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First Meeting of Creditors

Posted By Joette Melendez, Monday, October 7, 2019

About First Meeting of Creditors

Under the Bankruptcy Code, the United States Trustee must convene and preside at a meeting of creditors, which is often referred to as the Section 341 meeting. This must occur within a reasonable time after the order for relief in a case. However, the court may order the United States trustee not to convene a meeting of creditors or equity security holders if the debtor has filed a plan for which the debtor solicited acceptances prepetition.


Debtor’s duties at and after the meeting of creditors

The debtor is required to attend the meeting and submit to examination under oath. The purpose of the meeting is to give creditors and the trustee an opportunity to examine the debtor regarding the debtor’s acts and property, and to address any other matter that may affect the debtor’s right to a discharge or the administration of the bankruptcy estate. An individual chapter 7 debtor shall not retain possession of personal property in which a creditor has a purchase-money security interest unless the debtor, within 45 days after the first meeting of creditors under section 341(a), either enters into a reaffirmation agreement on the creditor’s claim or redeems the property. If the debtor fails to so act, the automatic stay with respect to such property is terminated, the property is no longer property of the estate, and the creditor can take whatever action with respect to the property is permitted by applicable nonbankruptcy law. However, the court, on motion of the trustee, may find that the property is of consequential value or benefit to the estate and order delivery of the property to the trustee.


Chapter 7 Creditors’ Committees

An important purpose of the Section 341 meeting in a Chapter 7 case is the election of a creditors’ committee. A creditors’ committee may consult with the trustee or the United States Trustee in connection with the administration of the estate, make recommendations to the trustee or United States Trustee respecting the performance of the trustee’s duties, and submit questions to the court or the United States Trustee concerning the administration of the estate. Only creditors with undisputed general unsecured claims can join Chapter 7 creditors’ committees. 


Chapter 11 Creditors’ Committees 

In Chapter 11 cases, creditors’ committees play a prominent role in many cases and the members are selected by the United States Trustee. The committee functions as the representative of creditors who hold allowable, unsecured, nonpriority claims. Governmental entities are generally excluded from participation on Chapter 11 creditors’ committees. 


This content was written by one of our panel members, Shonterria Martin Stokes, an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with Bankruptcy issues, please call Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service at 404-521-0777.***



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Care for Elderly Family Members – Guardians or Conservators

Posted By Joette Melendez, Thursday, August 15, 2019

Guardians and conservators are charged with caring for elderly family members who have become incapacitated. As a guardian or conservator, your job is to manage your loved one’s resources and protect them from exploitation. Both roles carry important responsibilities that you need to know, ideally before you agree to take them on.


The Difference Between Guardianship And Conservatorship 


In many cases, you can become both a guardian and conservator for a loved one. However, these roles are distinctly different:


  • A guardian protects the personal interests of another person who is incapable of caring for their own interests. Common responsibilities include arranging suitable housing, making health care appointments and facilitating doctor visits, and generally providing for the ward’s personal needs.
  • A conservator supervises an individual’s financial affairs. This could include everything from paying their bills to making financial investments on their behalf using approved funds for this purpose.

Choosing Someone You Can Trust 


As you can see, the court places a significant amount of trust on the guardian or conservator to do the right thing and not abuse their position. For that reason, it’s important to choose a guardian or conservator you trust now, before circumstances force the court to appoint one for you. You can include your wishes in your estate planning documents. By planning ahead before incapacity, you may be able to prevent a guardianship or conservatorship hearing from ever occurring and having your affairs managed by a pre-selected person you chose through proper estate planning.


Becoming a Guardian 


Selecting a guardian or conservator can be a complicated process, where emotions often run high. To become a guardian or conservator, you must file a petition with the local probate court where your loved one currently resides. The proposed ward (the person for whom guardianship is sought) will be informed of the petition and given the opportunity to hire his or her own lawyer. He or she will also undergo a mental evaluation by a doctor, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker.


