On fairness, justice and the rights of the disabled…

Featured

One man’s story and the system that failed him.

A native of Turkey, Cüneyt Özveren was never a religious soul. But back in college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), every time his good friend Tanju Çataltepe woke up at the wee hours for the Ramadan fast, Özveren never failed to keep him company. It was just the kind of person he was…kind, considerate and caring, as most would agree in his wide circle of friends. Today, some forty years after those tender years of youth, Cüneyt says his belief that God doesn’t exist has only strengthened. “Now I can explain it scientifically,” he says, sitting in his home in Istanbul, Turkey where he relocated in 2013. For 33 years, Özveren had called the United States his adopted home, where he led a stellar career in information technology and business, reaping the rewards of an equally stellar education from MIT that led him to a life of comfort and wealth. That is until December 15, 2011…when Özveren’s life was to change forever, one fateful night, in his perfectly posh home in Saratoga, California.

“I always wanted to return to Turkey…” he says wistfully, “just not this way…” That’s because tragedy struck Özveren, 7 months shy of his fiftieth birthday when he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed, in what is medically known as a “locked in syndrome” where one’s eyes are the only things that can move. Özveren’s health crisis was so severe and his health care costs so obscenely high (hovering around $100,000 dollars a month) that the decision was made to move him to his native Turkey where his health care costs were brought down considerably.

The story of Özveren is not only the story of a life-changing health crisis but also one that sheds light on the conservatorship system, a seemingly simple and yet complicated legal system, put in place for those who cannot physically and/or mentally make and execute life decisions for themselves. And that’s exactly what happened to Özveren – except that there is nothing wrong with him mentally. Recently divorced, Özveren was surrounded by a large group of caring friends following his health crisis. His sister and mother flew from Turkey to California to look after him as soon as they possibly could. At the time of his stroke, Özveren had considerable assets and savings that needed the attention of someone who, unlike his sister or mother, could easily navigate through the nooks and crannies of the American system of finance, banking, trusts and taxes – both individual and corporate. Further complicating the picture were the remnants of his messy divorce and ongoing child custody matters. No friend volunteered for the job at hand, so the decision was made and a conservator was appointed by the California probate court system. Starting on January 23, 2012, Özveren became a conservatee in a system which basically turned over the control of his “person” and his “estate” to (for lack of a better word) a stranger. The latter was Bonnie Burdett, a professional fiduciary from Los Altos, California.

Today, with the conservatorship finally over, nearly 3 years after the first attempts at termination were initiated,[1] Özveren holds steady in his belief that his conservator, albeit qualified enough on paper and certified in the state of California, was simply a “stranger” to the intricacies of his case and that as a consequence contributed to the considerable and unnecessary loss of his financial assets. “I knew that Bonnie could not do this job when she could not produce the expense worksheet that I wanted. I realized that she tried to be my conservator without knowing the details of my expenses…Someone with the experience to manage millions of dollars could have been better” he says.

Burdett has repeatedly declined to answer any questions for this article. Özveren’s closest living family member is his sister Şeyma Özveren-Öner who maintains that Burdett was simply doing her job as best as she could, all the while bombarded by the additional demands of her brother’s exceedingly demanding ex-wife. A close friend of Özveren was Nuri Dağdeviren who helped the family (the sister and the mother) initially set up the conservatorship. He thinks there may have been some disagreements among family members over the direction of it in the following years. Regardless of family dynamics, one overarching reason why there exists no true consensus on Burdett is that, during the initial months following Özveren’s stroke, it was his precarious health status that was utmost on everyone’s mind and not the details and direction of the conservatorship. That said, a close look at some of the basic facts will reveal that in this specific case, the conservatorship system failed Özveren because it is a flawed system, prone not only to the individual judgment and skill of the conservator, but also open for conflict of interest in the form of duplicated charges and excessive fees. According to a White Paper published by CEDAR (Coalition for elder and adult rights) in September 2015, “California’s conservatorship system is alarmingly repressive and devoid of oversight or accountability.”

Here are a few basic facts about the way Özveren’s affairs were handled: There was the court-appointed conservator (Burdett) (whose hourly rate varied between 135 to165 dollars an hour); working alongside Burdett, and covering all of the significant legal hurdles for which she was not qualified, was an attorney (Richard Gorini) whose hourly rate stands at $425.  In only the first accounting period, the professional service charges for Burdett were $102,130.92, for Gorini $73,260.00.  In this set up, it was a common occurrence that both Burdett and Gorini would be charging hefty sums of money while attending the same court hearing on the very same day.[2]

Also in the mix of this costly stew was Özveren’s divorce lawyer (Mia Mosher) working with Burdett over the handling of child custody issues since Özveren and his ex-wife have a young daughter, a minor throughout the entire conservatorship period. All three people, the conservator and two attorneys were being paid out of the very estate the conservator was assigned to manage. Basically, the foxes were all in charge of the henhouse.

