariello infected the probate court proceedings.”

The Council On Probate Judicial Conduct could have recommended that Meccariello be impeached by the legislature. But the council instead decided on a lesser penalty by censuring him, an action that probate council Director Richard Banbury called “very unusual.” Banbury said the censure carries no fines or suspension.

In a separate statement Tuesday, Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim and Connecticut Probate Assembly President Daniel Caruso said the council’s findings “indicate fundamental and grave violations of the duties of a probate judge.” The assembly is an association of the state’s probate judges.

“All our judges take these findings seriously,” said Caruso, a probate judge in Fairfield. “The council’s decision certainly warrants extensive soul-searching by all concerned.”

Meccariello said Tuesday that he thinks the council’s decision was appropriate.

“Mistakes were made,” he said, referring to his handling of Smoron’s estate. He said that because the complaint had accused him of conspiracy and corruption, he felt vindicated because the council’s final report did not uphold those allegations.

“I hate to use the phrase ‘move on,’ but we have to get back to the cases pending in this court,” Meccariello said.

Meccariello has been Southington’s probate judge since 1999. He is running for election as judge of a new probate district that includes Southington and Cheshire against Matthew Jalowiec of Cheshire.

The complaint against Meccariello was brought by Manzo, the caretaker who was cut out of Smoron’s will.

“This is about what I thought they would do,” Manzo’s lawyer, Barry Pontolillo, said about the council’s action. “We all make mistakes and at least Meccariello has tried to correct his.”

Manzo, in a separate action, has filed suit to overturn Meccariello’s decision creating the trusts that gave control of the land to the churches. Although there have been settlement talks in the case, parties involved said they are not optimistic a settlement will be reached soon.

Smoron had willed the bulk of her estate, including her farmland, to Manzo. But shortly before her death last year, Meccariello approved the creation of two trusts in Smoron’s name.

Her assets, including land valued at more than $1.5 million, were put in those trusts and the three churches were named as beneficiaries. Meccariello acted at the behest of local lawyer, Jack Nugent, who was Smoron’s conservator, and he worked out a deal to sell the land to Carl Verderame, a local developer.

Manzo, who had helped care for Smoron as her health declined, was not told about the hearing at which Meccariello created the trusts. The council said he should have been notified and that a full discussion of the trusts at that hearing was warranted.

The council credited Meccariello for backing away from his decision to create the trusts once Manzo came forward, saying he “has taken further steps in attempting to correct the grave injustice done by his court to Mr. Manzo.”

Nevertheless, the council said Meccariello failed to treat Manzo properly and ignored Smoron’s wishes about who should receive her estate.

A key issue was the existence of Smoron’s will. Meccariello said he was unaware of the will, but the council said that was hard to believe since a copy had been faxed to his office by Smoron’s former attorney at the request of Meccariello’s court staff. The will was also mentioned during probate court hearings at which Meccariello presided.

Conduct council censures probate judge
Diane Church
September 22, 2010
The Bristol Press

SOUTHINGTON — Local Probate Judge Bryan Meccariello has been publicly censured by the Council of Probate Judicial Conduct for his conduct in the Josephine Smoron estate issue.

The council found that Meccariello “engaged in judicial misconduct” and “failed to perform the duties of his office and his conduct was prejudicial to the impartial and effective administration of justice.”

The censure was announced in a report the council released Tuesday.

The council opened a hearing in June after receiving a complaint from Samuel Manzo. Josephine Smoron, his longtime employer and friend, had willed the 100-acre farm to him but, instead. the land went to three churches, two in New Britain and one in Southington.

The council held a public hearing Sept. 8, and had 15 days to make a decision.

The report said the council found “clear and convincing evidence” that Smoron had willed her estate to Manzo, whom she had known since 1985.

Smoron’s will was written in 1996. Besides granting the estate to Manzo, Smoron stated that “all churches in previous wills are intentionally, not inadvertently, omitted.” This was apparently a reference to wills from her brother, Stanley Smoron, who predeceased her. This will was on file at the Southington Probate Court office as of January of 2008.

Years after the will was written, Smoron’s health began declining. Manzo was appointed her conservator in April 2007 and she lived with him. In January 2008, Meccariello removed him and appointed attorney John Nugent as conservator. At the hearing, Nugent said Smoron was being neglected and there was evidence that Manzo was using her funds to pay his bills. Manzo said he was paying Smoron’s bills and is now losing his home to foreclosure.

Nugent had Smoron placed in a nursing home in Plainville. He said he did not visit her because she was suffering from dementia.

The council’s report also states that in September 2008 Nugent negotiated a contract to sell the farm for $2 million, but later reduced it to $1.5 million.

In April 2009 Nugent’s attorney, Matthew Lefevre, applied to put Smoron’s estate and funds in two separate trusts. A hearing on this was held in May 2009, but Manzo was not notified, nor was his lawyer. Smoron’s court-appointed attorney, Valerie DePaolo, said she arrived at the hearing late and found it was already over. She never followed up to see what had happened.

At the hearing, Nugent placed the land and money in two separate trusts.

The council said that according to Code of Probate Judicial rule, “a judge should give all persons with a legal interest in proceedings, or their lawyer, the right to be heard.”

Smoron died the following month. Meccariello had told the council that he had hoped to use Smoron’s funds to fix up her farmhouse, which had fallen into disrepair, so she could spend her final days there, but the council said he “made no attempt to carry out the plan” and his “commitment to it is not credible.”

Meccariello told the council that he made a mistake and was taking steps to correct it. He did not return phone calls Wednesday.

He is up for re-election for Probate Judge in November. Due to statewide probate court consolidation, the district will also include Cheshire.

This is not the first time Meccariello has faced the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct. In 2007, the council found that Meccariello “probably violated judicial ethics rules” but that his actions did not rise to the level of judicial misconduct.

Richard Banbury, executive director of the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct, said, “The council has finished its job.” The report has been distributed to court and town officials.

When asked if any other attorneys involved might face consequences, Banbury said, “That’s a whole different procedure. We just do probate judges.” However, he added, “I understood that Nugent is going to be looked at.”

  • rollo tomassi

    There is an excellent book on Amazon about Probate Abuse. Courthouse Trash by Emmett Clifford. It is an Ebook for only $2.99 as Mr. Clifford is trying to get the word out about Probate Abuse of the elderly as his family suffered greatly in Probate Court.