Man’s mental state at issue in guardianship case

Nursing home is seeking third-party intervention

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

A 72-year-old man increasingly displayed odd behavior, eccentric beliefs and signs of hoarding, prompting the concern of several neighbors and his family. Concerned whether he could care for himself, his Vancouver nursing home filed a petition for a third-party professional guardianship, an attorney told jurors Monday.

“We’re not alleging Mr. (Richard) Morse is not intelligent,” Rachel Brooks, attorney for Vancouver Health and Rehabilitation Center, told jurors. “We are concerned there is a mental illness.”

But as jurors heard in opening statements, Morse’s attorney, Jim Senescu, painted a much different picture of the case.

There was a motive for the petition, the attorney said. Morse is “land rich but cash poor,” and was not keeping up with his bills to stay at the center, Senescu said. To collect, a social worker at the center filed the guardianship petition.

Since this case is about individual rights, Senescu told jurors, his client wanted the case to be decided by a jury, a rare avenue for guardianship cases that, when contested, are typically heard by a judge.

“You are going to hear that he’s entitled to the same constitutional rights that we are all entitled to,” Senescu said. “We (wanted to) take someone without any agenda to make the decision. You are the judges on the case.”

It’s apparently the first time in recent memory that 12 Clark County citizens will decide a guardianship case.

In her opening statement, Brooks said Morse was treated at Southwest Washington Medical Center in February 2010 for infected leg wounds. He was discharged to the nursing home, where he has been living ever since.

Brooks said center staff became increasingly concerned about his behavior, which she described as schizophrenic. She said Morse’s neighbors around his home in Yacolt described him as a hoarder. Thirty cats had to be put down as a result of his behavior, she said.

Morse had extreme religious beliefs that manifested in his odd behavior, she said, and he also made odd decisions in what to wear — or not to wear — when it was cold outside. She didn’t provide specifics.

The center filed the petition for a professional guardian to be appointed for Morse. Under Washington law, a care facility cannot become a guardian, as it would be a conflict of interest.

Odd behavior doesn’t mean he is incapacitated, which is the issue that the jury is deciding, Senescu countered in his opening statement. By law, guardians are appointed to handle personal and financial affairs when a person has demonstrated an inability to do so. A person is deemed “incapacitated” when he cannot provide for his safety and health.

Senescu told jurors that his client is not incapacitated, a term that would better describe a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia or someone in a coma.

Senescu said Morse served 10 years in the Navy as a young man and then worked as a logger. With a strong conviction of individual freedom, Morse wants to keep his rights over his affairs and his property just like any citizen would, Senescu said.

“He’s entitled by the United States, by the state of Washington and by Clark County to have those rights,” the attorney said.

The trial is expected to conclude Wednesday.

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.