A matter of trust

Did an elderly man diagnosed with dementia know what he was doing when he made two managers at a South Philly bank the beneficiaries of his life savings?

That question was the subject of a case in Philadelphia Orphans Court that is now on appeal by Prudential Savings Bank and the employees who were awarded $700,000 after the death of Carmen DiCesare.

DiCesare died June 13, 2001, at age 84. The retired sign painter lived on the 2000 block of South 18th Street for most of his life. He never married, never had any children and never made a will. A niece, Theresa Owen, is serving as administrator of his estate and filed the claim in Orphans Court.

DiCesare, who on Jan. 19, 1999, was diagnosed with "progressive dementia," had several accounts in two South Philadelphia banks.

One of them, the Prudential Savings Bank branch at 19th Street and Snyder Avenue, was the focus of the case. Two Prudential employees — manager Frances Mazzei and assistant manager Lucia Squitieri — took a liking to DiCesare, and he to them, according to court records.

The documents show that on Aug. 8, 2000, DiCesare said he wanted to transfer his Social Security deposit account to Prudential from Sharon Savings Bank at 1730 Snyder Ave. Mazzei and Squitieri opened a trust account, also known as an ITF account, for DiCesare, and put the account into trust to themselves.

Mazzei asked for permission to open the account via telephone from Prudential’s president, Thomas Vento. The president had hoped the bank’s counsel would compel DiCesare to draft a will, according to the judge’s opinion.

Through his assistant, Vento declined to comment for this story.

But Orphans Court Judge Joseph O’Keefe, who ruled against the bank and its employees, stated in his 39-page opinion that Mazzei did not give correct information to Vento and the bank’s legal counsel about DiCesare.

O’Keefe said he based his ruling on the fact that "the bank failed to undo the transfers after it had learned about them."

When DiCesare died, Mazzei and Squitieri received the $700,000 from his ITF account, which they split.

Karl Prior, the attorney for Owen, of Tabernacle, N.J., said the judge’s opinion is all that counts at this point.

On May 5 of this year, O’Keefe, ordered Prudential, Mazzei and Squitieri jointly liable for $563,767.40 — the $700,000, less funeral expenses and court fees.

Prudential denies any wrongdoing in relation to the actions of their employees at the 19th and Snyder branch. When visited at the bank, Mazzei, who has been employed at Prudential since 1964, refused to comment. Squitieri, who has been employed at Prudential since 1987, said she could not speak about the case because it is on appeal.

Salvatore Larussa, the attorney for Mazzei and Squitieri, also declined comment through an employee after numerous calls.

The bank’s counsel, Jerome Balka, said, "DiCesare knew what he was doing," adding, "It would be inappropriate to comment any further right now" due to Prudential’s appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court.

In court, Prudential offered testimony from witnesses who had encounters with DiCesare and believed him to be of sound mind.

But Roxanne Rivera, the assistant manager of Sharon Bank — from which DiCesare had transferred an account — said in court documents that she was concerned about her elderly customer because her employees would have to explain information about his finances every time he visited the bank.

In his opinion, O’Keefe stated DiCesare had trusted Mazzei and Squitieri like a child trusts his parents, and that they violated that trust.

"Had the bank operated to reasonable banking standards," the judge wrote, "the transactions would not have occurred."