SAN DIEGO (CN) – An elderly San Diego woman claims in a new lawsuit the matching company she used to find a caretaker should be on the hook for failing to properly vet the caretaker-turned-squatter who abused the homeowner, filled her home with trash and dog feces and rented out rooms to strangers.
Frances Breslauer claims in her 14-page lawsuit against nonprofit Elderhelp of San Diego that the company was negligent in failing to vet Cheryl Sherrell, a hoarder who appeared on a 2010 episode of TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and who was featured in local news stories where she described herself as a “professional hoarder” of 50 years.
The lawsuit was filed in San Diego Superior Court on Aug. 29 and made available to the public on Wednesday,
The fight between the two women received local and national attention last year when criminal charges were filed against Sherrell for elder abuse and trespassing. She pleaded guilty to one charge of trespassing in February, and was sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered to stay away from the home. Charges for theft and elder abuse were dropped by the City Attorney’s Office, according to 10News San Diego.
Sherrell was the second caregiver Breslauer hired to help care for her husband Alan, using Elderhelp’s “HomeShare” program where the company connects elderly clients with live-in caregivers willing to work for free or reduced rent, according to the lawsuit.
Elderhelp represented caregivers were subjected to a comprehensive personal interview and assessment, criminal background check, proof of income and thorough reference checks from employers, landlords and personal references known for at least five years, and were even required to submit a doctor’s note, according to the lawsuit.
Breslauer “found” Sherrell on Craigslist and asked Elderhelp to screen the woman, whom Elderhelp found to be “perfect fit.” Sherrell stayed in the family’s detached studio apartment and entered into a written contract with Breslauer which stipulated Sherrell’s employment was “at will” and upon termination she would be required to turn over all keys and vacate the apartment.
The elderly woman asked Sherrell to leave a few months after she moved in, for “acting inappropriately” toward her husband. Breslauer terminated the contract in writing and gave Sherrell 30 days to leave, according to the lawsuit.
But Sherrell refused to leave, turning into a squatter while Breslauer’s husband became ill and died in hospice care. Once Alan died, Breslauer claims Sherrell “became overtly hostile” and threw a set of keys at the elderly woman, injuring her wrist. Breslauer says Sherrell also turned the water heater to the highest setting, and Breslauer suffered severe burns.
When Breslauer was out of the house, Sherrell “filled the bedroom that had belonged to plaintiff and her husband with dog feces, despoiling not only the house but plaintiff’s memories during her time of mourning,” Breslauer claims.
Breslauer eventually hired a locksmith to change the locks and Sherrell left. But when Breslauer took a trip to Oregon to visit her daughter, Sherrell forced her way back into the property and hired a locksmith to change the locks.
“Sherrell proceeded to destroy plaintiff’s beloved home. The caretaker-turned-squatter inundated the home with garbage, defecation, urine and hoarding clutter. She even managed to rent out rooms in the home to whoever could bear her mess and stench,” Breslauer says in the lawsuit.
Breslauer fought Sherrell in court for months, filing unlawful detainer and restraining order motions until Sherrell was arrested on criminal elder abuse and criminal charges. But while Sherrell was finally out of Breslauer’s home, she’d caused over $200,000 in damage, according to Breslauer.
The elderly woman claims “either Elderhelp failed to investigate Sherrell’s background with a reasonable degree of competency, or it knew and withheld Sherrell’s troubled history of mental illness and hoarding from plaintiff.”
Breslauer claims she relied on Elderhelp’s representations on its expertise in custom-screening and vetting caretakers and “had no reason to suspect Elderhelp would not so much as Google search the names of its applicants.”
Breslauer is represented by attorney Christopher Ridgeway of Vista, California. In an interview, he said Elderhelp does “a lot of wonderful work” but made a “big mistake” in giving Sherrell the green light for Breslauer to hire as a live-in caretaker.
“They made lofty promises about the effectiveness and vigor of their investigations, but Charles Manson would have passed with flying colors based on their criteria,” Ridgeway said, adding the state needs to regulate people who work independently as caretakers and aren’t employed by a company in order to protect seniors.
Elderhelp’s CEO and executive director Deborah Martin told Courthouse News her company had not yet seen the lawsuit.
“We have no information supporting any claims for damages against ElderHelp by Ms. Breslauer,” Martin said. “ElderHelp is a nonprofit agency dedicated to improving the lives of seniors in San Diego, and we strive each day to fulfill our mission.”
Breslauer seeks general, special and exemplary damages, and restitution or treble damages on claims of constructive fraud, unfair business practices, negligent selection, breach of contract and negligent infliction of emotional distress.