Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases

County comptroller investigation was already underway when former guardian Rebecca Fierle was arrested

Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases
Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orange County Comptroller released its findings into the Clerk of Court’s role in Florida’s guardianship program following the arrest last year of Orlando-based guardian Rebecca Fierle, who is accused of placing do not resuscitate orders on elderly clients against their wishes.

Following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, Fierle was arrested in February 2020 and is facing one count of abuse of an elderly person and one count of neglect of an elderly person in regards to the case of 74-year-old Steven Stryker.

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Prior to the allegations against Fierle, Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond ordered an audit into the Orange County Clerk of Court’s administration of the state public and professional guardianship program, which provides guardianship services to help elderly and incapacitated adults. The Department of Elder Affairs oversees the program and includes more than 550 professional guardians statewide.

Under Florida law, a judge appoints guardians for minors and adults with mental or physical disabilities, allowing them to make financial and medical decisions.

Diamond said his team was already well into the audit when the allegations against Fierle came to light. The period audited was from January 2015 to December 2017 with additional information collected through July 2017.

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“During the course of this audit, we became aware of acts committed by a professional guardian in Orange County that were not in the best interest of the wards and potential violations of Florida law,” Comptroller investigators wrote in the report. “We brought our concerns to the Court and law enforcement. As a result, we worked concurrently with multiple law enforcement agencies during this audit.”

An Orange County judge revoked “do not resuscitate” orders in 98 cases in which Fierle, was found to have “abused her powers” by filing DNR orders on behalf of clients without permission from their families.

An 86-page audit of the clerk of court’s role in the program recommends changes to the guardianship program to prevent more harm to Florida’s most vulnerable residents. Investigators listed a series of missteps in the court’s handling of guardianship cases.

Investigators found that clerks did not notify judges of unauthorized attorney and guardian fees. The audit includes that a professional guardian was paid directly by a hospital group in 117 of their 204 cases totaling payments of $2.5 million. The hourly rate the guardian was paid was more than twice the approved Orange County rate.

Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases
Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases

“At the request of the Court, we conducted two separate investigations of professional guardian, Rebecca Fierle,” according to auditors. “These investigations found that the guardian had received approximately $4 million in fees without Court approval.”

Auditors reported missing documentation from guardians, errors in documents filed and the lack of consistent reporting between clerks.

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The court was not consistently notified when guardians were not in compliance with the state requirements. The audit listed several examples.

“One professional guardian still had five active cases when they were suspended and a replacement was not timely appointed. In one case, a replacement was not assigned for 16 months after the guardian was suspended,” investigators wrote. “In another case, we notified the Clerk that the ward had died 33 months prior. The Clerk was unaware the ward had died almost three years earlier.”

The court was aware of conflicts of interest between guardians appointed and other parties involved in cases. Guardians make financial decisions for their wards and auditors found judges may not have been aware when clerk staff did not document those conflicts.

“The investigations also found that the guardian maintained business relationships that were not approved (or even disclosed) to the Court,” according to the report. “This created conflicts of interest in the performance of the guardian’s fiduciary duties.”

The Clerk of Courts advised investigators that it has made numerous changes to guardianship administration procedures.

As for the audit, Orange County Clerk Tiffany Moore Russell said she disagrees with four of the findings and recommendations, partially concurs with seven and concurs with two.

“While some findings and recommendations included in the document are well-intentioned, we strongly disagree with a number of them, primarily because they are outside the scope of the audit and reflect a misunderstanding of our office’s responsibilities under the law,” Russell said in a news release. “But, let us be clear: When it comes to guardianship, all of us involved in the process are working toward a common goal – to protect the most vulnerable in our community. We want the system to work effectively and efficiently on their behalf.”

Russell’s news release also provided additional context into the timing of the audit.

“The timing of the audit spanned two different operations managers in the Clerk’s office, three Guardianship Judges in the Ninth Circuit, several changes in Statutes by the Legislature, and many process improvements made voluntarily by the Clerk to increase efficiency and effectiveness. These changes in leadership and process render several of the recommendations null and void given the office’s present-day process,” it reads.

Russell said initially, her office would review cases that auditors were examining and some cases came to the conclusion that the findings were inaccurate but because conducting reviews was such a timely process, her office stopped about three years into the audit.

“Although we’re bound by statutory responsibilities, the Clerk of Court’s office is committed to a culture of best practices and continuous process improvement,” Russell said. “We welcome feedback and oversight – and we will work with all offices of government to help improve the guardianship system so that, together, we can better serve those in our care.”

The Office of Statewide Prosecution is prosecuting the case against Fierle, according to FDLE.

She is accused of placing do not resuscitate orders on clients who did not want them.

A state investigation revealed one of her clients may have died as a result. According to a statement from the FDLE, the investigation began after a complaint to the Office of Public and Professional Guardians about Stryker’s death, he was under the guardianship of Fierle.

News 6 is reviewing the audit. Check back for updates on this developing story.


About the Author:

Emilee is a digital journalist for News 6 and ClickOrlando.com, where she writes about space and Central Florida news. Emilee hosts the Edward R. Murrow Award-winning podcast Space Curious. Previously, she was a space writer and web editor for the Orlando Sentinel and a web producer at the Naples Daily News.