Yesterday, as with nearly every Monday, was the week’s opinion release day at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals issued three published opinions, two in civil cases, one in a criminal case. In State v. Christensen, the court held that a conservator cannot request restitution on behalf of a ward.
David Christensen stole from his uncle, A.C., a vulnerable adult. He was charged with financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, was found guilty at a jury trial, and was sentenced. After sentencing, A.C.’s conservator, Lutheran Social Services, requested restitution on A.C.’s behalf. A.C.’s guardian, on the other hand, informed the district court that A.C. did not want restitution from Christensen. The district court decided that the conservator was able to claim restitution on A.C.’s behalf and issued a restitution order. Christensen appealed both the conviction and the restitution order.
The Court of Appeals reversed the restitution order. (It affirmed the conviction – embarrassingly, Christensen’s appellate attorney seems to have based that part of the appeal on a simple misreading of the jury verdict form.) Restitution, like other parts of a criminal sentence, must based on the authority of statute – in this case, Minnesota Statutes §§ 609.10 and 611A.51–611A.68. In felony cases, as relevant here, restitution can be made to a victim or a victim’s family. And “victim,” for our purposes, means “a natural person who incurs loss or harm as a result of a crime,” and “includes the family members, guardian, or custodian of a minor, incompetent, incapacitated, or deceased person.” Thus, in Christensen’s case, there would have been no question about restitution if the guardian had requested restitution on A.C.’s behalf – the guardian is explicitly listed in the statute as being authorized to receive it. The issue arose only because the guardian and the conservator disagreed. The Court of Appeals held that the listing of those authorized – “family members, guardian, or custodian” – reflected an inference that those not on the list were intentionally excluded.
Judge Tracy Smith wrote an opinion concurring with the affirmance of the conviction but dissenting from the reversal of the restitution order. She wrote that she would have held that the conservator’s authority (also defined by statute, and defined rather broadly) to preserve A.C.’s estate gave it the authority to seek restitution even without the restitution statute’s explicit authorization. Her reading of the restitution and conservatorship statutes is that they can be read together and are reconcilable rather than the majority’s holding, in which the restitution statute limits the conservatorship statute. She also noted the differences between a “family member, guardian, or custodian,” all of whom “have a role in caring for the person, [while] a conservator’s only role is in managing that person’s estate.”
We think the panel majority got this one wrong and Judge Smith has it right. The panel majority uses a limited and mechanical reading of the restitution statute and, in doing so, largely ignores the conservatorship statute. As Judge Smith notes in her concurrence and dissent, the Minnesota Supreme Court has approached things differently where conservators are concerned.
This decision will lead to some absurd results. Theft (and other misuse of money) isn’t just a criminal concern, it’s a civil one as well. The conservator is clearly able to sue on A.C.’s behalf, so while it will be barred from seeking criminal restitution it could sue Christensen for his theft and obtain an ordinary civil judgment. But that’s exactly the kind of cumbersome process that restitution is meant to let victims avoid.
This is an issue that’s both important enough and close enough it would not be surprising to see the State seek, and the Supreme Court grant, further review.