LOS ANGELES, Sept. 15, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- Lawyers from Holland & Knight LLP have filed an elder abuse lawsuit on behalf of Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney and his court-appointed conservator. In a petition brought in Los Angeles Superior Court, the lawsuit claims that Rooney's stepson, Christopher Aber, and his wife, Christina, financially and verbally abused Rooney over a 10-year period, leaving the famed entertainer powerless over his assets and personal life.
In February of this year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Reva Goetz granted court protection to Rooney, appointing attorney Michael R. Augustine as his conservator. Attorneys Bruce S. Ross and Vivian L. Thoreen of Holland & Knight in Los Angeles represent Rooney and Augustine, who charge the Abers with breach of fiduciary duty and fraud stemming from the elder abuse, along with misappropriation of Rooney's name and likeness.
The 90-year-old Rooney is one of America's most prolific entertainment icons. Starting from childhood roles in the late 1920s, he went on to appear in more than 300 films, along with hundreds of prominent television and stage productions. He also served in US military during World War II and is one of only a handful of entertainers to be given four separate stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In fact, despite undergoing double-bypass heart surgery in 2000 Rooney has continued to perform, making multiple film cameos in the last several years alone.
Although he remains mentally sharp and physically able, Rooney has nonetheless in recent years become dependent on others for care and assistance. Even throughout his career, Rooney relied on support from others to help manage his personal and business affairs. According to the complaint, Aber took advantage of the trust and confidence that Rooney put in him, and in the process took control of Rooney's income and finances to enrich himself and his wife, while leaving Rooney no control over or access to his finances. Rooney alleges that the Abers regularly withheld food and medication, leading to bouts of depression.
"Clearly fame does not insulate an individual from the trauma and neglect of elder abuse, as Mickey Rooney's case vividly demonstrates," said Bruce S. Ross of Holland & Knight. "Mickey was exploited by a close relative in whom he placed his trust and looked to for guidance. If a person of Mickey Rooney's stature and profile can be victimized, there are untold numbers of less fortunate seniors who are similarly being abused in this country."
According to the petition, Aber insinuated himself into Rooney's financial life in 2001 by naming himself an account owner and listing himself as a signatory on all of Rooney's personal and business checking and savings accounts. That included Rooney's account known as Densmore Productions, Inc. -- the primary vehicle for managing Rooney's professional activities.
Rooney alleges that Aber retained exclusive control over these accounts and used them regularly to sign checks payable to himself, to pay his personal expenses, and to transfer Rooney's income to his and his wife Christina's personal accounts. Aber even arranged for ATM debit/credit cards in the name of Densmore and regularly used them for his own benefit, while Rooney had no knowledge of their existence. It is believed that Aber held at least ten different American Express credit cards alone to finance his family's extravagant lifestyle. As a result of Aber's actions, substantial and repeated charges were incurred on credit cards for late payments, and exorbitant interest rates were imposed based in part on the amounts financed for which Rooney was liable.
Aber went to extreme lengths to maintain control of Rooney and his finances. He even established a post office box under his exclusive control and then arranged for Rooney's mail to be diverted directly to the post office box to prevent Rooney from being apprised of his correspondence or finances.
Rooney made numerous pleas and inquiries over the years about his mail and finances, but never received an appropriate response from Aber. In fact, Aber threatened Rooney with foreclosure on his home and the loss of his medical and health benefits to coerce Rooney into making appearances so that Aber could continue to benefit from controlling Rooney's estate.
According to the complaint:
Chris regularly used intimidating behavior, verbal abuse, bullying, false or misleading statements, threats and humiliation (both privately and publically) to manipulate Mickey to act for Chris's own financial gain. Chris employed such tactics with the intent to agitate, confuse, frighten or cause Mickey serious emotional distress.
As a direct result of Chris's actions, and through the help of others, the ongoing financial and emotional abuse took its toll on Mickey. During the last decade, Mickey felt powerless and unable to protect himself from coercion and abuse by Chris. Mickey became frightened when Chris or Christina came to his home, yet was afraid to leave his home or use his telephone for fear that he would be verbally abused by Chris for doing so, leaving Mickey frequently subject to bouts of depression. Chris and others denied Mickey not only his income during many years of forced servitude, but also the ability to maximize his opportunities and potential earnings that could have resulted from his lifetime accomplishments and fame. Chris and others instead oppressed Mickey by thwarting Mickey's attempts to recover control over his own life. Ultimately, Mickey had no alternative but to initiate the conservatorship proceeding to gain protection and freedom from Chris and others who were taking advantage of him.
As a result of Aber's actions, Rooney suffered needless and avoidable economic damage. Aber's breach of fiduciary duty and fraud related to Rooney's finances eventually led to income taxes that Rooney was responsible for to become so delinquent that Rooney had to refinance his home on more than one occasion and travel extensively to make numerous appearances all over the country and Europe in order to raise additional income. Rooney also faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and multiple state late charges, penalties and interest for unpaid tax bills.
In testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging earlier this year, Rooney described his plight, "Over the course of time, my daily life became unbearable. Worse, it seemed to happen out of nowhere. At first, it was something small, something I could control. But then it became something sinister that was completely out of control. I felt trapped, scared, used, and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless. For years I suffered silently. I couldn't muster the courage to seek the help I knew I needed. Even when I tried to speak up, I was told to be quiet. It seemed like no one believed me."
In addition to Aber and his wife, the complaint names several other respondents, including:
- Cindy Smith, the owner of California Heat Volleyball Club, who operated her business from the same location as the office used for Rooney's business. It is believed that Smith charged her personal and business expenses to Rooney.
- Jessie Heuer, who has run the Internet site mickeyrooneyfanclub.com since at least September 2005 using Rooney's name and likeness in the marketing and selling of unauthorized copies of numerous items belonging to Rooney, without his express consent or authorization. It is believed Heuer has entered into an agreement with Aber that Rooney is not aware of.
- Other potential co-conspirators who may be identified as the investigation into the fraud continues.
About Holland & Knight: Global law firm Holland & Knight (www.hklaw.com) has one of the country's largest and most diverse private wealth services practices, with more than 85 professionals representing high-net worth individuals and families in their personal and business matters. The firm is known for its trial experience in probate and trust litigation. For more on the Private Wealth Services Group, go to: http://www.hklaw.com/id16048/mpgid4745/.
SOURCE Holland & Knight LLP