The daughter of an acclaimed pop artist who created famous “Cosmic Sixties” images is suing the New York court system over secret communications between her father’s court-appointed guardian and judges that are drastically affecting his life and violating her fundamental rights.
Libra Max filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that her father, Peter Max, 84, is being kept in virtual isolation by a court-appointed guardian. She alleges several judges allowed the guardian to communicate with them behind closed doors without the family’s knowledge, leading to unilateral decisions that profoundly affected his life and constituted a gross distortion of justice.
The lawsuit states that “Kafka would blush” if he reviewed the case.
“This case involves the denial of one of the most fundamental federal rights in the American justice system — to hear and act on any evidence your opponent presents to the court.”
Best known for his 1960s and ’70s psychedelic posters, the multi-millionaire still lives in the family home and art studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has been under legal guardianship since 2015 and has been suffering from Alzheimer’s and advanced dementia for many years.
He is in poor health and according to some reports is nearing the end of his life.
The conditions under which Max is kept a ward in court have become the subject of intense disputes between the guardian and individual members of the Max family, as well as between Libra Max and her brother Adam Max. For the past three years, Libra Max has tried to persuade the courts to free her father from guardianship because the court-appointed attorney handling his personal affairs, Barbara Lissner, allegedly cut him off from his loved ones.
The lawsuit, filed with the Civil Division for the Southern District of New York, alleges Lissner restricts visits to Max by family and friends, including Libra, who can only visit her father – at the home where she was born and raised – on very forbidden terms. It is also alleged that the guardian refuses to tell the family about the artist’s health or even the identity of the doctors treating him and has installed video cameras in his home for surveillance.
In the latest twist, Libra Max claims judges in the New York court system are effectively in cahoots with Lissner. The defendant in the case is Deborah Kaplan, the administrative judge serving on the New York Supreme Court’s division that deals with guardianships in Manhattan.
Kaplan is said to have presided over an agreement that allowed judges serving on guardianship courts to communicate directly with Lissner in absolute secrecy. Libra Max says she knew nothing about the exchange and therefore had no way to correct the records or respond to the allegations made against her.
Such secret communications legally blinded Libra Max, the lawsuit states, “robbing her of her ability to speak up fairly for her father’s freedom…and ultimately robbing Peter of precious years with his loved ones.”
The exclusion of a party to a dispute from a court proceeding is referred to in legal parlance as ex parte Communication that is normally strictly forbidden. Such one-way contact appears to be almost routine practice for guardianship judges in New York, an issue Wednesday’s lawsuit now calls into question.
“This case is so critical because the constitutional right at stake is so fundamental: to hear and act on any evidence your opponent presents to the court,” said Andrew Celli of the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Mazel. lead attorney in the case.
Celli added: “This is the bedrock of our justice system and ensures fairness. This emblematic case is the first of its kind, but it won’t be the last. The veil of secrecy over the guardianship system must be lifted.”
Neither Lissner nor the Office of Court Administration, which oversees New York’s guardianship courts, immediately responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit. Lissner, Max’s guardian since 2019, has denied the allegations and is suing Libra Max for defamation.
In the defamation lawsuit, Lissner denies the allegations against her, saying: “Mr. Max was never isolated from friends and family; Requests from friends and family to see Peter Max are always honored.”
The legal battles now engulfing Max form a bitter end to a life as colorful as the artist’s creations. The New York Times wrote that his posters “have become the wallpaper for the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out generation.”
He was born Peter Max Finkelstein in Berlin in 1937 to German-Jewish parents. He grew up in Shanghai, Haifa and Paris before moving to Brooklyn when he was 16.
His work began with a famous poster collection he dubbed the “Cosmic 60s”. He became a counterculture figure, designing flyers for “Be In” hippie reunions in Central Park.
Success in the counterculture got him attention in mainstream culture. This was followed by appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he drew live on camera, and album covers for bands like Yes.
In 1974, he designed a US postage stamp that is believed to be one of the first environmentalist stamps with the message “Preserve the Environment.” His pop art paintings gained an increasingly commercial following, with one of his main sources of income being auctions on sea cruises.
Norwegian Cruise Line commissioned him to paint the hull of one of their ships in his brilliant colors. In 1969, Life Magazine put him on the front page with the headline: Peter Max: Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man.
Max’s estate is still worth hundreds of millions of dollars by some estimates. His financial affairs are now also regulated by court-appointed supervisors.
As the legal battle over Peter Max’s life reaches its climax, it is part of growing concerns across the US over how the elderly and those with vulnerable physical or mental health are trapped in allegedly overbearing and abusive custodial programs. Public attention was drawn to the issue by singer Britney Spears, who was held in what she described as an “abusive conservatorship” for 14 years until it was dissolved last year.
There are approximately 1.3 million adults under the care of guardians, who in many instances have great powers, including control over family and friends’ access, medical treatment and financial matters, with guardians collectively having assets of approximately US$50 billion -Managing Dollars.
It’s virtually impossible to keep track of the programs since they’re regulated by the 50 states, many of which don’t keep public records. A 2017 study by the American Bar Association found that “an unknown number of adults under guardianship languish beyond the point of necessity… Adult guardianship is generally considered permanent. With the stroke of a judge’s pen, rights are lost and are seldom regained over the remainder of a person’s lifetime.”
A report by the US Government Accountability Office identified hundreds of allegations of “physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians” in 45 states between 1990 and 2010.
The Peter Max lawsuit records what she felt was inappropriate ex parte Communications between Lissner and four unidentified New York judges over the past three years. It notes that Lissner obtained an ethics opinion from a specialist as to whether her decision to personally sue Libra Max for defamation constituted a conflict of interest.
The ethics specialist’s conclusions are unknown as the opinion of the Max family has not been shared.