Between January 23, 2012 when Burdett took over as conservator, and May 16, 2016 when the conservatorship was officially terminated, Özveren’s original assets of about 6 million dollars shrunk to a mere 2 million, leaving his financial future uncertain at best. The reason for this uncertainly is quite simple: Severely disabled (basically a quadriplegic), Özveren is in need of 24 hour nursing care. He is completely dependent on paid staff to stay alive while he cannot work and cannot earn any income. The severity of Özveren’s health crisis is marked by two life-saving brain surgeries following his brain stem stroke, followed by 3 months in intensive care, then a period of 7 months when he was literally fighting for his life, in between several hospital stays including one during which a code blue[3] was called. After his status became more or less stable, that is between September 2012 and May 2013 when he relocated to Turkey, Özveren lived in his home in CA with 24 hour nursing care, with an average monthly cost of forty-thousand dollars. Managing these health care costs, in addition to his personal and professional finances as well as the routine interruptions from various family law issues all fell on Burdett: A tall order for any conservator. But here is the catch: Özveren is no ordinary conservatee. This is a man whose brain continues in full-function, basically outrunning his failing body. His cognition is completely intact despite the fact that he suffers from dysphagia and cannot speak. A highly intelligent scientist and entrepreneur, Özveren has 5 MIT degrees under his belt. He is not only an electrical and computer engineer, he is also a graduate of the Sloan school of Management. Between his last year of schooling in 1989, and the tragedy of his life-altering stroke in 2011, Özveren had put his mark on 6 different corporate ventures. By his mid-thirties, Özveren was making a name for himself not only in Silicon Valley where he worked, but also in his native Turkey. Özveren’s professional acquaintances describe him as “a visionary and a hard charging CEO.” In 2004, one of his brainchildren, LeapTag Inc., was a stealth start up in the Internet application space. In 2008, he was the main force behind Intelligent Papers, a digital textbook company. His business partner in this last venture was İsmet Müstecaplıoğlu who describes his friend of 43 years as “very hardworking, at times domineering, but always committed to being good at what he does and being successful in business.”

Today, sitting in a wheelchair in front of his special computer and under the watchful eye of his caregivers, it takes Özveren a painstaking half hour to write a decent paragraph to email a friend. Since he cannot use his hands, his eyes are his most important assets right now. Using eye-recognition technology, he moves his eyes across the computer keyboard, and points to the right letter to form the right word, then the right cluster of words and finally the full sentence. When he thinks of the myriad emails that were written on his behalf by his conservator, he is often overcome by anger and frustration. Knowing all that he knows about numbers, about money, about running a business and making the right decisions for all that’s involved, he cannot help but feel outraged. Whenever he questions a particular charge on the conservator’s yearly accounting summaries, he is told that every single penny spent from his estate was officially approved by the probate court judge. After hearing the same refrain repeatedly, he cannot help but wonder how the judge can possibly approve every single charge without having all of the pertinent information that may be involved while he, as the conservatee, does not have direct access to the judge. When he thinks about the bank accounts the conservator was handling on his behalf, he obsesses over every single interest rate she missed. When he thinks about a corporate return she signed, he is irritated because he knows she signed the papers without truly understanding the content. And when he asks her not to do something on his behalf and when she does exactly the opposite, he is simply incensed.[4]

To an outsider, Özveren’s complaints may sound like the frustrated fits of fury of someone who feels helpless. Yet, for those who know and work within the system, there does exist a clear level of skepticism about the U.S. legal system that oversees conservatorships and family law. In Özveren’s case, there is reason to believe that someone of his cognitive and intellectual capacity should have had better access to the standards and procedures about the conservatorship system. It wasn’t until December 9, 2015 (4 years into the conservatorship) that Özveren received a standard “rights” documents in an email attachment from Burdett. In that email, she promised to send in the original document specially drafted for his particular case, but that promise never quite materialized. To this day, Özveren maintains that his rights as a conservatee were never clearly explained to him until he requested the documents in 2015 – nearly four years after the start of the conservatorship. Despite the erratic nature of his recovery, with varying degrees of consciousness in the first year following his stroke, Özveren was nevertheless observed and described as being able to “process and understand complicated subjects as early as January 2012.[5]  And yet, when asked if Özveren was given the information regarding his rights as a conservatee, neither the sister nor his close friends are able to recall with any clarity if and when that occurred. This fact alone leaves the door open for possible gaps in the way the conservatorship was understood and accepted by the one person for whom it mattered most: the conservatee, in this case, the highly intelligent stroke victim whose cognition and intelligence has simply outrun his paralyzed body.

