Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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At issue in this case was whether an individual who is not biologically related to a child, has not legally adopted the child, and was not married to the child’s legal parent, may be the child’s legal parent. The family division dismissed plaintiff’s petition to establish parentage of the two children legally adopted by her domestic partner, concluding that the definition of “parent” in the Vermont parentage statute did not extend to those who were not connected by biology or adoption to the child, or by marriage or civil union to the child’s legally recognized parent. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient to withstand dismissal with respect to the younger child, M.P., insofar as plaintiff has alleged that she and defendant mutually agreed to bring M.P. into their family and to raise her together as equal co-parents, and have in fact done so for many years. The Court affirmed dismissal as to G.P, and reversed as to M.P, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Sinnott v. Peck" on Justia Law

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Wife challenged the superior court’s property distribution, including its award of property in lieu of spousal maintenance, in this divorce action. The parties began a romantic relationship in 2002 when they were both married and had children. Their respective divorces were finalized in the spring of 2004, and they began living together, marrying in June 2007 and separating in February 2014. No children were born of the marriage, which was the second for both parties. Wife brought into the marriage assets totaling approximately $1.8 million, most of which she obtained through her divorce from her first husband. Husband brought into the marriage between $4.4 and $5.4 million in assets, which he accumulated through his work in the financial services industry from 1985 to 2000. To preserve wife’s spousal support from her first husband, the parties initially kept their finances separate. They did not open their first joint bank account until early 2008, six months after they married. The superior court issued its divorce order in October 2016, concluding it would be inequitable to simply apportion the marital estate by the percentage each party brought into the marriage, even though the marriage was relatively brief. The court concluded that it was appropriate and preferable to award wife additional property in lieu of maintenance, considering “the substantial size of the marital estate, the acrimonious state of the parties’ relationship, and the brief duration of the marriage.” On appeal, wife argued that: (1) the court erred in failing to consider the length of the parties’ premarital relationship and cohabitation in establishing its property distribution and maintenance award; (2) by awarding her an undifferentiated lump-sum payment that was partially property settlement and partially a maintenance award, the superior court failed to explain how its division of marital assets was equitable and whether the unspecified maintenance award would enable her to continue the lifestyle established during the marriage; and (3) the court made multiple errors in valuing the marital estate. Given the facts and circumstances of this case, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the superior court acted within its discretion in not including the parties’ premarital relationship and cohabitation period in calculating the duration of the marriage as a factor in determining an equitable property distribution and just maintenance award. The Court was compelled, however, to remand the property distribution to the superior court for further consideration and findings with respect to what property was to be included in the marital estate and how it was supposed to be allocated: “the court at times seemed to suggest that it considered all of husband’s deferred compensation earned in 2013 and 2014 to be a marital asset subject to distribution and that it was awarding all the remaining unvested deferred compensation to husband. On the other hand, the court repeatedly stated that any of the deferred compensation acquired after the date of the parties’ separation is not a marital asset subject to distribution between the parties.” View "Forstmann MacKenzie v. MacKenzie" on Justia Law

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This case began in 2014 when the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed a petition alleging that B.K. and L.K., then six and seven years old respectively, were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). In September 2014, the parents stipulated to a CHINS adjudication, which was adopted by the family court. In the stipulation, the parents admitted that over the previous four years they had not engaged in recommended services for domestic violence and substance abuse, and that the children had suffered severe trauma due to witnessing violence in the home and had frequent unexcused absences and tardiness from school. ness from school during the 2013-14 school year. The court approved a case plan with concurrent goals of reunification with mother and father or adoption, with interim custody with DCF. The case plan called for father to participate in parenting classes and domestic violence treatment, and for mother to participate in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Father made significant progress toward the case plan goals. Mother, by contrast, attended visits and therapy inconsistently, and was incarcerated for a period in 2015. Since December 2015, mother has had no contact with the children. In April 2016, DCF filed petitions to terminate the parental rights of both parents. However, the court found that father played a constructive role in the children’s lives and that it would not be in their best interests to lose father as they had mother. By 2017, the trial court issued its decision terminating father's parental rights, finding permanency should have been given greater weight in its analysis, and that the best interests of the children were ultimately served by termination. On appeal, father argues that the court’s decision lacked a rational basis and that it erred by terminating his parental rights based on findings that were not supported by clear and convincing evidence. DCF argued the trial court did not base its decision on any new findings of fact, but merely reconsidered the law. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed, finding the trial court made clear that it learned two new facts at the hearing upon which it relied in reweighing the best-interest factors. The original decision did not include these findings, which were based upon statements made by the attorneys and the foster mother at the hearing. The court based its decision to terminate father’s parental rights at least in part on these new facts. For that reason, the Court could not hold that error to be harmless. View "In re B.K. and L.K." on Justia Law

