A Long Lake man appointed by Minnesota courts to oversee the lives and estates of vulnerable adults is resigning from nearly five dozen cases in the wake of complaints about mismanagement and a violent attack on him by one of his clients.
Clarence Coffindaffer has been appointed in 91 vulnerable adult cases, 57 of which remain open, despite a series of criticisms from court auditors and objections to his supervision from some wards and their family members. One of his attorneys, Charles Singer, confirmed that Coffindaffer plans to quit the business as soon as possible.
“This process will take several months as there are several attorneys involved and it is not an easy task to find professionals who will take some of these cases,” Singer said.
Coffindaffer’s pending resignations likely mean added expenses for his clients and a Sisyphean task for the court as it struggles to find acceptable replacements to supervise its wards. The disruption hits Twin Cities probate courts still grappling with the 2014 collapse of another professional guardian and conservator firm known as Alternate Decision Makers Inc. (ADMI), whose founder admitted to pilfering the wards’ accounts.
Coffindaffer inherited a number of ADMI’s former clients, taking control of their finances despite his own background of financial difficulties. His 2005 personal bankruptcy petition in West Virginia was not publicly disclosed in some court records, despite a state law requiring it.
Hennepin District Judge Jamie L. Anderson wrote Coffindaffer in September demanding an explanation for late annual account filings, missing and incomplete support documentation and missing Social Security payments caused by his management failures. In January, she fined Coffindaffer $100 for failing to file required documents in one case and for failing to appear at a December court hearing. This month, she ordered him to appear before her on March 28 for failing to submit several required filings and skipping a February hearing in another case.
Auditors have raised concerns about Coffindaffer routing expense “reimbursements” for his clients through a company he founded called Valtara LLC. The company’s registration lapsed in 2009 and he only renewed it this month, after a reporter’s inquiry.
Some wards and their loved ones say they can’t be rid of Coffindaffer soon enough.
“That man caused a lot of distress in our family. He treated us like criminals,” said Sharon Sandanger, whose sister, Cynthia Skow, was one of Coffindaffer’s clients. She succeeded in replacing him with another professional conservator in June after she complained to the court that he had barred Skow from seeing her siblings for 18 months, failed to inform loved ones when she was hospitalized and changed residences and refused to share Skow’s financial information.
Coffindaffer, 74, deferred comment to his attorneys. Singer declined to comment on pending litigation, but acknowledged some accounting mistakes that needed correction: “It happens,” he said.
Coffindaffer became a professional guardian and conservator in 2007, two years after filing for bankruptcy. His new profession followed a career as a librarian, college administrator and professor of information technology.
Prospective conservators and guardians have been required to disclose prior bankruptcy filings since August 2013. Court filings since then state that Coffindaffer never filed for bankruptcy, or they remain silent on the issue, or they state that he filed for bankruptcy “more than 20 years earlier” and that the case number was “unknown.”
The Star Tribune obtained his bankruptcy filings online. His debts at the time included $82,000 in unsecured claims to banks and credit card companies. Coffindaffer said in the filing that he was receiving $3,660 a month in disability payments. Singer said the nature of the disability is confidential information.
“I was unaware of the issue until you raised it recently,” Singer wrote in an e-mail this week. “I do not think it is any of your business. The Court was informed of the matter in an earlier case and did not believe it was an issue to be concerned about.”
Family members of some of his clients said they had no idea that Coffindaffer had filed for bankruptcy and would have wanted to know that before his appointment.
Discontent among families
Katie Whiteford filed a petition Wednesday to remove Coffindaffer “for good cause” from the case of her 92-year-old father, Robert Whiteford, despite the fact that Coffindaffer had already offered to resign as his guardian and conservator last fall.
“Coffindaffer should not be permitted to resign and escape the consequences of his failure to properly tend to my father’s personal well-being and his finances,” she said in her petition.
If the court removes Coffindaffer for cause, Robert Whiteford could seek to recover costs from him personally and from the bond that the court requires for estates exceeding $3,000 in liquid assets, said Jill Adkins, an attorney representing Katie Whiteford.
Whiteford’s petition says that Coffindaffer should be removed because he has alienated the staff at her father’s residential facility, and because he failed to promptly address her father’s health concerns, missed deadlines for filing annual accounts, turned in inaccurate financial records, provided tardy and incomplete responses to court auditors, and paid legal fees from her father’s estate that were barred by the court.
Coffindaffer was appointed late last March as guardian for Luis Leo Michael Biros, a 21-year-old with autism who suffers from severe anxiety and depression.
Sarah Biros said her son can be difficult to manage and she initially resisted Coffindaffer’s appointment. She said he convinced her to give it a try.
The trouble began soon after Coffindaffer placed her son in a group home with older adults and a staff that knew nothing about autism, she said. Under Coffindaffer’s care, she said, Biros bounced between downtown Minneapolis homeless shelters and a hotel in Plymouth.
“It was bad. I didn’t know from day to day if he was eating, if people were coming to see him, if his bills were being paid,” his mother said. “Clarence was very short with me when I would voice concerns. … And he would say, ‘This is Luis’ choice; this is what Luis wants.’ ”
In a handwritten letter to the court in July, Luis Biros complained that Coffindaffer “wants nothing but to drug [me] and coop me up, he hasn’t done anything that’s helpful for me and my future.” He asked to be restored to capacity and fend for himself. Coffindaffer opposed the motion, and Judge Anderson ruled in Coffindaffer’s favor on Nov. 16.
On Jan. 20, Luis Biros became enraged while talking with Coffindaffer at a Plymouth hotel. Court records say Biros knocked off Coffindaffer’s hat and punched him three times, blinding his left eye.
Biros remains jailed pending trial on felony assault charges.
“I think Clarence is a good guy that takes on too many cases,” said Vincent Courtney, a lawyer appointed to represent Biros in his ongoing guardianship case. “From what I can tell, he was trying to help this kid find a place to live.”
Sarah Biros has stepped back in as her son’s guardian because of the attack.
Elder law attorney Mary F. Jensen described Coffindaffer as “one of the finest professional fiduciaries I work with, and he provides a very high level of care and attention to his cases.” She represents him in a case involving William Jaunty, who has a serious brain injury from alcoholism and meningitis.
Jaunty’s family members describe Coffindaffer’s performance as anything but attentive. His history of late bill payments and poor communication practices have resulted in serious harm, said Jaunty’s ex-wife and siblings. They wrote to the court in January that “an extreme lapse” in Coffindaffer’s public assistance filings resulted in Jaunty losing benefits. Jaunty had to pay full price for some medications and had to “wait out” a painful toothache until his benefits were reinstated, they said.
Because of Coffindaffer, they say, Jaunty got an eviction notice from his adult foster home. They complained that well-being reports and other required documents were long overdue. And they questioned whether Coffindaffer visited Jaunty as often as he reported to the court.
Jaunty gets angry at the mention of Coffindaffer, said a sister, Nancy Johnson.
“He can’t speak anymore. He can’t dress himself anymore. He has a hard time even eating. And all he thinks about is his money, to be able to buy cigarettes and candy and his Mountain Dew,” she said. “You know what? Give him his damn money. It’s all he has left.”