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Date: 10-17-2001

Case Style: In Re: Guardianship of Theresa Marie Schiavo

Case Number: 2D01-3626

Judge: Altenbernd

Court: Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

Plaintiff's Attorney: Patricia Fields Anderson, St. Petersburg, and Lawrence D. Crow, Tarpon Springs, for Appellants

Defendant's Attorney: George J. Felos of Felos & Felos, P.A., Dunedin, for Appellee.

Description: This is the third opinion issued by this court addressing a bitter dispute among the members of Mrs. Theresa Schiavo’s family over her medical condition and her right to forego life-prolonging medical procedures. See In re Guardianship of Schiavo (Schindler v. Schiavo), 780 So. 2d 176 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) ("Schiavo I"); In re Guardianship of Schiavo (Schindler v. Schiavo), 26 Fla. L. Weekly D1700 (Fla. 2d DCA July 11, 2001) ("Schiavo II"). Our last opinion instructed the guardianship court to permit Mrs. Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, to file a motion for relief from judgment. We attempted to limit the nature of the grounds upon which relief could be granted. Following our opinion, the trial court summarily denied the Schindlers’ newly filed motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b)(5). We have reviewed the trial court’s order in conjunction with our last opinion. We acknowledge that our opinion misled the trial court. Accordingly, we are compelled to reverse a portion of the trial court’s decision in this case.

We conclude that the Schindlers’ motion for relief from judgment and the supporting affidavits state a "colorable entitlement" to relief concerning the issue of whether Mrs. Schiavo might elect to pursue a new medical treatment before withdrawing life-prolonging procedures. See Dynasty Express Corp. v. Weiss, 675 So. 2d 235, 239 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996); S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co. v. Welden, 483 So. 2d 487, 489 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986). This "colorable entitlement" requires the trial court to permit certain limited discovery and conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether this new evidence calls into question the trial court’s earlier decision that Mrs. Schiavo would elect to cease life-prolonging procedures if she were competent to make her own decision. We emphasize that we are requiring an evidentiary hearing only to resolve the motion for relief from judgment; this opinion does not require a new trial.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY OF THIS CASE

In Schiavo I, we affirmed the trial court’s decision ordering Mrs. Schiavo’s guardian to withdraw life-prolonging procedures. Schiavo I, 780 So. 2d 176 (Fla. 2d DCA), cert. denied, 789 So. 2d 348 (Fla. 2001) (table). In so doing, we affirmed the trial court's rulings that (1) Mrs. Schiavo’s medical condition was the type of end-stage condition that permits the withdrawal of life-prolonging procedures, (2) she did not have a reasonable medical probability of recovering capacity so that she could make her own decision to maintain or withdraw life-prolonging procedures, (3) the trial court had the authority to make such a decision when a conflict within the family prevented a qualified person from effectively exercising the responsibilities of a proxy, and (4) clear and convincing evidence at the time of trial supported a determination that Mrs. Schiavo would have chosen in February 2000 to withdraw the life-prolonging procedures.

After our first opinion, the Schindlers began a multipronged attack upon the trial court’s final judgment. That attack included filing a motion in the guardianship court seeking relief from the judgment pursuant to rule 1.540(b)(2) and (3), based upon allegations of newly discovered evidence and intrinsic fraud, and filing a separate complaint in the civil division of the circuit court seeking to challenge the final judgment of the guardianship court. On July 11, 2001, this court held that the guardianship court had appropriately denied the 1.540 motion as untimely on its face but that the Schindlers, who are technically "interested parties" in this proceeding, had standing to file either a motion for relief from judgment under rule 1.540(b)(5) or an independent action in the guardianship court to challenge the judgment on the grounds that it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application. Schiavo II, 26 Fla. L. Weekly D1700. This court reversed an injunction entered in the case pending before the civil division of the circuit court and noted that any independent action seeking to challenge the guardianship court’s judgment must be filed in the guardianship court. We remanded the case and provided the Schindlers with a limited time in which to file either proceeding in the guardianship court.

On remand, the Schindlers filed a timely motion for relief from judgment pursuant to rule 1.540(b)(5). In addition to the motion for relief from judgment, the Schindlers filed a "Petition for Independent Medical Examination," a petition for removal of guardian, and a motion to disqualify Judge Greer. The trial court denied the petition for removal of guardian and the motion to disqualify. We affirm those decisions without further discussion. The trial court also summarily denied the motion for relief from judgment and the "petition" for an independent medical examination. These are the decisions we review at greater length in this opinion.

* * *

Click the case caption above for the full text of the Court's opinion.

Outcome: We fully recognize that the discovery process and the hearing that we have outlined will require extensive cooperation among attorneys whose clients are engaged in a bitter dispute. The enmity of clients does not dispense with the need for professionalism among lawyers; it heightens that need. In the final analysis, the courts must and will make the necessary decisions for Mrs. Schiavo. Professionalism among the lawyers involved is the best guaranty that the court will make sound decisions. The lawyers involved in this case have already demonstrated such professionalism during this appeal. We are confident they can rise to the occasion and demonstrate the professionalism necessary to resolve this matter in the trial court without undue delay and with the care and dignity that we all owe to Mrs. Schiavo.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Plaintiff's Experts: Unknown

Defendant's Experts: Unknown

Comments: None



 
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