Then, a hearing will be scheduled to review and finalize the petition. The court must approve someone who will best serve the interests of the proposed ward. In general, it follows this order of preference when choosing a guardian:


  • The person chosen by the ward, in writing, when he or she was of sound mind
  • The spouse of the proposed ward, an adult child or parent (in the case of minor guardianship) of the proposed ward
  • A previously appointed guardian in Georgia or another state
  • A capable volunteer the court finds suitable to the task
  • A county guardian, who is a public official appointed by the county to stand in as guardian, if no other suitable candidate is found

This process usually takes about a month, though it may be sped up if you have reason to believe your loved one is in real danger by filing an emergency guardianship. A temporary guardian can possibly be appointed within a week if necessary to protect your loved one. 


An Often Overlooked Issue In Guardianship Petitions 


Many people do not realize that as a conservator in Georgia, you must have a bond of insurance in addition to a willing heart. The bond serves to protect the financial interests of the proposed ward in case the conservator breaches his or her fiduciary duty with respect to the ward’s assets.


What If We Don’t Agree On Guardianship? 


Petitioning for guardianship of another person can be difficult for the entire family, especially if relatives do not agree on who should be appointed guardian or conservator. What starts out as a wish to protect mom from financial predators can become a fight over control of mom’s money.


This content was written by one of our panel members, Robert Turner, an attorney in

Atlanta, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with Probate issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***


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Debt Resolution vs. Bankruptcy

Posted By Joette Melendez, Thursday, August 15, 2019

Both debt resolution and bankruptcy are strategies that can help you pay off credit card debt, meaning both strategies can stop harassing phone calls and threats from creditors. However, there is a difference between the two! Each strategy provides different risks and protections. The following are a few examples: 


Debt Resolution

Debt resolution is when you attempt to negotiate a resolution of your debt for a lower amount than what you owe. As a general rule, people who pursue debt settlement can’t afford to pay off all their debts at once and cannot afford to make monthly minimum payments, which allows interest to accrue. A settlement allows debtors to stop the debt amount from increasing and resolves the debt without paying the full amount up-front. This typically saves debtors hundreds if not thousands of dollars while simultaneously improving their credit scores, although Debt Resolution does not guarantee results. Once a settlement is paid, the account is resolved. There is no negative impact on your credit report. However, creditors are not required to enter into a settlement agreement. They can pursue any legal action to collect the debt.



Bankruptcy, on the other hand, provides legal protection. Through Bankruptcy, you can either reorganize your debt to enable you to pay it off or get rid of the debt completely. Bankruptcy requires you to file a petition with your local federal court, which you certify under oath. Bankruptcy also requires you to pay attorney fees and costs associated with filing in court.


a) Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is a debt repayment plan. Under Chapter 13, debts such as student loans, property taxes and spousal support obligations are made through a repayment schedule that lasts between 3-5 years. Debts, such as credit card debt, are terminated, completed or reorganized. Once you file for bankruptcy protection, creditors are no longer able to contact you directly or charge interest or late fees on your debt. 


b) Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is the liquidation chapter. It covers debtors who have unsecured debts that exceed their income. Typically, unsecured debts are accumulated after divorce, illness and job loss. A popular myth about Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is that you will automatically lose your stuff. This is not true! During your free consultation, we will analyze and determine if your property is exempt. Filing for either form of bankruptcy will provide immediate protection from repossessions, court proceedings and wage garnishments. Filing bankruptcy may impact your credit report for up to 10 years after filing.


Don’t risk attempting to file your petition alone in an attempt to save money. You face a high risk of having your petition rejected if you are unsure how to navigate the Bankruptcy Code.


This content was written by one of our panel members, Willie “Buddy” Huntley III, an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with Bankruptcy issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***


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Posted By Joette Melendez, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Magistrate Court, also known as Small Claims Court, allows parties to litigate claims where the amount in controversy is less than $15,000.00. In addition, non-lawyers are allowed to represent not only themselves but their company. This difference is critical because, in State and Superior Courts in Georgia, companies must be represented by attorneys. While resolving a case in Magistrate Court can save time and money, it is important to understand exactly how the process works before choosing to litigate there. 


