Citing “significant concerns” that she charged excessive fees to her clients, Davidson County Probate Judge David Randy Kennedy on Wednesday permanently suspended public guardian Jeanan Mills Stuart and vowed to help seek her replacement.
Stuart, who had held the job for five years, submitted a resignation letter effective in a week. Her letter was forwarded to members of Metro Council along with a letter from Kennedy announcing her termination. In her letter, Stuart defended all her actions and blamed controversy for her departure.
In his five-paragraph letter to the council, Kennedy wrote that while most conservatorship cases, including those assigned to Stuart, “have been handled properly; even the perception that excessive fees have been charged is inexcusable.”
Stuart’s termination and simultaneous resignation follow a series of Tennessean stories raising questions about her billing practices. The Tennessean’s analysis showed she regularly charged lawyer rates of $200 to $225 per hour for tasks such as taking wards shopping, sorting their clothes, moving them into an assisted living facility or running errands for them. In one case, she charged more than $1,200 to take a ward on a shopping trip to Dillards and Walgreens.
In an accompanying preliminary report on his review of Stuart’s currently active cases, Kennedy wrote, “There are several instances in Ms. Stuart’s time record entries where she charged her standard hourly rate for services, which should have been performed by a subordinate, paralegal or other designated service provider at a less expensive non-professional rate.”
The public guardian is appointed by the court to take control of the financial and physical needs of people unable to care for themselves and when no family member or friend is willing or suitable.
The Tennessean analysis also showed that Stuart billed twice — and was approved by Kennedy — for the same service multiple times. She attributed the double billings to errors that she later would fix. Overall, the analysis showed, Stuart billed her clients $1.8 million since taking office in early 2008. She has said she has a right to be reimbursed at her legal rate when she personally handles work and that she doesn’t always collect the amount she bills because some of her wards are destitute.
Kennedy, in his report on Stuart’s current cases, wrote: “In one isolated case there are two separate billings for services that are a typographical error at best or a double billing at worst for a period of one hour.”
Changes in fee approval
Kennedy told council members that Stuart would be replaced in the approximately 90 cases that are now assigned to her.
Kennedy had earlier suspended Stuart from receiving any additional cases when council members, who appoint the public guardian, raised concerns after The Tennessean’s stories. He also changed the way he approves fees in all cases, no longer approving them on the day they are submitted so that he can have more time for review. He also appointed a task force to look at ways to lower costs for conservatorships for non-legal services.
Kennedy said that while Stuart is being replaced in all her pending cases, she still will be required to file final accountings in all of those cases.
Stuart says she followed laws, court’s rules
In her letter of resignation to Kennedy, Stuart cited controversy as the cause for her departure.
Stating that it was her duty “to care for the best interest of wards of your court without outside controversy,” Stuart wrote, “I hereby resign the office of Public Guardian of Davidson County Tennessee.”
Later in the letter she notes: “I have from time to time asked you for instructions, and I have followed them to the best of my ability. I have provided you with detailed affidavits of my actions, and all of my actions have been approved in orders signed by you.
“I believe that all of my actions have been in accordance with prevailing Tennessee laws and the rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court.” She also noted in the letter that she has followed the policies and procedures in Kennedy’s court.
Stuart, who was recommended by Kennedy, was voted to the post by the Metro Council unanimously on two occasions. Council members who serve on the rules committee that reviews such appointments indicated future appointees may undergo closer scrutiny.
“When the time comes to appoint we’ll have him (Kennedy) in rules and we’ll be sure to question him at that time. I think there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny of this next time,” said Councilman Anthony Davis, who is chairman of the Rules, Confirmations and Public Elections Committee.
“I think we would certainly take his recommendation. We’ll step it up on our oversight now because of what happened. But him showing the effort, it would be obvious he’s going to be more careful in who he chooses.”
Councilman Bo Mitchell, who serves on the same committee, said he believed it was the right move for Kennedy to make Stuart’s suspension permanent.
“When the public trust is in question, I think it’s best that we go in a different direction right now,” Mitchell said. “I’m not going to judge, and I haven’t researched enough to be able to say she’s totally in the wrong, but some of the stuff I’ve seen has been highly questionable.”
Mitchell also said questions about Stuart’s job performance demonstrate that the council needs the freedom to vet such public appointees more thoroughly. The council appoints the public guardian, though the legislative body lacks the ability to remove someone from an appointed job.
The standard council practice has been to rely on the probate judge’s recommendations for the public guardian.
“We’re put in a position to appoint these people, and in the past when I have tried to ask difficult questions, you get portrayed in the media as grilling a defenseless appointee,” Mitchell said. “You’re just trying to ask questions that some point in time may come back.”
Big bills cost Davidson County public guardian her job
Jeanan Mills Stuart defends actions after charging her legal rate of up to $225 an hour to run errands
Walter F. Roche Jr./Nate Rau
May 23, 2013