Legal issues remain after ruling

Legal issues remain after ruling
January 07
00:00 2016
Bryan Thompson

By Cash Michaels

For The Chronicle

A motion to have a prominent Winston-Salem attorney “immediately” removed as Forsyth County estate guardian because he had allegedly committed “… felony theft by fraud …” for taking over $44,000 he had reportedly no legal authority over, has been denied on a technicality.

But the legal issues surrounding the serious allegation remain.

In a court order dated Dec. 21, 2015, J. Mark Pegram, Clerk of Superior Court for Rockingham County, denied the motion on behalf of siblings of ward Steven W. Epperson to have estate guardian attorney. Bryan C. Thompson removed and replaced because Thompson had already been discharged from Epperson’s case in 2011.

“Having reviewed the file and having heard arguments of counsel, it appears to the Court that Bryan Thompson was discharged as Guardian of the Estate in 2011 after filing a final account which was audited and approved, that Bryan Thompson is not currently the Guardian of the Estate, and that the relief sought in the Motion is moot,” ruled Clerk Pegram, who served as presiding judge during the Dec. 16 hearing on the matter in Forsyth County Superior Court.

Because there were allegations involving the Forsyth County Clerk of Court’s Office, Pegram was brought in from the neighboring county to hear and decide the case.

“It is therefore ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the Motion to Remove Guardian of the Estate is moot and the same is therefore denied,” Pegram’s order continued.

As The Chronicle first and exclusively reported in our Dec. 10, 2015 edition, the original motion, filed by Winston-Salem attorney Reginald D. Alston on behalf of Steven Epperson’s siblings, Susan and Kelvin Epperson, sought a court order to “immediately” remove attorney Thompson “… from acting as guardian of the Estate of Steven W. Epperson and to allow Susan Epperson, who had served as her brother’s estate guardian previously, to resume in that role, replacing Thompson.

Per that Nov. 24, 2015 Epperson motion, there allegedly were no court documents on file at the Forsyth Clerk’s office proving that attorney Thompson – who has been prominent in many of the cases The Chronicle has reviewed and reported on in recent weeks – was ever legally appointed as estate guardian to Steven Epperson prior to April 2010, and yet there is a witnessed court document showing that Thompson received $44,180.68 on behalf of Epperson as his “guardian” on Nov. 15, 2009.

That sum was part of a settlement to the estate of John W. Epperson, Steven Epperson’s father, after he died. Attorney Thompson served as both public administrator for John Epperson and also estate guardian for Steven, according to that challenged Nov. 15, 2009 court receipt showing a transferal of the funds from the estate of the deceased father to that of his son, the ward, all through Thompson.

Thompson’s signature is on that document for receiving the funds on behalf of the ward as estate guardian, and a confirming witness signed it.

The legitimacy of that court receipt was at the heart of the contentious Dec. 16, 2015 hearing on the Epperson matter The Chronicle covered that revealed several serious allegations raised by attorney Alston against Thompson, for which there were few answers.

During that hearing, attorney Alston told the court that Thompson, who was sitting across at the defendant’s table with his attorney, Molly A. Whitlatch of Greensboro, should have known “as a licensed practicing lawyer” who had a “duty to know the law,” that he was “operating without file-stamped orders” to legally authorize his actions.

As The Chronicle has detailed in previous stories per our examination of alleged patterns and practices of the Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court’s Office, there are numerous cases involving elderly African-Americans who have been determined to be legally incompetent by order of that office, and assigned attorney Thompson as their estate guardian to manage their assets and properties. But those orders were not file-stamped and initialed as mandated by state statute and thus, according the N.C. Court of Appeals in a 2014 ruling, were legally invalid.

In the Steven Epperson case, many of the orders seemingly authorizing Thompson’s role as estate guardian were not file-stamped, as attorney Alston maintained at the hearing, and Thompson’s attorney had to ultimately agree, calling it “a mistake.”

In fact, in a countermotion, attorney Whitlatch petitioned the court on Thompson’s behalf to allow the “entry of certain orders … that were not file stamped” to be belatedly nunc pro tunc, or legally entered “now for then” to clear up that issue. Clerk Pegram ruled that that matter would be addressed at a later hearing.

But attorney Alston wasn’t through. Attorney Alston also charged that attorney Thompson had no legal right to take or manage money on behalf of ward Steven Epperson as his estate guardian on Nov. 15, 2009 because Thompson’s guardianship order wasn’t issued until April 2010.

Attorney Whitlatch maintained that the date on the Nov. 15, 2009 court receipt for the $44,000 sum was “incorrect”.