You have to choose the correct county in which to sue the Defendant. Make sure you sue him/her in the county where he/she resides. If the Defendant is a company, sue it in the county where its principal office is located. Go to the secretary of state website for this information: Once you know what county to sue in, you can either go on line and find the complaint form to fill out or you can get the paper form to fill out at the Magistrate Court. Many courts now allow you to simply fill out your complaint on line. You will have to serve the papers on the registered agent of the company. If the registered agent cannot be found or is no longer at the address on the Secretary of State, there are provisions that allow you to serve the Secretary of State on behalf of the company you are suing. 


Once the Defendant is served with the complaint, he/she will have 30 days to file an answer. If an answer is filed, the Court will set the matter down for a hearing. On the date of court, most judges will make the parties discuss settlement. You are not required to settle, but you have to at least discuss settlement in good faith.


If you actually have a trial, understand that while the rules of evidence are relaxed in Magistrate Court, you still have to prove your case, and hearsay evidence will still not be admitted. That means that if you are seeking to recover damages, it will not be admissible to simply show the court estimates or tell the Judge that someone told you that it will cost a certain amount of money to fix it. In order to recover damages, you have to either show that you paid a bill, and then provide proof of payment, or you have to bring to court the person who provided the estimate. If you want to be sure a witness shows up in court, you should serve him/her with a subpoena before the trial.


All cases (except defaults) can be appealed simply based on the fact that a litigant does not like the result. When that happens, the case is transferred to either the State or Superior Court in the same county, and it starts all over again. Whatever happened in the Magistrate Court does not matter as the case is adjudicated “de Novo” – a Latin phrase meaning “from the new” or in laymen’s’ terms, the entire case is heard from the start. 


Leaving court with a judgment does not ensure that you collect what you have been awarded. The court does not “make anybody pay,” and it is up to you to collect your judgment.


If you obtain a judgment and the other side does not appeal, you can try to recover your judgment by way of a garnishment. A garnishment is a separate legal action where you serve either the Defendant’s bank or employer and either take money in the bank account, or intercept wages that are due to the Defendant. If you do not know where the Defendant works or banks, you can send post judgment discovery to the Defendant and he/she is required to answer. There are forms for this post judgment discovery in the clerk’s office. 


While a non-lawyer can certainly successfully navigate through Magistrate Court, knowing in advance what to expect will make the sailing much smoother.



This content was written by one of our panel members, David Merbaum, an attorney in Alpharetta, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with Magistrate issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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Posted By Joette Melendez, Friday, April 6, 2018

Often mistakenly abbreviated as HIPPA, rather HIPAA stands for “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.” It is a set of federal rules designed in part to protect the privacy of a person’s health care information by providing notice and an opportunity for consent to the person whose health information is sought. Congress passed this law to regulate “covered entities” namely, (1) health plans, such as health insurance companies, (2) health care clearinghouses, such as billing companies and third party administrators; and (3) health care providers, such as hospitals and doctors, from disclosing patients’ private health records. Georgia, as do most states, has similar laws protecting the confidentiality and privacy of patient health information. For instance, licensed Georgia hospitals must have a medical records service that is responsible for the administration of medical records. Ga. Code Ann., 290-9-7-18 


The goal set out by the HIPAA regulation is to secure a person’s “protected health information” (PHI) in the medical record or designated record set that can be used to identify an individual and that was created, used, or disclosed in the course of providing a healthcare service such as a diagnosis or treatment. PHI is information, including demographic information, which relates to:


The individual’s past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition;


The provision of health care to the individual, or


The past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual, and that identifies the individual or for which there is a reasonable basis to believe can be used to identify the individual. Protected health information includes many common identifiers (e.g., name, address, birth date, Social Security Number) when they can be associated with the health information listed above.


Section 164.514(a) of the HIPAA Privacy Rule, permits the removal of personal identifiable information from medical records so that a covered entity would have no reasonable basis to believe it can be used to identify an individual. The Safe Harbor provision (Section 164.514(b) is the most practicable way a covered entity can apply the “de-identification” standard. This is accomplished by removing personal identifiers from an individual’s records such as: names; geographic subdivisions smaller than a state; telephone numbers; vehicle identifiers and serial numbers, including license plate numbers; fax numbers; email addresses; medical record numbers; biometric identifiers, including finger and voice prints; and full-face photos, “etc.” Records disclosed following these guidelines are not protected under the Privacy Rule. 


