In Debt and Under Fire, Attorney Grant Goodman Has Found an Unusual Pool of Clients: the "Victims" of Probate Court

Just about everybody who came into contact with Edward Ravenscroft in 2008 concluded that he needed some serious help.

Thanks to a bad crack habit, Ravenscroft, then 47, had burned through more than $1 million in two short years — with little to show for it. As an heir to the Abbott Laboratories fortune, Ravenscroft was rich, but he was spending his money way too quickly, and stupidly. Even as his Scottsdale home was falling into foreclosure, he gave away $160,000 on a whim.

As is often the case with drug addicts, Ravenscroft started behaving erratically, leading to arrests for three different drug-related felonies in the span of one month. While on probation, he was arrested in California and charged with attempted sexual assault, battery, and domestic violence. Shipped back to the Maricopa County Jail, he was looking at prison time.

In court papers, Ravenscroft admitted that, in addition to his drug problem, he was mentally ill. His defense lawyer wrote that Ravenscroft described himself as bipolar and obsessive-compulsive. Three different doctors agreed. So did the court-appointed psychiatrist who examined him in jail.

That diagnosis may have made all the difference. Under a program launched by the county's presiding judge, criminal defendants with mental illness end up in a special court to assess their competency, and then, if need be, referred to probate court for help. Probate court deals with people who are legally incapacitated: anyone who can't take care of themselves or manage their finances because of mental illness, old age, or disability.

Sent to probate in January 2009, Ravenscroft was assigned a guardian ad litem to fight for his best interests, even if Ravenscroft had no idea what they were. (In this case, that entailed helping Ravenscroft get well enough to check into rehab.) As Ravenscroft's case progressed and he continued to spiral out of control, he also got a guardian (to take care of him), a conservator (to watch over his money), and a lawyer (to express his desires in court).

And then, slowly, Edward Ravenscroft got better.

It took a while: He cycled in and out of four rehab facilities. From March to September 2009, he overdosed four times.

Today, he's been sober eight months. He takes his medication and is preparing to live on his own. He'd been in probate for a little over a year when Probate Court Judge Karen O'Connor terminated his guardianship last month. He is, she said, capable of taking care of himself.

Sounds like a happy ending, right?

Not if you're Grant Goodman. The Phoenix-based attorney is convinced that the whole thing was a scam to steal Ravenscroft's money.

Goodman was inspired by the Arizona Republic's Laurie Roberts, who decided to take on the probate system after reporting about one spectacularly expensive probate case. Roberts' columns have drawn such outrage that Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch commissioned an appellate court judge to investigate the system.

Goodman filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family Roberts has been writing about. But he didn't stop there: He's also filed racketeering lawsuits on behalf of two other people found in probate court to be incapacitated.

All three lawsuits accuse his clients' court-appointed guardians, conservators, and lawyers of acting as a "syndicate" to defraud them of their assets.

Those people may have helped Edward Ravenscroft get off drugs, get into rehab, even stay alive after (several) overdoses. But Goodman says they're the bad guys.

He's the good guy. "Who's going to protect these people, other than lawyers like me?" he asks.

The Republic's Roberts apparently agrees. She devoted an entire column to Goodman's crusade, painting him as a savior.

But a growing number of probate court observers worry that Grant Goodman is less a white knight than a shark who smells blood in the water — and that he intends to use Maricopa County's most vulnerable for both good publicity and a fat payday.

Grant Goodman does not believe that Edward Ravenscroft was ever truly mentally ill. He calls his client's court-appointed psychiatrist — the well-respected Jack Potts — a "hack."

"How many people do you know who are on some form of Xanax, Lexapro — any mood stabilizer?" he asks. "Everybody I know has a personality defect. That doesn't mean they're incapacitated and need protection."

Suffice it to say, that kind of opinion is music to the ears of the people declared incapacitated in probate court, many of whom are convinced they don't need help despite all signs to the contrary. Even Ravenscroft, who once admitted that he had serious issues, began to chafe under the court's restrictions soon after getting sober: Why couldn't he just buy what he wanted to buy? Why were these lawyers telling him what to do? Goodman's willingness to fight on his behalf surely vindicated his belief that he was being ripped off.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske