Woman fights court system for right to make own decisions - WSMV News 4

Woman fights court system for right to make own decisions

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Reba Sherrill is fighting for the right to make her own decisions. (WSMV) Reba Sherrill is fighting for the right to make her own decisions. (WSMV)
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Reba Sherrill may be in a wheelchair, but she's ready for a fight.

"I'm not going to let them just get away with this," she said.

Sherrill is fighting for the right to make her own decisions – something her daughters don't take for granted anymore.

“My mom's not a criminal, and yet they're treating her like a criminal," said Brenna Outlaw, Sherrill’s daughter.

The struggle began when Sherrill went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in August. She was having complications from a car accident that happened in December 2016.

"When I went on Tuesday night, they kept me. And that was the beginning of the nightmare,” Sherrill said.

Sherrill went to Vanderbilt for a physical problem, but Vanderbilt's lawyers filed papers in Davidson County Probate Court saying Sherrill had a "borderline personality disorder.” Vanderbilt asked a judge to appoint someone to take control of her affairs. They said no family members were willing to do it.

Judge Randy Kennedy approved Vanderbilt's request the same day without consulting Sherrill or her family.

"Aug. 23, they went to court and asked the judge to appoint someone to make my decisions. They didn't tell me this hearing was taking place. It happened, and the next day, I was notified that it had taken place," Sherrill said.

"And it didn't matter. It didn't matter that they didn't notify family. That they had family willing to step in," said her daughter, Emily Outlaw.

The judge appointed a Nashville attorney, Cathryn Armistead, to serve as what's called a fiduciary. That gave Armistead power over where Sherrill would live; what doctors she would see – and it gave Armistead control over Sherrill’s financial affairs.

"They took all the money out of my bank account. Didn't even warn me.  They didn't even tell me they were going to do it. They redirected all my personal mail to the attorney who was serving as the fiduciary," Sherrill said.

Sherrill was trying to rebuild her house in Hendersonville. It had been damaged in a fire. She couldn’t go forward because she couldn't pay the contractors.

Armistead moved Sherrill to a nursing home. Her family said she was given mind-altering anti-psychotic drugs even though her own family doctor wrote a letter saying those medications could cause a life-threatening adverse reaction.

"It didn't matter that she had a neurologist who said she's allergic to it, shouldn't take it, they were just shooting her up with it anyway," Emily Outlaw said.

Vanderbilt's attorney Anthony Bills filed papers with the court saying doctors determined that Sherrill was paranoid and delusional.

Sherrill said she believes it was because she told them she was highly sensitive to pesticides and herbicides.

"They said that because I eat only organic food that I was paranoid and psychotic," she said.

Sherrill’s daughter Brenna Outlaw found the idea laughable.

“I eat organic food; there’s a lot of people who eat organic food. There are millions of people who only eat organic food,” she said.

Vanderbilt’s attorney filed more papers, asking the court to give Armistead broader powers. They asked that Armistead be named Sherrill’s conservator permanently.

That would give Armistead the right to make end-of-life decisions, control all her medical care, decide where she lives, and sell her property.

"Basically when you go through this situation it's like you've already died. They take everything. They liquidate," Sherrill said.

A hearing was set for Oct. 11. Two days before that hearing, Judge Kennedy signed an order giving Armistead control over the settlement that Sherrill received after the December car accident.

The settlement totals more than $1 million – money that would then become available to pay all the fees that are racked up in conservatorship cases.

Hourly fees are charged by the lawyer the judge appointed to represent Sherrill. Armistead, an attorney, is also allowed to bill by the hour for work done on Sherrill’s behalf.

It's up to the judge to approve the bills; the family has no say.

"I'm kind of scared of how much they're going to end up charging her," Emily Outlaw said.

On Oct. 11, News 4 attended the hearing as the family fought the proposed conservatorship. Lawyers spent hours in negotiations behind closed doors.

In the end, both sides agreed that Sherrill's brother could be her conservator. Armistead is out of the picture.

"I like that if somebody is going to be over me, it's him," said Sherrill, referring to her brother.

There's something that Sherrill's family has never understood. Why did Vanderbilt's lawyers keep fighting to establish a conservatorship, even long after Sherrill had been discharged as their patient?

The News 4 I-Team’s Nancy Amons asked Vanderbilt’s attorney Anthony Bills as court finished for the day. He declined to answer questions.

"Again, Miss Amons, I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to speak outside the courtroom about this case. Thank you." Bills said.

Sherrill and her family are at a loss to understand Vanderbilt’s continuing interest in their former patient.

"My attorney asked them that question, and they never really gave us an answer,” Sherrill said.

A Vanderbilt spokesperson emailed the I-Team a statement:

“The 2 million-plus patients we treat each year represent a variety of life experiences and social circumstances. We support the use of conservatorships for some patients to ensure there is an appropriate legal process in place for decisions associated with patient care,” said John Howser, chief communications officer with Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Vanderbilt did not comment on why they pursued the conservatorship for some six weeks after Sherrill was no longer an inpatient.

The Sherrill family wants the laws changed. They want more protection for people like themselves – protection from a system they feel is un-American.

"This could happened to anybody," Brenna Outlaw said.

"They claim these are put into place to help the individual, to protect them, but all I see is it's abuse," Sherrill said.

Armistead did not return phone calls and emails sent to her office.

This isn't the first conservatorship case the I-Team’s Nancy Amons has investigated in Judge Kennedy's court.

Songwriter Danny Tate fought to get out from under a conservatorship under Judge Kennedy. His home was auctioned, and was purchased by the attorney to whom he owed legal bills.

Amons also profiled the stories of two other women, Jewell Tinnon and Ginger Franklin. Both of them lost their homes and all their possessions after the court put them in conservatorships. They have since died.

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