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Walt Disney’s adult grandson Bradford Lund has lost his appeal in a dispute with a Los Angeles probate judge who appointed a guardian ad litem without a hearing and rejected a proposed settlement that would have given him $200 million — though the appellate court describes the circumstances that led to the suit as “troubling.”
Lund, a Disney heir who is now in his 50s, has been in a complicated long-running feud with his family over his inheritance. He, along with the other grandchildren, were set to receive eight-figure payouts at the ages of 35, 40 and 45 — unless they failed to demonstrate the “maturity and financial ability to manage and utilize such funds in a prudent and responsible manner.”
In February 2020, Lund filed a lawsuit in California federal court that argued L.A. County Superior Court Judge David J. Cowan violated his due process rights when, after rejecting a settlement that the family and trustees had reached, he appointed a guardian ad litem without a hearing — even though an Arizona judge had found Lund was “not incapacitated” and another California judge determined Lund had the capacity to choose new trustees. He later amended the complaint to include a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act because Cowan in the 2019 settlement hearing said: “Do I want to give 200 million dollars, effectively, to someone who may suffer, on some level, from Down syndrome? The answer is no.”
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson in July 2020 dismissed the matter. During the appeals process, Cowan discharged the guardian ad litem and granted Lund’s request to reassign the case to a new judge.
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed the dismissal — though not without criticizing the probate court and acknowledging that Lund is “understandably frustrated” with the system. It found most of Lund’s claims to be moot because Cowan removed the guardian ad litem and recused himself. The panel also held that Cowan’s statements, while inappropriate and with “questionable factual basis,” are protected by judicial immunity.
“For over a decade, Bradford Lund — the grandson of Walt Disney — has languished in perhaps the Unhappiest Place on Earth: probate court,” writes Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee in the opinion before explaining why Lund’s claims are now largely moot. “Lund no longer faces any harm from the appointment of the guardian ad litem because Judge Cowan has lifted the order appointing her. And any possibility of future harm sounds only in speculation, especially because Judge Cowan has transferred this case to another judge (and, indeed, he no longer serves in probate court).”
As for the ADA claim, the panel emphasizes the importance of judicial independence and says “[s]ubjecting judges to liability for the grievances of litigants” would compromise that.
“To be clear, we find Judge Cowan’s comment troubling,” writes Lee in the opinion, which is embedded below. “That someone has Down syndrome does not necessarily preclude the ability to manage one’s own financial affairs. In any event, the record suggests that Lund does not have Down syndrome. But judicial immunity shields even incorrect or inappropriate statements if they were made during the performance of a judge’s official duties.”
Lund’s probate court battle is ongoing.
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