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Theft of Medication is Financial Exploitation

Posted Wednesday, March 26, 2014 by John S. Palmer

The Washington Court of Appeals has upheld a finding by DSHS that a caregiver’s theft of morphine constituted “financial exploitation” of a vulnerable adult under the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act.

The caregiver, who was also the co-owner of the Bellevue adult family home where the theft took place, claimed it did not constitute financial exploitation as defined by the Act because she took the drug as part of a failed suicide attempt, and not for financial gain. At the time the Act defined financial exploitation to be “the illegal or improper use of the property, income, resources, or trust funds of the vulnerable adult by any person for any person’s profit or advantage other than for the vulnerable adult’s profit or advantage.”

The court wasted little time in rejecting the caregiver’s argument that her use of the drug was not to her “advantage”:

The term “advantage” is not defined in the Act. Undefined words in a statute are accorded their ordinary meanings…In the context of this statute, a person engaging in the unauthorized use of a vulnerable adult’s property receives an advantage when that use benefits or facilitates the goals of the person using the property, whether or not that goal is wise or healthy.

Any attempt at suicide is troubling, but the question presented here is whether the use of [the vulnerable adult’s] property benefited [the caregiver] by allowing her to further her goal, even if self-destructive, and thus was a use prohibited under the statute.

The court went on to note that the caregiver’s position would lead to an “absurd result” in which a drug addict who steals medication for recreational use could evade a finding of financial exploitation.

The court’s opinion in the case (Gradinaru v. DSHS, decided March 24, 2014) is unpublished, which means that it cannot be cited as binding legal precedent. However, it may be unpublished, in part, because the law was amended in 2011 to more broadly define “financial exploitation” to include “obtaining or using a vulnerable adult’s property, income, resources or trust funds without lawful authority”, thereby limiting the case’s precedential value.

For an overview of Washington’s Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act and discussion of another recent case interpreting its provisions, see this January blog post. For a discussion of 2013 amendments to the Act, see this entry from last August.

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