In addition, whenever Özveren inquired about terminating the conservatorship (in his repeated requests between 2015 and 2016), he was told that he could not ask Burdett to withdraw as he had been doing and that she would have to resign. However, the Notice of Conservatee’s Rights as stipulated under the Probate Court in California states that: ”The conservatee keeps the right to ask a judge to replace the conservator; ask a judge to end the conservatorship.” [6] It is worth noting here that all three people hired and paid by the Özveren estate, were still charging by the hour for their services during the entire timespan of 2015/2016. Furthermore, just as Özveren’s assets were diminishing by the hour, the conservator’s accounting summaries were being filled up by a myriad of mundane tasks billed at unreasonable levels: A half hour exchange of documents between Burdett and attorney Gorini: $45.00; Burdett reviewing and approving invoices (which are meant to be reviewed later by a judge) for 0.8 hours: $108.00; a single email with family law counsel regarding child care for 0.1 hour: $16.50 and the list goes on…

Caught in a seemingly repressive system which was eating into his life saving, Özveren decided on a more dramatic route in the summer of 2015 and hired the Geragos law firm to check into his conservatorship. The investigation’s purpose was to dig in and find out if his conservator or any other third party was at least at fault, if not entirely guilty of outright surcharge actions or any malpractice emanating from simple incompetence. The Geragos investigation lasted about a year but could not reveal any such proof. And yet the fact remains that the Özveren story was no ordinary case.

A simple google search among the top 15 controversial conservatorship cases in California reveals not one case similar to Özveren’s. Among the 15 cases, 7 are related to individuals with mental issues, 2 deal with complications arising after an elderly conservatee’s death, the rest with various issues ranging from post-death scenarios to those conservatees who happen to be minors or sexually dangerous individuals.

So where does this leave Özveren and his stubborn belief that he was wronged by the conservatorship system? With the approval of the judge and the probate court system, the conservatorship ended in May 2016. A U.S. bank account kept the funds for his daughter’s private school tuition and the rest was wired to him in Turkey. Fighting the system any further is nearly impossible. It is too late to request an appeal or a motion to reconsider without spending large amounts of money…money that Özveren needs preserve in order to stay alive while making sure he keeps his promise to pay for his daughter’s education. “The system is set up wrong” he says, “you can’t use the same person, judge or conservator, for everyone,” summarizing what may well be the crux of his problems. Özveren is a rare breed: A conservatee with severe physical limitations, and yet whose brainpower perhaps exceeds that of the people assigned to work on his behalf combined. And there is nothing anyone can say or do to make him change in mind about the system he was thrown into following his life-altering health crisis.

Whether he was the wrong man in the right system, or the right man in the wrong system may be an open question for some. But not so for this ex-conservatee. Özveren is more than convinced that the conservatorship and the court system that oversees it simply failed him, even though “the court is to be guided by what appears to be for the best interests of the conservatee.”[7] Of this he is certain, just as certain as he used to be when answering the most complicated math questions back in middle school. “Everything was easy in school but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to intimidate them.” he says. Too modest to speak out back then, Özveren wants to speak out loud and clear today. And even though he cannot physically speak, he will make sure he will be heard, with or without his vocal chords working.


[1] The conservatorship of the person was terminated on July 23, 2013. The conservatorship of the estate was terminated on May 16, 2016.

[2] One of many such examples: Both Burdett and Gorini attended a January 17, 2013 court session of 2.7-2.8  hours with Burdett charging $378.00 and Gorini $1,147.00

[3] Code blue: An emergency situation announced in a hospital or institution in which a patient is in cardiopulmonary arrest, requiring a team of providers (sometimes called a ‘code team’) to rush to the specific location and begin immediate resuscitative efforts.

[4] According to email exchanges between January through March of 2015, Özveren repeatedly asked Burdett not to speak to the IRS regarding his corporate returns without consulting him and the banks. She never complied.

[5] Post on January 3, 2012 (3 weeks after the stroke) on the Google Group formed by friends to exchange visitation notes and observations. Quotation from friend on Googlegroup “Get Well Cüneyt” dated January 3, 2012.

[6] Form adopted for mandatory use by the Judicial Council of California. (Probate-Guardianships and conservatorships)

[7] From West’s California Jurisprudence 3D. Volume 35A (Government Tort Liability to Guardianship and Conservatorship, page:1042