Vargas v. Acosta, 2006 WL 120182 (Fla. 3d DCA Jan 18, 2006) In this case the ward’s daughter from a prior marriage was his guardian. According to a spirited dissent in this case by Third DCA Justice Ramirez, the animus between these two was “obvious even from the sparse record” before the court. The explicit issue before the Third DCA in this case was whether Miami-Dade County Judge Arthur Rothenberg had complied with the requirements of 2005->Ch0744->Section%202025#0744.2025″>F.S. § 744.2025 by entering an order sua sponte authorizing the change of the ward’s residence from Miami to Cape Coral over his wife’s objections and in spite of the fact that counsel for the wife, Candis Trusty, had served a motion to vacate such order. The Third DCA upheld the trial court’s decision. Justice Ramirez dissented by arguing that the ward’s spouse had been denied any meaningful level of due process in the proceedings. Here are a few representative excerpt’s from Justice Ramirez’s dissent:

“The trial court did not hold a hearing. Thus, there is no judicial record to support the change in the ward’s residence. The majority finds, without explanation, that the statutory requirements were met by “[considering] the reason [given] for … relocation.” Op. at —-. Does this mean that the court “considered” the reasons in private? Or does the majority mean that the court “considered” the reasons at the after-the-fact hearing on March 7th? When did the trial court “consider” placing the ward in any local facility? The majority states that there was no dispute that the ward’s needs would be best met by living in a facility close to the guardian’s home. I find no record support for that statement. I also find no record support for the contrary, but that is the problem. The merits of the move from Miami to Cape Coral were never discussed at the trial level. The only hearing, on March 7, was not to discuss the merits of the move, but to allow the wife an opportunity to vent. Only the process, or lack thereof, was discussed.” “I can appreciate the exigencies of the situation where the medical facility was threatening to remove the ward, but it seems that the wife’s counsel filed a hand-written motion before the ward was removed. There was nothing to prevent an emergency hearing taking place at that moment. The right to due process cannot be so casually ignored. Neither appellee’s brief nor the majority opinion cite a single case to justify what happened at the trial level. (Emphasis added.)”

One way to rationalize the Third DCA’s majority opinion with the points made by the dissent is to assume that under Florida law interested parties other than the ward have very little, if any, constitutionally protected rights. In a case I wrote about here the Second DCA reversed a trial court’s decision denying a petition for visitation rights filed by a child-ward’s grandmother. The Second DCA held that unlike a natural parent, a child-ward’s guardian is simply an agent or “arm” of the court, and thus such guardian does not have the same constitutionally protected “privacy rights” that a natural parent has. The following are a few representative excerpts from that opinion:

“In Florida . . . the power and responsibility of a court exercising guardianship jurisdiction over minors is such that the court itself is considered to be the minor’s guardian. See Brown v. Ripley, 119 So.2d 712, 717 (Fla. 1st DCA 1960). Thus “the legal guardian of a minor is regarded as the agent of the court and of the state in the discharge of his duty as such.” Id.” “Considering the guardian’s status as an arm of the court, the implications of our supreme court’s decision in the Watland case, and the weight of authority from other jurisdictions, we conclude that the probate court has the power to direct a guardian to permit a grandparent or other person to visit a minor ward when the best interests of the minor will be promoted by such visitation.”

Bottom Line: Based on the Second DCA’s analysis in the grandparent-visitation-rights context (i.e., guardians do not have the same privacy rights that natural parents enjoy) and the Third DCA’s willingness above to approve orders entered in the absence of any meaningful due process for the ward’s spouse, it appears that in Florida interested third parties should expect to take a back seat to the trial court’s discretion in all material matters, and that such interested third parties have few (if any) constitutionally-mandated protections if they disagree with the trial court’s decisions. This assumption, if accurate, has profound implications for how Florida attorneys should represent clients involved in contested guardianship proceedings.