With the advent of HIPAA patients now have the right to: receive Notice of Privacy Practices (NPP); access and copy medical billing records; request an amendment of PHI or other records; an accounting for some disclosures; request restrictions on use and disclosure of their PHI; request the use of alternate channels of communication of PHI (e.g. use a different telephone number, different address, etc.); and report violations to state and/or federal authorities.


Although HIPAA now imposes universal standards on covered entities to protect a patient’s privacy, it does not explicitly create an individual right of action for patients affected by the privacy violation. An individual do not gain a right of action to bring its own complaint against the responsible violating party, but must file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services or the appropriate state authority such as a State Attorney General’s office. Usually if the federal or state agency decides to pursue a victim’s complaint, it may impose fines against the covered entity and force them to implement a set of standards to avoid future pitfalls of violating HIPAA. However, for the individual who may now be subject to mental anguish, lost opportunities, or other damages due to violation of their HIPAA rights the law stops short at providing an individual redress to claim damages. However, some attorneys have found ways to institute private rights of action for clients whose HIPAA rights were violated. These rights are brought forth under state tort laws where it can be shown the covered entity was negligent in disclosing a patient’s private information and must be held liable for damages. HIPAA now provides a ‘bright-line” standard test for examining a covered entity’s negligence in disclosing a person’s PHI. State privacy laws, professional malpractice, and negligence are grounds given legal causes of action to an individual whose HIPAA rights are violated. HIPAA law provides an attorney the framework to bring these causes of action. In a 2013 judgment Walgreens was ordered to pay $1.44 million as a result of a pharmacist violating a patient’s medical records. HIPAA was not used as the basis of the lawsuit but was use as the applicable standard to show how the pharmacist and Walgreens committed negligence in disclosing health care information without a person’s consent. 


This content was written by one of our panel members, Dorey N. Cole, an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with HIPAA issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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What is Legal Malpractice?

Posted By Joette Melendez, Friday, March 2, 2018

Most people have heard or read about “medical malpractice” claims, which arise from the negligence of a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional. But what if the professional whose conduct has fallen below the applicable standard of care is a lawyer?


Clients hire attorneys to represent their interests. As a client’s representative, an attorney is not bound to use extraordinary efforts on behalf of their client, but all lawyers should be competent and must exercise ordinary care, skill, and diligence in the performance of tasks which they undertake. Because of the fiduciary relationship between an attorney and client, lawyers are obligated to show their clients the utmost good faith and loyalty and act solely for the benefit of the clients they represent. Joel v. Chastain, 254 Ga. App. 592 (2002). (81)


Does the client have a remedy if the lawyer does not do the job he or she was hired to perform? The answer is “yes,” with some well-grounded qualifications, including: 


* The elements of a cause of action for legal malpractice are: a) employment of defendant; b) defendant's failure to exercise ordinary care, skill and diligence; and c) defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiff's damage. Duke Galish, LLC v. Arnall Golden Gregory, LLP, 288 Ga. App. 75 (2007). 


* Neither contractual formalities nor payment of a fee are required to establish an attorney-client relationship. Guillebeau v Jenkins, 182 Ga. App. 225 (1987). 


* An act of negligence alone does not create a cause of action for legal malpractice. The plaintiff in a legal malpractice lawsuit must show that but for the lawyer’s act or omission, the client would have obtained a better result. Rogers v Norvell, 174 Ga. App. 453 (1985). 


* Attorneys are not insurers of the results of their efforts on behalf of clients. They will not be held to have breached the applicable standard of care except in cases of willful or negligent failure to apply well known and accepted legal principles and procedures, either because they are ignorant of them, or because they have failed to act reasonably to protect the client’s interests. Littleton v. Stone, 231 Ga. App. 150 (1998). 


* Where further litigation of the underlying claim may lead to a favorable result at the time the allegedly negligent attorney is terminated, the plaintiff may be precluded from proving his malpractice case if he settles the underlying claim. Jim Tidwell Ford, Inc. v. Bashuk, 335 Ga. App. 668 (2016).


