California Court Rules Against Conservator in Defamation Lawsuit

A California woman serving as a conservator lost her defamation lawsuit against a Sacramento television station as an appeals court concluded that she could not prove that the reports aired the report with knowledge that their information was false, or at least reckless disregard for its falsity. In reaching it conclusion, the court in Young v. CBS decided that, because conservators are very powerful agents acting under the authority of a court order, and could reasonably trigger scrutiny by the public, they are public figures for purposes of defamation lawsuits. The ruling serves as a warning to any a conservator in California, making clear that, by accepting an appointment as a conservator, any person may subject him/herself to public figure status, and a much more difficult path to recovery, if he/she believes he/she is defamed by a news organization.

In November 2006, Sacramento County Adult Protective Services asked Carolyn Young to serve as the conservator for an allegedly incapacitated adult, 86-year-old Mary Jane Mann. Young, a professional conservator and fiduciary for more than a decade and a half, petitioned the court for the appointment. Almost immediately after the court appointed Young as temporary conservator, the senior and one of her daughters, Monika Mann, began contesting the conservatorship. A non-judicial mediation yielded an agreement where Young agreed to petition for dissolution of the conservatorship in exchange for Young becoming a co-trustee of Mann’s trust.
Shortly thereafter, the CBS television station in Sacramento, KOVR-TV, investigated the Mann conservatorship. A week later, KOVR aired a news story entitled “A Life Hijacked,” which stated that Young “effectively took over Mann’s life without Mann’s knowledge [including] Mann’s bank accounts, investments, and her trust. Young had Mann’s mail forwarded to her office and had Mann’s driver’s license lifted.” The report went on to claim, or insinuate, that Young stole from Mann, threatened her, battered her and trespassed onto her property.

Young sued CBS for defamation. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal ultimately ruled for CBS and ordered the trial court to dismiss Young’s lawsuit.

One key element of ruling was the court’s decision that Young, while serving as a conservator, was a public figure. This determination placed Young on the same footing as a politician, bureaucrat or entertainment celebrity, and meant that, to win her lawsuit, Young had to show that the news reporters had actual malice against her when they aired the report. The court concluded that, although conservators are not government employees, they are appointed by courts and their jobs are “likely to attract or warrant scrutiny by members of the public.” In addition, because only through the power and sanction of government can “a person such as a conservator … co-opt another person’s independent discretion and their liberty,” conservators must be considered limited public figures, the court reasoned.

Conservatorships, while intended to exist for the benefit of the protected person, can sometimes become complicated and contentious. If you find yourself in a conservatorship that has become legally combative, consult the conservatorship attorneys at Ginzburg & Bronshteyn. Our experienced Los Angeles conservatorship attorneys are here to help clients in Santa Monica, Orange County and throughout Southern California defend their rights under the law. To contact our skilled attorneys, please contact Ginzburg & Bronshteyn online or call us at (310) 914-3222.

Related blog posts:

Ariel Winter of “Modern Family” will remain with her sister under Temporary Guardianship, Los Angeles Probate Litigation Attorney Blog, Nov. 21, 2012
Guardianship of Michael Jackson’s children resolved, Los Angeles Probate Litigation Attorney Blog, Aug. 23, 2012