Woman Accused of Stealing from Elderly Client Called “Paralegal” in News Article

A story on WFTV’s website reports “A Brevard County woman is accused of stealing thousands from a 92-year-old woman with dementia and a retired teacher who lives in a nursing home,” with the headline, “Brevard paralegal accused of stealing from elderly female clients.” This story raises a number of issues that are the subject of frequent comments here including the role of legal personnel in preventing elder abuse(and here,) the danger of legal personnel committing elder abuse, and the role of a supervising attorney in supervising (or the failure of the attorney to supervise) legal staff who embezzle from law firms or from clients.

In this instance my focus is once again on the tendency of the public (especially mass media) to refer to any person who works for an attorney as a “paralegal” without regard to the role that person plays in the law office or the qualifications of that person for classification as a paralegal. This problem derives from and at the  same time perpetuates the difficulty the paralegal profession continues to have in establishing a professional identity. Efforts such as Florida’s Registered Paralegal program should help in this regard, but this story emanates from Florida.

At first the story states, “Jenine Black was the office manager for an attorney of Estate Planning and Elder Law Center of Brevard.” Clearly a person can be an office manager without being a paralegal and a paralegal without being a manager. But later the story pegs her as both office manager and paralegal:

  The attorney who owns the office, Robin Petersen, first noticed money missing from his accounts.

“At the time, it was close to $200,000. Now we estimate it’s over $200,000 taken from him personally,” Sgt. Michael Casey of the Indialantic Police Department said.

Police said perhaps more outrageous is that the longtime office manager and paralegal is accused of targeting elderly clients.

The woman with dementia and the retired teached are each missing around $20,000, police said.

“She was actually taking it straight from their accounts and she was writing checks out of their accounts,” Casey said.

There is, of course, no indication as to the basis for that designation. It’s a shame. The paralegal profession, like all professions, has its share of “bad apples.” It does not help to the profession to also be pegged with responsibility for  acts committed by persons who a re  not really part of the profession.

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