Since attorney Danielle M. Ross became Lackawanna County’s guardian ad litem in 2008, court records show that several litigants and their attorneys petitioned to have Ross removed from their cases. In one instance from early November 2011, an attorney petitioned to have Ross removed from a case in light of media reports of federal and state investigations into the county’s guardian ad litem program and Ross herself, but the petition was denied.
Representing the plaintiff father in Ofcharsky v. Ofcharsky , Carbondale, Pa.-based attorney John J. Cerra filed a petition stating: "The petitioner is informed and believes from newspaper articles that the guardian ad litem is now the subject of two separate investigations. One by a state agency and one by the federal government. It has been reported in one public source that the guardian is a target of a federal investigation.
"The petitioner avers that in the event it is determined that the guardian has acted inappropriately, all action taken by the guardian would have to be rendered null, void and improper," the petition continued, adding that there was "a cloud on her office."
The petition, filed Nov. 3, 2011, came just days after the appearance of local media reports that federal investigators had subpoenaed guardian ad litem records as part of an investigation into the amount of money the county has been spending on the program.
The reports also said a grand jury had subpoenaed all bills, invoices, receipts and statements of services related to Ross’ work as a guardian ad litem.
In June 2011, it had been reported that Lackawanna County Common Pleas Court President Judge Thomas J. Munley had asked the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to review the county’s guardian ad litem office.
Cerra told the Law Weekly on Wednesday that it was his client who first brought the media reports to his attention and asked whether Ross’ assignment to the case created an appearance of impropriety. Cerra said he filed the petition soon after.
"I was very clear in the petition that I don’t know if she did anything wrong or didn’t, but [my argument was], ‘Isn’t this enough to get her taken off the case?,’" Cerra said.
According to Cerra, a hearing on the petition was held before Judge Trish Corbett.
"The judge said, ‘I just don’t see any reason to do this,’" Cerra recalled. "I said, ‘It’s your call. I did what I was supposed to do.’"
Corbett issued an order on Nov. 4 denying Cerra’s petition.
Though sources have told the Law Weekly that federal investigators are asking questions about Ross’ involvement in the program, court records show that Ross is still receiving new assignments in 2012.
Ross and Corbett did not return calls for comment.
The Ofcharsky case wasn’t the first time Cerra had called for Ross’ removal from a case.
In Horrocks v. Horrocks , to which Ross was assigned in August 2011, Cerra, representing the defendant father, wrote to Ross directly to ask her to remove herself, claiming neither party in the case believed a guardian ad litem was necessary.
Cerra told the Law Weekly last week that the litigants in the case had been involved in a minor altercation during the initial conciliation conference but had quickly agreed to remain civil thereafter.
"It was not a case she should have been involved in," Cerra told the Law Weekly . "There were no issues and they appointed her anyway. I said, ‘What the hell are you guys doing? For what?’"
While Cerra’s letter to Ross is not part of the court record, some of Ross’ responses are.
In one filing titled "Guardian Ad Litem Memorandum to Counsel" and dated Sept. 13, 2011, Ross, responding to letter from Cerra dated Sept. 9, wrote that she "would be more than happy to simply abide by the parties’ request for me not to become involved at this time; however, as both counsel are astute enough to acknowledge, I am under a court order to proceed in this case."
"I was not present to know why the court appointed a GAL, but rather, merely received the court’s order directing me to proceed and I am legally compelled to do so," Ross continued in the memorandum. "If it is the wish of both parties not to proceed with the involvement of a GAL at this time, then I am respectfully requesting a court order be attained, specifically permitting me to not have to proceed on this matter, unless the parties restart litigation."
In another filing, a letter dated Sept. 22, 2011, and addressed to Cerra in response to a letter he had sent that same day, Ross said she "will not withdraw from this case or any case, unless I feel I am unable to perform my duties."
In November 2011, the parties reached a custody agreement.
Cerra is just one of the attorneys who have attempted to have Ross removed from a case, court records show.
In one divorce and custody case that spanned more than six years, Ross hired a lawyer after the second of three plaintiffs attorneys to appear in the case petitioned for Ross to be removed as guardian ad litem.
Following the removal petition in Jankauskas v. Jankauskas , attorney Dawn Riccardo made an entry of appearance for Ross. According to court records, Riccardo has represented clients in at least 14 cases to which Ross was appointed guardian ad litem, prompting at least one of those litigants’ attorneys to file her own petition to disqualify Ross. But before the court’s scheduled removal hearing in the first matter, plaintiff Erin E. Jankauskas replaced her attorney and wrote to the court to abolish the removal petition. The judge’s recusal from Jankauskas appeared to delay a hearing on the removal petition.