“We have substantial evidence that none of that money came into the guardianship estate until June [2010] which was two months after Mr. Thompson was appointed as guardian. On [11-15], John Epperson’s estate didn’t even have that money, so there was no possible way that [his] estate could have made a distribution to a guardian on Nov. 15 because John Epperson didn’t even have that money at that time,” Whitlatch told the court.

But Alston countered, showing the judge documentation that Thompson was dispersing funds as Steven Epperson’s estate guardian in February 2010, two months before a clerk’s order shows he was officially appointed to the post, and four months before attorney Whitlatch alleged in court that “none of the money came into the guardianship estate until June [2010] …”

“How many typographical errors do we make that are signed, notarized and put into the court for us to say that it is in error?” attorney Alston asked the court.

Whitlatch replied, “Again, there is an explanation, the accounting is submitted in draft form …”

Alston maintained that even though the accounting may have been signed in June, it was dispersed in Feb. 2010 before Thompson’s guardian appointment. “We can’t avoid the allegation. We know for sure that it’s already documented twice that he already had it in his possession.”

At one point during the court hearing, attorney Alston called Bryan Thompson, “ a robber baron … filling his pockets.” He told the court that a fraud complaint against Thompson had been filed with the Winston-Salem Police Department .

Clerk Pegram attempted to maintain that based on the paperwork, Thompson paid all of Steven Epperson’s bills properly to the penny, so there was no malfeasance evidenced in the final accounting. But Alston maintained that attorney Thompson didn’t have the legal right to either receive the funds or manage the estate in the first place, certainly not before his April 2010 appointment, even though that was not legally file stamped and entered.

And about that April 2010 appointment as estate guardian, Alston alerted the court to something he alleged was unusual.

In a June 23, 2010 letter to Susan, Kim and Kelvin Epperson, attorney Thompson informed them that he “qualified and was appointed … as ‘Guardian …’” to Steven on April 16. Thompson then attached the clerk-approved “Letters of Appointment …” form document AOC – E-407 that was labeled, “LETTERS OF APPOINTMENT SUCCESSOR GUARDIAN OF THE ESTATE,” showing Thompson being appointed, and signed by assistant clerk Paula Todd.

But according to attorney Alston, no such form document exists.

The court forms used by clerks of court offices across the state are produced, provided and authorized by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Chronicle did an online search for “N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts – legal forms,” which took a reporter to “The North Carolina Court System Judicial Forms” search engine. Upon entering form number AOC-E-407, a different form, “LETTERS OF APPOINTMENT GUARDIAN OF THE ESTATE” came up.

The word “SUCCESSOR” is not on the AOC-E-407 form that the AOC distributes for use by the state clerks of court. When the title of the document Bryan Thompson sent to Steven Epperson’s siblings in June 2010 is entered in that same AOC search engine, “No forms were found matching the criteria you specified” comes back. That’s important because the online search engine allows for entering the form title, so even if the form was revised since 2010, it should come up in its revised form now under that title.

Allegedly, the “successor guardian of the estate” form document that Thompson sent to the Epperson siblings was to show that he had been duly appointed to succeed Susan Epperson as estate guardian.

At the Dec. 16 hearing, attorney Alston charged in open court that “successor” form that was signed and authorized by assistant Forsyth Court clerk Paula Todd was a fake, and asked Clerk Pegram to take judicial notice of it. Alston asked that if the alleged fraudulent court order was solely the doing of assistant clerk Todd, then how did attorney Thompson get it to send to the Eppersons?

Alston still wasn’t through with the allegations, charging that attorney Thompson “… took a $9,000 commission [for being Steven Epperson’s estate guardian] and I have yet to see an order in here signed by [anyone] allowing him to take that commission.”

State law allows estate guardians to be paid a set commission for managing a ward’s assets and properties, but it has to be approved by court order from the clerk. Alston charged that no such document could be found in the Epperson file, where it should be.

Even though Clerk Pegram offered to allow attorney Thompson to take the stand to testify in his own defense, ultimately Thompson never moved. His attorney Molly Whitlatch told the court she had numerous documents to clear up questions about when the $44,000 in funds was actually transferred to Steven Epperson’s estate, and proving that the Nov. 15, 2009 date on the court receipt was a typographical error based on attorney Thompson’s office’s alleged mishandling of documents per the Epperson family.

Despite the plethora of charges unleashed at the hearing, Clerk Pegram held firm that he would only be ruling on the motions before him, which he later did.

No date had been determined at press time for future hearings.

Lt. E. R. Montgomery of the Winston-Salem Police Department told The Chronicle on Monday afternoon, Jan. 4, that the Thompson alleged fraud case is “technically closed,” but their Detective Division still has the fraud complaint “under review” to determine “what crime if any occurred.” He added that investigators are consulting with the District Attorney’s Office to determine if any charges are warranted.


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