* A legal malpractice plaintiff generally must produce opinion testimony of an expert witness in order to prevail. O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1.


* If the lawyer has committed a violation of the ethical duties set forth in the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, the client can file a grievance with the State Bar’s Office of General Counsel. The purpose of a disciplinary proceeding is not to seek financial compensation for the client but, rather, help regulate the legal profession and protect the public.


This content was written by one of our panel members, Warren Hinds, an attorney in Roswell, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with tort issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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"When a Love One is Gone, What's Next?"

Posted By Joette Melendez, Wednesday, February 14, 2018

There is no exact way to prepare for the unexpected death of someone you love and care for. The period surrounding the loss of a loved one is one of the most stressful periods that one may face. Take time to grieve. I cannot stress this enough, ensuring that your mental and physical wellbeing are intact; it’s essential to getting through this phase. Trying to figure out what steps must be taken next in handling your affairs will be difficult. Preparing for a passing beforehand makes it easier to focus on the important tasks ahead. Here is a checklist of some of the more important considerations:


 Notify immediate family.

 Collecting mail and important utility bills

 Locating important items such as keys, insurance policies, claims forms, addresses for magazine subscriptions, etc.

 Planning the wake, funeral, and/or memorial services

 Organizing food for family and friends after the services

 Obtaining the Death Certificate

 Notifying their employer

 Notifying the Office of Social Security

 Notifying their Guardian or their Power of Attorney


There are a few things that you can put in place right now that will aid in this transitional period. As morbid as it sounds, planning your funeral ahead of time is one way to ease the stress of your loved ones when you’re gone. You can start contacting funeral homes and start making arrangements for your burial and final preparations. Most funeral homes are happy to answer questions and give you options on different services.  


If you lost a significant other or a partner, you may already have certain mechanisms in place that alleviate certain issues. You may have had a joint bank account with the decedent and now you are listed as a "surviving owner." In this case, you would need to provide a death certificate to the bank to take ownership. Similarly, if you held joint interest in property that included “the right of survivorship", then ownership of that property will automatically pass to you as the survivor. 


Your loved one may have been preparing for a situation like this and has an estate plan in place. If there is a Will, the law requires that it be filed with the Probate Court in the County where the decedent lived. The Clerk will provide the executor or executrix of the Will with the necessary paperwork. If there is no Will, you may have to go through some formal administration process in the same Probate Court. Any remaining assets and properties can be disbursed through the administration of the estate. Once a probate process is initiated, don’t forget to notify all creditors that your loved one may have had. Remember it’s the estate not YOU that is liable for any debts.


As hard as it may be, as soon as possible start sorting and disposing of your loved one’s personal items and clothing. Taking too long to go through this process, may seriously delay the ending of the grieving process, acting as a very painful and constant reminder of the person's death. Only a few items should be retained as mementos. However, remember that no items should be moved, sold, given away or otherwise disposed of if they have been identified in the person's Will as items to be distributed as a part of the estate. Only the legal beneficiary of those items is entitled to make the decision as to their disposal.


Losing a loved one is hard, seek help when necessary to ensure that your mind, body, and soul will be ready to face this new chapter in your life. (A Checklist of What To Do When A Loved One Dies, Georgia Department of Human Resources, Division of Aging Services)


This content was written by one of our panel members, Aisha Success, an attorney in Decatur, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with probate issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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Posted By Joette Melendez, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Is it time for guardianship for your mother or father? There comes a time in many of our lives when we believe our parents are unable to care for themselves any longer. If you are in that situation, you should understand what you can do outside of having legal authority over your parents and what you can do if you have a court Order. This article will hopefully help you understand that. 


The first thing that you should do is ensure that your parents have a Durable Power of Attorney for their financial affairs, as well as an Advance Healthcare Directive for their medical affairs. These documents must be completed and signed by the person appointing another to make decisions. These documents must be signed while that person is legally competent. It is too late after that person lacks capacity to make decisions for themselves. Therefore, while your parents are younger and in good health and spirits, sit down with them and urge them to create these two documents. The person appointed by these two documents, generally speaking, will never need a court Order for any purpose. As with all rules, there are exceptions to this generalization. If you have a Durable Power of Attorney for your parents' financial affairs, most businesses, banks, and institutions will accept this power in lieu of your parents actually participating in whatever business transaction you are conducting. If you have an Advance Healthcare Directive, medical providers will work with you to assist your parents. Hospitals will accept the Advance Healthcare Directive and allow the appointed person to begin making medical decisions for their parents. However, here we are talking about how to handle the situation if your parents have failed to generate these documents. 


