By David Thomas, Law Bulletin staff writer
A Chicago neurosurgeon owes $2.2 million in damages for trying to defraud his next-door neighbor.
A Cook County jury on Monday awarded the estate of Virginia “Ginny” Rogers damages against Dr. George Dohrmann III.
Dohrmann initially sued Rogers’ estate in 2007 trying to enforce a contract that would have awarded him Rogers’ large Lake Shore Drive apartment and $4 million in cash upon her death. Her estate counter-sued for fraud.
In July 2012, then-Cook County circuit judge Mary L. Mikva dismissed Dohrmann’s claims. The 1st District Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal in 2014, finding the contract Rogers signed was unenforceable because of how unfair their “vastly different bargaining positions” were.
Jurors deliberated for less than an hour on the estate’s counter-claim against Dohrmann, according to a press release from Gair Eberhard Nelson Dedinas Ltd., the Rogers estate’s attorneys.
The damages awarded to the estate stemmed from attorney fees and legal costs spent defending against Dohrmann’s lawsuit.
“What Dr. Dohrmann did to Mrs. Rogers was beyond appalling. We are very gratified that justice prevailed,” Thomas R. Heisler, one of the estate’s attorneys, said in a written statement.
Dohrmann, a neurosurgeon at the University of Chicago Medical Center, plans to appeal the jury verdict, said one of his attorneys, Robert J. Slobig of Torshen Slobig & Axel Ltd. The trial lasted six days before Cook County Circuit Judge Jerry A. Esrig.
Rogers was 89 years old at the time she entered the contract on April 1, 2000. She was widowed and had no children.
Under the terms of the contract, Dohrmann agreed to legally change his kids’ names to include “Rogers” so the family name would continue past her death. Dohrmann added “Rogers” as a middle name for two to his sons two months after the contract was signed. They were minors at the time.
Rogers never consulted her longtime attorney, Thomas E. Swaney, when she entered this contract. Swaney, the estate’s independent executor, didn’t know about the contract until just before Dohrmann filed suit.
In February 2000, about two months before Rogers signed the contract, Dohrmann met with an estate-planning attorney, “inquiring what one would do if he wished to receive something in exchange for something after a person died,” according to the appellate court decision.
“This attorney drafted a ‘skeleton’ agreement for him,” Justice James Fitzgerald Smith wrote in Dohrmann v. Swaney, 2014 IL App (1st) 131524. “These facts clearly show that the creation of this contract involved gross inadequacy of consideration as well as circumstances of unfairness.”
In 2002, Rogers was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In 2004, she transferred the ownership of her apartment to her trust. Three years later, Dohrmann’s suit sought to reverse that transfer.
In 2008, Rogers was declared by the probate court to be a disabled person unable to manage her estate or financial affairs.
She died in January 2013 at the age of 101.
According to an estate plan Rogers created prior to her deal with Dohrmann, Rogers planned to give her money to friends and distant relatives, as well as seven Chicago-based charities and her alma mater, Milikin University in Decatur.
Although Dohrmann and Rogers first met in 1984, they began to socialize more in the 1990s. “From the record, it appears Mrs. Rogers initially enjoyed Dohrmann’s attention, but then became concerned that he was befriending her in order to get her property upon her death,” Fitzgerald Smith wrote in 2014.
At one point, Dohrmann tried to get Rogers to formally adopt him as a son. He rented an apartment in Arkansas, a state that grants adult adoptions for residents, but Rogers never signed the paperwork adopting him.
Slobig told the Daily Law Bulletin he was disappointed with the jury’s decision, saying he believed there were “so many other plausible explanations for what happened.”
“I didn’t think the evidence could sustain the [fraud] claim under the clear and convincing standard,” Slobig said.
Slobig added he thought they had to try the case “with one hand tied behind our back” because of the state Dead Man’s Act, which prevents parties in a case involving a deceased or disabled person from offering up testimony or evidence about conversations with that person.
That meant that Dohrmann was barred from testifying about his conversations with Rogers — unless Rogers’ estate “‘opens the door’ by introducing such evidence,” Slobig said. “We thought they did,” but they were overruled by Esrig.
Slobig said his client believes the attorney fees the Rogers estate incurred could not be recovered as damages under Illinois law.
The Rogers estate was also represented by Kristi L. Nelson of Gair Eberhard Nelson Dedinas Ltd.
The case is George J. Dohrmann III v. Thomas Swaney, et al., No. 07 L 1602.