​​Appellate Court Affirms Restraining Order Under the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act

Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation


37-year old Mary Ezenwa unsuccessfully appealed a restraining order preventing her from contacting Alan Carlin, her 82-year-old husband, who suffers from cognitive deficits due to brain damage. Mary and Alan first met virtually on the dating website millionairematch.com and married one month later. Alan’s son, Peter, alleged that the new relationship threatened his father’s financial and physical well being.

Peter had petitioned to be named Alan’s guardian and conservator, and a hearing was set for January 31, 2020. The petition included a letter from Alan’s neurologist, who wrote that Alan suffered from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a disorder that leads to brain damage resulting from progressive strokes. Cognitive testing revealed he had “significant deficits in areas of the brain responsible for frontal lobe functioning,” which doctors said limited Alan’s judgment and insight, leaving him vulnerable to personal and financial exploitation.

Alan’s daughter, Danielle, asked the local police department to conduct a welfare check when Alan travelled from Virginia to Washington state to stay with Mary four days before the guardianship hearing. Peter filed for a temporary order of protection under The Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act, which seeks to protect people who “may be subjected to abuse, neglect, financial exploitation, or abandonment,” and included a temporary restraining order against Mary.

Officers arrived at Mary’s residence on January 31 and brought Alan involuntarily to a medical center in Spokane. Upon arrival at the hospital, Alan was agitated and at risk of sepsis due to an infection. The restraining order gave notice of a hearing on February 13 to entertain Peter’s request for a final order of protection.

At the February hearing, Peter asked for all restrictions against Mary to be permanent. Alan did not attend, but submitted a declaration describing his relationship with Mary. He wrote that Mary told him she had a $5 million net worth and asked him to open a bank account for which she possessed the paperwork. The court decided that overwhelming evidence demonstrated that Alan “had the functional, mental, or physical inability to care for himself” and granted the vulnerable adult protection order. This finding was supported by his previous losses to scammers reaching tens of thousands of dollars and expert opinions that Alan’s brain damage severely impacts his decision-making capacity.

On appeal, Ezenwa argued that the court failed to make specific findings that her actions amounted to financial exploitation and erred in allowing Alan’s medical records to be admitted as evidence. However, the court noted that proof of the threat of abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation is sufficient to illustrate the need for the Vulnerable Adults Protection Act. It also ruled that under the Act, the court shall give all interested persons the opportunity to submit relevant evidence, which included medical records of the vulnerable adult.

Due to the finding of overwhelming evidence of financial and emotional exploitation, the court affirmed entry of the restraining order against Ezenwa.

Keywords: Washington, elder abuse, brain damage, aging brain, capacity

Citation: In re Matter of Carlin, 16 Wash. App. 2d 1057 (2021).

This post is the 121st post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.