On March 6, 2009, plaintiff Erin Jankauskas, through her attorney Lawrence A. Durkin, filed a petition to remove Ross. The petition alleged Ross failed to act in the best interest of the children in the case and that she violated a number of provisions in the Lackawanna County guardian ad litem guidelines. Specifically, the petition alleged she failed to provide an assessment from a neutral perspective, failed to conduct a home study, and communicated with litigants directly without copying their respective counsel, among other violations. Attached to the petition were several e-mails exchanged between Ross and one of the parties.
On March 25, 2009, defendant Edward J. Jankauskas, through his attorney Selyne K. Youngclaus, filed an answer to his ex-wife’s petition, denying allegations pertaining to Ross. Citing the "substantial latitude" guardians ad litem have in "tailoring" their roles to certain cases, Edward Jankauskas denied any wrongdoing on the part of Ross.
On April 6, 2009, Ross filed her own answer denying the allegations set forth by Erin Jankauskas, also citing her "substantial latitude."
On April 7, 2009, Riccardo filed an entry of appearance for Ross in Jankauskas .
Meanwhile, in another case, Maher v. Maher , Ross was serving as guardian ad litem and Riccardo was representing the defendant mother. In a petition dated April 20, 2009, plaintiff father Patrick Maher, through attorney Johanna L. Gelb, argued that Riccardo’s representation of Ross in Jankauskas created "at least the appearance of impropriety."
In Patrick Maher’s petition, he noted Ross’ position: She had a professional relationship with Riccardo, there was no appearance of impropriety and disqualification was not necessary.
According to the petition, Riccardo agreed with Gelb in an April 17, 2009, conversation that a substitute guardian ad litem would be appropriate and suggested another attorney, Donald J. Frederickson, as Ross’ replacement.
However, according to the petition, after Ross and Riccardo spoke later that day, Riccardo decided to withdraw her entry of appearance for Ross in Jankauskas .
Riccardo filed a praecipe to remove herself as counsel in Jankauskas on April 29, 2009.
But Patrick Maher still argued that Riccardo’s conduct "constitutes a tacit admission of the appearance of impropriety."
As the parties in Jankauskas awaited a June 5 hearing on Erin Jankauskas’s removal petition following the recusal of Munley from the case, Erin Jankauskas replaced Durkin as her attorney.
When the court issued its May 29 order denying the petition to remove Ross, it noted that Erin Jankauskas had written a letter to the court asking it to dismiss the petition. She said Durkin was "pushing the issue," according to the order.
Erin Jankauskas’ next attorney — Edmund Scacchitti — said his client was "more interested in bringing the principal issue than getting involved in any extraneous matters."
Asked about Riccardo’s representation of Ross in Jankauskas while Riccardo was handling Maher , Durkin told the Law Weekly , "It raises questions of propriety, but I’m not the judge of propriety."
Riccardo, on the other hand, told the Law Weekly that she never did any work on Jankauskas . While she could not recall if her departure from the case directly stemmed from Patrick Maher’s motion in Maher , she said, "If anybody is going to raise an issue of conflict, I would always step aside."
Asked if there was an inherent conflict in representing Ross while handling another case to which Ross was appointed, Riccardo said: "Well I didn’t follow through on the representation so I don’t think I can answer that because I didn’t follow through and I didn’t litigate on her behalf."
Had she represented Ross, Riccardo said, she would have raised the issue in subsequent cases and asked for a different guardian.
Despite news media reports that federal investigators are looking at Ross, Riccardo said she has had positive experiences with Ross and that the county’s program is a good one.
"I think it’s sad our whole system is under scrutiny because I think we have a good program in Lackawanna County," Riccardo said. "I feel as though [Ross] follows through [in my cases], and I feel as though she’s doing what a guardian ad litem should be doing in those cases. Whether those recommendations are for my client or against my client, I feel as though she’s doing what a guardian ad litem should be doing."
"There may be colleagues of mine who are having different experiences," she added. "But I can’t say what they are."
Ross remained on Jankauskas , court filings show, but the court did appoint Frederickson as the guardian ad litem in Maher .
Gelb, Patrick Maher’s attorney, has previously declined to comment to the Law Weekly on the petition and did not return a follow-up call on Wednesday.
Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI.
Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI. •