Urbanek v. Hopkins, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 4489266 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 08, 2008)
What this case is really about is good lawyering. Miami probate litigator David H. Goldberg was hired to represent an 88-year old man suffering from Parkinson’s disease who had the misfortune of getting sucked into trust litigation he didn’t start and wasn’t a party to. The trustee/defendant in this case decided he needed to depose this poor guy, and come hell or high water, the Broward County probate judge adjudicating this matter was going to make sure he got his way.
I don’t know David Goldberg, but I think his work in this matter is a case study in effective advocacy and hope someone let’s him know I said so.
The trustee/defendant in this case sought to take an oral deposition of August Urbanek, the 88-year old grantor of the irrevocable trust at the center of this case and the father of the trust-beneficiary who’s the plaintiff in this case.
David Goldberg filed an objection to the deposition on the grounds of age, health and privacy. In support of his objection, Goldberg filed a detailed affidavit from a physician specializing in neurology, having specific knowledge about the grantor-father’s condition concluding that the proposed deposition “would have detrimental effects on his Parkinson’s disease” and his health would be “severely impacted.”
It’s unclear from the linked-to opinion, but Goldberg apparently then also filed a motion to limit his client’s deposition to written questions.
In response to Goldberg’s motion, the trial court ordered the grantor-father and his physician to appear in court for a hearing on the grantor-father’s medical condition. In spite of the affidavit establishing danger to the grantor-father’s health from being forced to appear for a deposition, the judge nevertheless insisted that he come to court to testify. The judge rejected the alternative of first permitting only a written deposition. The judge also failed to ascertain how any testimony of the grantor-father might be relevant or lead to relevant evidence.
Goldberg immediately filed a motion seeking to have the hearing on his client’s medical condition conducted by telephone. On the day of the hearing, Goldberg showed up in court without his client explaining, again, that if his client were required to be there in person his health would be “severely impacted.”
Apparently getting a little pissed off by now, the court ordered the grantor-father to submit to a compulsory medical examination by a physician chosen by the trustee within the next 30 days. At this point I think it’s important to say again that the grantor-father was not a party to this lawsuit. What happened to him could have conceivably happened to any bystander the parties to the lawsuit took it upon themselves to decide was a necessary witness: a lawyer says he wants to depose you, you say no for medical reasons and "presto," a judge is ordering you to surrender all of your personal privacy rights and submit yourself to a physical examination by a doctor not of your own choosing. Am I the only one who finds this entire situation more than a little scary?
Goldberg filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the 4th DCA to quash the trial court’s compulsory-medical-examination order.
Based on this record (again, the product of good lawyering), the 4th DCA made short work of the probate court’s order, quashing the directive requiring an examination of the grantor-father and requiring any deposition of the grantor-father to be limited initially to written deposition questions. For future reference, here’s the legal reasoning underlying the 4th DCA’s ruling:
- Probate court lacked authority to sanction witness:
The grantor-father was never served with a subpoena to appear, and the court made no finding of contempt for the personal failing of the grantor-father to attend the hearing. See Pevsner v. Frederick, 656 So.2d 262 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) (sanctions may not be imposed against nonparty for discovery violation in absence of finding of contempt). The affidavit of the personal physician raises substantial doubts as to whether the grantor-father was even physically capable of appearing personally for a deposition or in court. In the absence of contempt, under our Pevsner decision the trial court had no authority at this point to impose any sanctions on the grantor-father. Id.
- Grantor-father was entitled to a protective order based on his affidavit:
As to the compulsory medical examination (CME) of the grantor-father, the trial judge overlooked the burden placed by Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.360 on the proponent of a CME. Under the rule, the party seeking a CME must show that the person to be examined is a party in the litigation who has himself placed his physical condition at issue. The party seeking the CME must establish good cause for such an exam. Here the trial judge should have first required written deposition questions of the grantor-father. Before the trustee could thereafter show good cause for a CME, he would thereupon have to show why the results of the written deposition failed to furnish the relevant information sought from the grantor-father.
Without a showing of good cause, the burden never shifted to the grantor-father to sustain his objection to the CME, and the grantor-father was entitled to a protective order on the basis of his physician’s affidavit. See Olges, 856 So.2d at 11 (“But the question of protective rules or protective orders never arises and the burden never shifts unless the proponent of the examination shows good cause for an examination in the first place.”). “Good cause” for such an examination is not made on the basis of conclusory allegations or assertions of counsel. See Fruh v. Dept. of Health & Rehab. Serv., 430 So.2d 581 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983) (two requirements of “in controversy” and “good cause” not met by mere conclusory allegations in pleadings, nor by mere relevance to case, but require affirmative showing by movant that each condition as to which examination is sought is really and genuinely in controversy).
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
This is the first time I’ve ever done this, and I don’t plan on doing it again. However, because I laid it on so thick in favor of David Goldberg, I think it’s only fair to “even out” the coverage (if only to make sure David’s head doesn’t get too big). Below is a redacted version of a comment I received in response to this blog post.
But first an explanatory note. The linked-to opinion is only four pages long, and of those four pages the “facts of the case” represent only a few paragraphs. When the 4th DCA was drafting its opinion I assume they only focused on the facts most relevant to their legal conclusions. They have limited resources, and there’s no sense in making the opinion any longer than it needs to be. However, a byproduct of the court’s editing process is that most, if not all, of the “facts” supporting the losing side of this appeal probably didn’t make it into the published opinion. These facts may not have been directly relevant to the outcome of the appeal, but perhaps they would have cast a completely different light on this case, perhaps a light less favorable to the winning side. The point is I don’t know, and it’s simply impossible for me to read each side’s appellate briefs before writing about the published appellate opinion.
Note to self and blog readers: Remember there’s always multiple sides to every story, and the side that makes it into the published appellate decision may not always be the one closest to the "truth".
"What this case is really about is permitting an 88 year old man to be fleeced by his son who is involved in litigation over the irrevocable trust established by his father a number of years ago. By taking advantage of a vulnerable adult, the son is taking funds from his father outside of the trust and is now using that money to sue on the trust as well. The issue is whether the Court had the authority to order a independent medical examination of the 88 year old to give a deposition raised by the son and then the gentlemen’s counsel. I think your statements on the support of the decision are wrong and defeat the protection of vulnerable adults."
Again, if anyone has any other comments they’d like to share regarding this case, please post them on the comment page to this blog post.