Faced with more frequent requests to seal guardianship files, a Nassau County judge has ruled to keep open a case that involved the potential “financial exploitation” and “Svengali-like manipulation” of a wealthy elderly woman.
In denying a request to seal, Judge Gary F. Knobel on Thursday ruled that doing so “would have the effect of burying secrets, hiding the truth and thwarting the best interests of the incapacitated person to be protected from unscrupulous behavior.”
The decision follows a series of stories Newsday published last year that examined the improper sealing of civil cases by Long Island state court judges. The stories also looked at the widespread sealing of guardianship cases, which involve the appointment of legal caretakers for those unable to manage their own affairs.
In his ruling, Knobel detailed the complexities of guardianships. Sensitive medical and financial records are involved and judges need to weigh the privacy right of often cognitively impaired people against the societal need for open courts and the protection that transparency can offer these highly vulnerable individuals.
Michael Chetkof, an attorney for the woman at the center of the proceeding Knobel ruled on, praised the decision, but declined to discuss details of the case. He said there had been a settlement and that his client, a woman named Amelia Gould, passed away last week, a day after Knobel made his ruling.
Knobel’s 12-page decision noted that “many” of those in the legal community whose business is guardianships are unfamiliar with the state law that governs the sealing of files in such cases.
The law allows sealing only when “good cause” has been shown and directs judges to consider the array of interest at play when making a determination.
Citing a recent American Bar Association survey, Knobel wrote that in nine states portions of guardianship cases are automatically sealed and in 13 states the entire record is presumptively confidential. In contrast, Knobel wrote that in the majority of states, including New York, guardianship files are presumptively open.
Knobel attributed the increased number of requests to seal to Newsday’s stories, which he said brought the issue of sealing guardianships “to the forefront.”
The newspaper identified more than 200 guardianship cases that Long Island judges sealed over a roughly 10-year period. Most were in Suffolk County. Newsday found that overwhelmingly, judges were using stock, generic phrases in their sealing orders, rather than tailoring them to the facts of each case.
One of the improperly sealed guardianships Newsday identified involved State Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), who a court evaluator found had “taken advantage” of an elderly aunt for his own financial benefit. Croci has denied any impropriety.