MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WREG has the story of a Bartlett mom who spent time behind bars, not because she committed a crime, but because she didn’t pay a lawyer.
Guardians ad litem are often appointed in divorce cases to look out for the best interest of the children, but some parents are sounding the alarm on what they call a pattern of problems and pricey fees that have little to do with protecting kids.
“I was put in shackles as though I was some sort of violent criminal,” said Angela Gilmore.
“I had to walk with handcuffs and shackles on my legs into a van and out on the street. I was marched through the courthouse.”
Except Gilmore hadn’t committed a crime. She got locked up for not paying a lawyer. One she didn’t even hire.
“She went into court and demanded over and over to have me incarcerated,” said Gilmore of the attorney.
Gilmore had sole custody of her children until last year.
A bitter custody battle led to Judge Donna Fields appointing Guardian ad Litem Shari Myers to the case.
Attorney Sam Blaiss says appointing a GAL is a move often necessary to cut through the “he said, she said” in divorce cases.
“The judges sometimes feel like at guardian ad litem can come in and see what is fluff and what really is something that’s needing to be brought to the court’s attention, explained Blaiss who also does guardian ad litem work.
That expertise however, can come with a hefty price tag.
The On Your Side Investigators previously exposed how much guardian ad litem work can cost.
The fees for GALs appointed in juvenile court (dependency and neglect cases) are capped at a certain amount and paid by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
That’s not the case in divorce, probate and other matters handled through Circuit Court.
The parties involved are responsible for paying the guardian ad litem. Sometimes the GAL will do the work pro bono, and depending upon the situation, the judge will order that one party pay more than the other.
Divorce attorney Larry Rice explained how complicated it can get.
“In more of my cases, they’ve been more of a problem than help.”
Rice said instead of having two people arguing, there are three.
“You have a guardian ad litem who’s supposed to be neutral, who many times gravitates to one side or the other,” said Rice of his experience.
Gilmore, who now represents herself, told WREG, “My main thing is, the ability to afford somebody at $175 an hour, how I don’t have anybody to represent my best interest either.”
That $175 is Myers’ hourly rate.
Both parties (Gilmore and her husband) had to pay an initial deposit of a thousand dollars.
But, after spending months on the case and being re-appointed, Gilmore says the fees added up.
“They were yet again, astronomical,” Gilmore said of the fees.
WREG reviewed invoices filed for the GAL’s work which showed $700, $800 for emails, meetings and phone calls.
A trip to court cost more than $1,000.
Four months of work totaled roughly $16,000.
However, Myers waived the bulk of those fees, leaving Gilmore only around $3300 to pay. Her ex-husband paid his balance which was a little less.
“I was unable to pay them,” said Gilmore.
Myers filed a petition for civil contempt against Gilmore.
Judge Fields entered an order that eventually sent Gilmore to jail.
She had to make the full payment to get out. It’s called a “purge payment.”
Gilmore said, “How do you come up with $3,000 sitting in jail? You don’t.”
Gilmore spent five days behind bars. She says her mother and family scraped money together to get her out.
“Until you told me about it, I’d never heard of someone being held in contempt for not paying a guardian ad litem,” said Blaiss.
While rare in Shelby County, parents being jailed for not paying guardians ad litem happens all across the country.
Blaiss explained, “The judge has to find that the person , “A” had the ability to carry out the order and “B”, basically thumbed their nose at the judge and said I’m not doing it.”
Judge Fields’ order noted Gilmore had a tax refund and bought cigarettes, lied about her income, and willfully disobeyed the court.
Still she claimed, “There was just no money.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court adopted Rule 40A several years ago to address outrageous fees and overuse of guardians ad litem.
A high profile Shelby County case was front and center during the discussion.
The rule basically says GALs should only be appointed when absolutely necessary.
However, Rice says even since 40A “There’s some judges that are almost appointing guardian ad litems as standard procedure.”
Blaiss says while it may not be a perfect system, he believes judges are doing the best they can.
“Besides taking kids away, giving them to one parent or another, stopping visitation, that’s got to be one of the last things that you signed up for is to want to throw somebody in jail.”
That jail time is why Gilmore continues to spread her story.
“Here I am continuing to fight.”
For her children and against a court system that to her, just doesn’t seem fair.
Gilmore says she filed a complaint against Judge Fields. Myers communicated with WREG via email, but said she couldn’t comment on the case because it’s still ongoing.
How do GAL appointments in Shelby County compare to the rest of the state?
Through open records WREG learned, since 2012, there have been 170 cases in Shelby County Circuit Court involving a GAL.
Of those cases, 95 are sealed and not all are divorces. In addition to divorces there are medical malpractice suits, minor settlements and accidents.
WREG reviewed roughly 50 cases from 2014 where a GAL was appointed, 35 involved a divorce with children.
In those cases fees ranged from $18,000 to $0 (waived). Most GALs charged anywhere from $150-$175 for their hourly rate. Initial deposits varied.
Some judges used GALS more than others, and some appointed the same GAL multiple times.
Nashville couldn’t provide the statistics, but said appointments have been minimal.
Out of three judges that hear divorces in Knoxville one said he’s yet to appoint a guardian ad litem in a divorce case, and his predecessor only did so a handful of times.
In general, complaints and disciplinary action against attorneys in Tennessee is handled by the Board of Professional Responsibility. It supervises the ethical conduct of attorneys. According to its website, the Board also hears other concerns through its Consumer Assistance Program.
The Board of Judicial Conduct receives complaints and handles discipline against judges. Complaints aren’t considered public record. Disciplinary action against judges is only made public if it rises to formal charges, a public censure or reprimand.