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A mother and father appealed a trial court's order denying their motions to reopen a termination decision. Mother alleged that she had been in a car accident the day before she relinquished, had a concussion, and was not in the “right state of mind.” Father also cited the car accident as the reason for asking to reopen the termination decision and stated that he had not been represented by his attorney correctly. At the hearing, parents appeared, but were seated without their court-assigned attorneys, who were present in the courtroom. Mother indicated that she wanted a continuance to find a new lawyer. Father explained that parents had fired their lawyers for lying to them and asked for a continuance to find new counsel. When asked by the court whether they were intending to hire private counsel, father indicated that he was hoping to have assigned counsel. Counsel indicated that given parents’ allegations they would seek to withdraw. The court granted the motions to withdraw. After fifteen days, parents did not find private counsel. They failed to appear at the next scheduled hearing, and the trial court dismissed their motion. Parents thereafter filed a pro se motion for reconsideration, which was denied. On appeal, the parents argued the trial court erred by denying them assigned counsel to represent them on their motions to reopen. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred in declining to appoint counsel to represent parents in connection with their Rule 60(b) motion, and that parents suffered prejudice as a result. View "In re M.T., G.T., B.T. and N.T., Juveniles" on Justia Law

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Acting pro se, Mother appealed a trial court’s denial of her motion to modify parental rights and responsibilities for son L.C. Through their actions, father and stepmother deprived mother of any contact with L.C. for many years and “destroyed the child’s formerly good relationship with mother.” The trial court found father and stepmother solely responsible for the trauma caused by this alienation; despite this egregious behavior, the trial court declined to modify parental rights and responsibilities for the child. The Vermont Supreme Court upheld this decision on appeal, “not because the father and stepmother are correct in their accusations, or to reward or endorse the course of conduct in which they have engaged, but because the trial court’s judgment regarding the best-interest criteria was factually based and legally correct.” The Supreme Court emphasized that mother was not without recourse should father and stepmother continue to interfere with her attempts at reunification or should they defy the trial court’s orders. In the pendency of a 2015 appeal, father and stepmother continued to wage war against mother. In October 2015, mother filed the emergency motion to modify at issue here, arguing father continued to deliberately and repeatedly undermine and defy the court’s orders. The trial court agreed. At a September 2016 hearing, the court concluded that father’s serious and blatant violations of its prior order constituted a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances. The court explained, it had expressly prohibited the parties from publishing L.C.’s medical records to any third person, yet stepmother had provided L.C.’s private medical information (a trauma therapy report) to the media, which father had at least “tacitly condoned.” Father’s attorney also submitted this same report as an exhibit to a motion to stay father’s deposition in a separate civil suit that mother had filed. The court observed that father did not repudiate his attorney’s actions or attempt to rescind this filing. Regarding mother’s emergency motion, although the trial court found that mother had shown a real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances, it concluded that transferring custody to mother at this juncture was not in L.C.’s best interests. Mother argued the court’s findings did not support its conclusion, particularly given its determination that father and stepmother were not credible witnesses. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court acted within its discretion in assessing L.C.’s best interests and therefore affirmed its decision. The Court emphasized that the trial court set a clear benchmark for father and stepmother’s behavior, and any further attempts at alienation may well affect the best-interest analysis and warrant a change in custody. View "Knutsen v. Cegalis (2017 VT 62)" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether a family court could, after concluding that a custodial parent’s relocation constitutes an unanticipated change in circumstances, maintain physical rights and responsibilities with that parent but then decline to modify parent-child contact, effectively barring the custodial parent from moving because it determined that the move was not in the child’s best interests. Custodial mother appealed the family court’s denial of her motion to modify parent-child contact to facilitate her relocation with the child. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family court applied the wrong framework in evaluating mother’s motion, and reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Quinones v. Bouffard" on Justia Law

