A Chicago neurosurgeon will not be allowed to claim more than $5.5 million of the estate of his deceased neighbor who he befriended and allegedly tried to persuade to adopt him, a state appeals panel held late last month.
The First District Appellate Court on June 26 affirmed a lower court ruling, declaring invalid the contract the doctor claims to have inked 14 years ago with the wealthy widow that supposedly granted him cash and her Lake Shore Drive apartment in exchange for adding her surname to the middle names of his two sons.
The panel's opinion affirmed the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge Mary L. Mikva, who in 2012 rejected an attempt by George J. Dohrmann III to press his claim against the Estate of Virginia H. Rogers.
His claim came even though Rogers’ last will included no reference to the contract Dohrmann alleges she signed and despite testimony from others that Rogers worried in her last years Dohrmann was only befriending her to try to stake a claim to her property.
Justice James Fitzgerald Smith delivered the court's ruling, in which justices Nathaniel R. Howse Jr. and Terrence J. Lavin concurred.
The contract dispute stems from an alleged friendship that began in the 1980s between Dohrmann and Rogers, a then-73-year-old widow who held a multi-million dollar fortune after she sold Rogers Aircall, a company founded by her husband, Ward Rogers, who died in 1977. She then parlayed her experience into her own investment firm, VHR Enterprises.
Dohrmann was married with two children in 1984, when he met the childless Rogers, his neighbor in the Drake Tower on Lake Shore Drive.
The two socialized more frequently in the 1990s. According to the panel's opinion, Dohrmann later that decade attempted to persuade Rogers to adopt him.
Since Illinois law does not allow the procedure, the opinion states Dohrmann investigated the process in Arkansas, where it is legally possible, even going so far as to lease an apartment to satisfy residency requirements there. Rogers did not adopt Dohrmann.
At that time, the opinion indicates, Rogers first expressed concern that Dohrmann was simply befriending her to “get her property upon her death.”
In 2000, Rogers, then 89, allegedly signed a contract with Dohrmann, purportedly promising to give him her apartment and its contents, valued at almost $1.5 million, and $4 million in cash in exchange for Dohrmann’s agreement to add "Rogers" to his two sons’ names to “continue the Rogers name.”
No witnesses were present at the signing of the contract that Dohrmann had drafted and Rogers made no mention of it to her advisor, Thomas Swaney, who later became the executor of her estate, the opinion notes.
Two months later, Dohrmann legally added the name “Rogers” to his sons’ middle names.
In 2004, however, ownership of her apartment was transferred to a trust, and her will was not altered to include any mention of the purported contract.
Dohrmann sued in 2007 to press his claim. Rogers countersued, asking the court to toss her neighbor's suit, because “the consideration was so grossly inadequate as to shock the conscience.”
Rogers, according to the panel's opinion, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in 2008, and her estate came under Swaney’s management. She died in 2011.
Mikva, the trial court judge, granted the estate’s motion for summary judgment, rejecting Dohrmann’s claim. He then appealed.
In its recent ruling, the appellate court also found the contract was unenforceable because, even if it was genuine, it “involved gross inadequacy of consideration as well as circumstances of unfairness” between the parties.
The justices particularly chided Dohrmann’s assertions he had upheld his end of the contract by naming his sons “Rogers,” and as such, was due the $5.5 million inheritance.
They said the addition of "Rogers" to Dohrmann's children's middles names does not even minimally accomplish the goal he claimed Rogers sought – to perpetuate the family name after her death -- and thus, falls short of being worth anywhere near $5.5 million.
“The contract does not contain any provision mandating how, when, or whether Dohrmann's sons are to use the Rogers name,” Smith wrote for the panel. “The disparity is shocking on its face.
The justices also rejected Dohrmann’s attempts to persuade them to overturn the trial judge’s rulings to admit testimony regarding Rogers’ concerns about him and his intentions, and to suppress testimony from him and his wife regarding their alleged conversations with Rogers concerning the contract.
Smith explained while the testimony of Dohrmann and his wife was inadmissible, as Rogers, who had countersued before she died, was not alive to counter their testimony, Rogers’ assertions about Dohrmann were admissible because they spoke to “her state of mind” before she died.
Affirming the lower court's ruling over this testimony, the panel cited the trial judge, who held: “These statements are being offered to demonstrate that Mrs. Rogers held suspicions toward Dr. Dohrmann, and thus would presumably have been less included to enter into a contract of this nature with him. This is only one of several aspects of this transaction that support (the estate's) argument about circumstances of unfairness."