A guardianship is a court ordered position where the court has found your parent lacks capacity to make reasonable decisions for themselves. This generally will occur when the person can no longer feed, clothe, bathe, take medications and otherwise generally care for themselves. There is no absolute standard for guardianship. It is left to the discretion of the judge after hearing testimony from interested people, including the person over whom the guardianship is proposed. You should consider seeking a guardianship for your parent whenever they begin making irrational decisions or when the medical providers tell you they can no longer accept your directions for your parent. With the new HIPPA laws, doctors and hospitals are prohibited from sharing a person's medical records with anyone. Unfortunately, this covers the situation of children taking care of their elder parents. You will probably notice your parents need for a guardianship first as it relates to their financial affairs. They will begin either giving their money away (or hoarding their assets) through irrational decisions. Each is a common characteristic of a person who is losing their capacity to manage their affairs. Guardianship hearings in the Probate Court are very emotional hearings. Rarely does the person over whom the guardianship is proposed want the guardianship imposed on them. 


One condition for which a guardianship will not be granted is when a person quits taking his medication. In some instances, people have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and prescribed medications to control that illness. So long as that person takes the medication, they are generally, fine, but when the person stops taking this medication, they become irrational or uncontrollable. The court, generally speaking, cannot impose a guardianship over that person because while on medication, they are perfectly safe to be alone and are capable of caring for themselves. Furthermore a guardianship does not give the Guardian the power to make the ailing person take medications. There are no laws on the books that can be used to force a person to take drugs they do not wish to take. Therefore, you cannot use a guardianship as a means to enforce some type of medicine therapy. The court is taking the individual's rights away as it relates to that person's ability to make decisions about living arrangements, doctors, and generally any other normal day-to-day decisions that most of us take for granted. Because of the seriousness of this Order, many safeguards are in place to ensure that the person who's rights are going to be affected has representation at the trial as well as, in many cases, another person appointed to generally investigate the condition of the person. These trials might take an hour or many days depending upon the issues to be decided and the evidence to be heard. Generally, guardianships are quite expensive. 


Included with the general topic of guardianship is also a conservatorship. Conservatorships are simply guardianships over a person's property, whereas a guardianship is control over the person himself. The two positions are usually asked for in the same decision and evidence as to both positions are heard in the same trial. The standard used to determine whether a Guardian is needed or whether a Conservator is needed is slightly different. Therefore, there are instances where one may be granted, a conservatorship but not a guardianship, or the other way around. In most cases, both positions are either granted or denied. Any adult relative can file for guardianship with the preference being the spouse of the ailing individual and if there is no spouse, then adult children of that parent. If none of the children are willing to seek guardianship over their parents, then, any other interested person may apply and in some case, even the State will apply to take control over the parents. This is the last resort and hopefully not one that anyone is subjected to. 


If you have need help with the guardianship or conservatorship, feel free to call our office to speak to one of our attorneys. 


This content was written by one of our panel members, Robert Hughes, an attorney in Lawrenceville, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with family law issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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Thou Shalt Not Discourage: An FMLA Cautionary Tale for Employers

Posted By Joette Melendez, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently vacated a district court’s summary judgment order on the basis that a jury could find that the defendant employer interfered with the plaintiff employee’s rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when its Human Resources (HR) Manager sent the plaintiff an email discouraging her from taking her full leave entitlement under the FMLA. See Diamond v. Hospice of Fla. Keys, Inc., 677 Fed. Appx. 586 (11th Cir. 2017). 