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After a bench trial, the trial court concluded that defendant attorney’s failure to adequately inform plaintiff Hannah Sachs of the risks of delay in filing a parentage action “negligently fell short of the standard of reasonably competent legal representation.” Despite the court’s conclusion that defendant breached her professional duty of care, the trial court determined that plaintiff failed to demonstrate direct causation or measurable damages as a result of defendant’s negligent advice. On appeal, plaintiff challenges the court’s legal conclusions and contends that the court’s factual findings established both causation and damages. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with plaintiff, and reversed. View "Sachs v. Downs Rachlin Martin, PLLC" on Justia Law

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A father appealed the grant of summary judgment that dismissed his defamation, negligence, and monetary claims against mother and her sister (aunt). Father alleged that mother and aunt coached daughter into saying “Daddy hit me” and submitted defamatory audio and video recordings of daughter’s statements to his parole officer. Father also alleged that mother made false statements to his parole officer and in mother’s petition for relief from abuse. The trial court ruled that these recordings and statements were absolutely privileged. Father also brought several monetary claims against mother premised on his allegation that he had loaned money to mother. On appeal, father argues the trial court (1) erred in concluding that the recordings and statements were protected by absolute privilege and that they should have instead been protected only by qualified privilege; (2) erred in dismissing his monetary claims against mother; and (3) abused its discretion in denying his motion for a court-appointed expert. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s entry of summary judgment on all claims except for certain monetary claims. View "Couture v. Trainer" on Justia Law

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A mother appealed the termination of her parental rights to two children: D.H. (born 2004) and S.C. (born 2006). She argued the family court improperly withheld its discretion by refusing to grant a thirty-minute continuance so that she could attend the termination hearing. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court determined that although mother’s absence was her mistake in light of the proper notice she was given, her attorney had spoken with her and represented to the court that mother could be there in a short time. Delaying the hearing for a brief time to allow mother to appear would not have disrupted the court’s calendar or prejudiced the children, DCF, or other litigants. The Court found that denying the request had a harsh effect on mother because it resulted in the case being decided based on the exhibits and testimony presented by DCF, but without mother’s testimony. This deprived mother of the opportunity to testify regarding her participation in treatment, her progress toward the case plan goals, and her strong relationship with the children. The trial court explicitly relied on mother’s absence as evidence supporting termination, even though mother’s attorney had informed the court that she was in touch with mother and requested the continuance while the hearing was still in progress. Furthermore, the record showed mother was actively involved throughout the proceedings below. For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the court’s decision to terminate mother’s parental rights, and remanded the matter to the family court for the evidence to be reopened so that mother may have an opportunity to participate. View "In re D.H. & S.C." on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was the status of a revocable trust that husband’s parents established in 1999. The parties married in 1984 and have two children (now adults); they divorced in 2014. The grantor amended the revocable trust that changed the beneficiary from husband to husband’s son, thereby keeping the trust property out of the marital estate and shielding it from wife’s claims. Wife appealed the family division’s final property division award. In particular, she challenged the trial court’s refusal to enforce a subpoena requiring grantor father to testify about the trust and his capacity to change its beneficiary and argued the family court should have included the trust assets as part of the marital estate. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Collins v. Collins" on Justia Law