Lackawanna County’s full-time guardian ad litem, Danielle M. Ross, made about $111,000 per year, nearly $72,000 of which was paid by the county, between 2009 and 2011, according to a recent report by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
While the AOPC noted that this figure is significantly lower than what has been speculated by some of the GAL program’s detractors, it is drastically higher than what a number of comparably sized counties spend on GAL services in custody cases.
In fact, several court administrators said no public money is used to cover the cost of GAL services in their counties.
For example, Michael Shucosky, court administrator for neighboring Luzerne County, said his county has a list of about 18 local attorneys who are willing to serve as GALs when needed. They’re paid $55 per hour by the litigants but most will work for free if the parties are unable to pay, he said.
Shucosky characterized his county’s GAL program as the "philosophical opposite" of Lackawanna County’s program, striving to have GALs appointed only in "extraordinary" custody cases where it is believed the parents are completely unfit to represent the best interests of their children.
"I would bet that within a year we don’t do 10 appointments," he said, explaining that GALs in Luzerne County can only be appointed by petition and rule returnable following a hearing with a judge.
By contrast, the AOPC estimated in its June 5 report that Ross alone is appointed to an average of between eight to 10 cases per month. Records reviewed by the Law Weekly indicate that in several cases, counsel for one of the parties petitioned for the appointment of a guardian ad litem. But a majority of the appointments came automatically.
A 2008 Lackawanna County policy change allowed for the "automatic appointment" of a guardian ad litem to cases where any of a 13-item list of circumstances were met, a Sept. 22, 2008, procedural order reveals. That order — which came some months into one of Ross’ contracts and was signed by Lackawanna County’s president judge at the time, Chester T. Harhut — allowed a guardian ad litem to be appointed to any case where "visitation removal," "lack of communication between parties" and relocation were involved, among other things.
Lehigh County has a system similar to Luzerne’s, in which attorneys are assigned by the court to serve as GALs in certain cases at a rate of $50 per hour, according to Vivian Appel, the county’s family court administrator.
Like Shucosky, Appel said GALs are rarely used in custody cases in Lehigh County and that those who serve as GALs do not generate a significant income from the work.
"It’s typically done by people who want to provide a service to the court. You’re not making your overhead, let alone getting paid a lot," she said, adding, "You can’t survive on court appointments."
The AOPC’s report described Lackawanna County’s GAL program as "an outlier because no other third class county has a full-time GAL working at the courthouse, and the annual number of cases to which the full-time GAL is appointed appears to exceed the total number of GAL appointments in the other counties."
According to the AOPC’s report, a review of Ross’ IRS Form 1099s showed she had been paid an average of $71,600 annually by the county from 2009 — her first full year as GAL — until 2011.
Art Heinz, a spokesman for the AOPC, said $38,000 of that was accounted for by Ross’ annual contracted salary from the county. The remainder of the approximately $71,600, however, came from payments made by the county to cover GAL costs in cases where the litigants were unable to pay, according to Heinz.
A sample of cases examined by the AOPC showed that in certain cases, the county has been ordered to pay part or all of the guardian ad litem fees, according to the report.
The report also noted that in "one or two" of the cases it reviewed, the order appointing Ross included a notation that fee payments were "at the discretion of the GAL."
"If it was the judge’s or master’s intent for Ms. Ross to determine if the parties should pay, this is not necessarily appropriate, and the practice is discouraged," the report said, but added that there is "no evidence" to suggest Ross has been billing either the county or private litigants "in a manner inconsistent with her contract."
Appel said she’s never seen Lehigh County foot a GAL bill in a case where the litigants couldn’t pay.
"I suppose theoretically it could happen, but the county can’t afford to pay it either," she said.
According to the AOPC’s report, the approximately $71,600 Ross received from the county plus the estimated $39,600 she made from billing litigants added up to an annual income of about $111,200 between 2009 and 2011.
"This estimated amount is higher than the approximately $70,000 Ms. Ross was paid by the county alone, but lower than the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year some have suggested Ms. Ross earns," the AOPC said in its report, noting that there has been "a great deal of speculation" regarding how much money Ross makes, with some suspecting that it could be as much as $500,000 or $600,000 per year.
Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Norristown, Pa., family lawyer who is chair of the family law practice at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, said the money Ross is earning still seems excessive, adding that she believes Lackawanna County is overusing the GAL function.
"Custody litigation is extremely expensive and to put another layer of money in here — people just can’t afford it," she said. "If the county has so much money that they can afford to pay people to [serve as GALs], good for them, but not in every case."
According to the AOPC’s report, several family court employees said they believed employing a full-time GAL was actually more cost-effective than using part-time GALs, but the report noted that this belief "is based on anecdotal information rather than data."
"In order to determine the GAL program’s true cost, the family court administration office should collect and monitor cost data and issue regular reports to the court," the report said.
It’s possible Ross’ annual income may actually have been higher than $111,200, because the AOPC calculated its estimate of the amount Ross made from billing litigants based on the assumption that she did not bill more than the initial $600 retainer in each case she handled.
The report said Ross "rarely" sent bills to litigants beyond that initial fee.
But one litigant, who has claimed in a federal lawsuit that Ross billed him and his ex-wife more than $10,000, told the Law Weekly that he had provided copies of those bills to the AOPC during its review.
Mike Stefanov, whose contested custody battle drew a Ross appointment in 2008, provided the Law Weekly with what appear to be invoices from Ross; one entry from July 12, 2010, bills for 11.25 hours at $50 per hour.
At one point, Ross billed the parties for more than 11 hours in one day totaling more than $500, Stefanov said.
Asked about Stefanov’s bills, AOPC spokesman Heinz said: "We’re not going to comment on any specifics other than to say that all of the relevant findings and recommendations are in the report."
Heinz said the AOPC selected its findings "through careful analysis," adding "it was an effort that took place over a long period of time" involving AOPC staff and Lackawanna County’s local judicial staff.
Ross declined to comment.
Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Thomas Munley did not return a call seeking comment.