In Diamond, the plaintiff, worked as a social worker for the defendant, Hospice of Florida Keys, Inc. Throughout plaintiff’s employment with the defendant, the plaintiff took intermittent leave under the FMLA to care for her parents who had serious medical conditions. In March and April of 2014, the plaintiff took almost two weeks of leave to care for her ailing mother. In April 2014, the defendant’s HR Manager sent the plaintiff an email stating that the plaintiff’s “continued unpaid time away from the workplace compromises the quality of care [the defendant is] able to provide as an organization.” See Diamond, 677 Fed. Appx. 586, 590. For fear of losing her job, the plaintiff decided to forego using all of her approved FMLA leave. Nonetheless, in May 2014, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.


To establish an interference claim under the FMLA, the plaintiff had to prove that she was (1) denied a benefit to which she was entitled, and that (2) she suffered harm as a result. Under the FMLA, “benefits” include taking up to 12 weeks of leave in a single 12-month period and being reinstated after taking such leave. Refusing to authorize leave to an eligible employee or merely “discouraging” an eligible employee from using such leave constitutes interference under the FMLA. See 29 CFR 825.220(b). Under the FMLA, harm can include “any monetary losses” incurred by an employee because of her employer’s violation of the FMLA. 


The Court held that a reasonable jury could find that the defendant discouraged plaintiff from taking FMLA when it sent her an email essentially warning her that taking additional FMLA leave could jeopardize her job. The Court also held that there were sufficient facts in the record for a jury to find that the plaintiff suffered harm. Specifically, the plaintiff testified that she would have taken more FMLA leave had the defendant not discouraged her from doing so, and thatshe incurred additional travel costs by making turn-around trips to her mother’s home instead of staying for an entire month as recommended by her mother’s doctor.


In short, this decision is a cautionary tale for employers on what not to say to employees who request leave under the FMLA. 


This content was written by one of our panel members, Louise Smith, an attorney in Dacula, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with labor law issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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Protecting the Elderly: Key Warning Signs of Financial Exploitation

Posted By Joette Melendez, Monday, October 2, 2017

Thousands of Georgia families have made the extremely difficult decision to place their aging parents, grandparents or other loved ones in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. We trust these facilities to take care of our relatives and make sure their needs are met. That’s why it’s so devastating when they turn out to be negligent, or worse, perpetrators of abuse.


While it doesn’t get a lot of media attention, the most common form of elder abuse isn’t physical, sexual or emotional – it’s financial exploitation. Nationwide, it’s a billion-dollar problem. And the perpetrators, far too often, get away with it – only a tiny fraction of cases of financial exploitation are reported.


If you have an elderly loved one in a long-term care facility, you need to be their strongest advocate and watch out for any signs of financial abuse. Here’s what you need to look for:


• Sudden changes in estate planning documents. This might include a change in your loved one’s Last Will and Testament or a related document. Financial exploitation often comes relatively late in the estate planning process, with an abrupt – and suspicious – departure from a long-standing plan.

• Inconsistencies in documentation. Make sure you’re carefully reviewing your loved one’s financial documents, such as billing statements, and cross-referencing them with other documents such as treatment notes. Discrepancies may point to double-billing or billing for services not rendered.

• Reluctance to communicate. If your loved one previously was happy to talk about financial matters with you and has recently become withdrawn or evasive, that’s a significant red flag. They may know something is wrong.

• Isolation. This is a red flag for any sort of abuse, and financial exploitation is no exception. While the nursing home may have legitimate reasons to limit calls or visits, if you find that you’re unreasonably isolated from your loved one, the nursing home may be trying to hide signs of exploitation.

• Unexplained transfers or withdrawals. This is one of the clearest warning signs of financial abuse. If your loved one’s assets are actually being taken by another person, you need to take immediate action.


Now, there are possible legitimate explanations for anything that may look like a warning sign of financial exploitation. If you have reason to suspect that your loved one may be a victim, don’t panic. Call an attorney with experience handling nursing home negligence cases and explain your concerns. Your attorney can investigate and get to the bottom of the situation.


If nothing else, you’ll get the invaluable peace of mind that comes from knowing the truth. And if your loved one has been exploited, an attorney can help you put a stop to it – and fight for the compensation you need to get your loved one’s life back on track.


This content was written by one of our panel members, George Johnson, an attorney in Decatur, Georgia.


***If you or someone you know is faced with elder law issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***


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