Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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A father appealed the termination of his parental rights to his four children. On appeal, he raised three arguments regarding the court’s termination decision: (1) the termination of parental rights (TPR) petition was premature because the three-month period for reunification provided for in the case plan had not expired and the Department for Children and Families (DCF) had not made reasonable efforts to reunify father with the children insofar as it refused to make the children available for expanded visitation that would have enabled reunification to occur; (2) the evidence did not support the court’s determinations that father’s progress had stagnated and that father would not be able to parent in a reasonable period of time; and (3) several specific findings were unsupported by the evidence. He separately appealed the trial court’s “reasonable efforts” finding. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re D.F., H.F., M.F. and D.F." on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court withdrew its July 6, 2018 opinion in this matter, determining the State did not have a statutory right to appeal in this case. Defendant Liana Roy was charged with custodial interference for taking her four-year-old daughter, who was then in custody of the Department for Children and Families (DCF), on a two-day trip out of the state without DCF’s permission. After the State rested its evidence at trial, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing the evidence failed to demonstrate that she interfered with DCF’s custody to the degree necessary for 13 V.S.A.2451 to apply. At most, defendant argued, this was just “a visit gone bad.” The court denied this motion, holding that the State established the essential elements of its case. After defendant presented her evidence and the State called a rebuttal witness, the State rested and defendant renewed her motion for a judgment of acquittal. The court again denied the motion. The jury convicted. Defendant subsequently moved to set aside the verdict, V.R.Cr.P. 29(c), or for a new trial, V.R.Cr.P. 33, arguing that nothing in the custody order specifically put defendant on notice that she was acting in violation of the authority of the legal custodian, so the State had failed to demonstrate the requisite intent to deprive or interfere with DCF’s custody. The trial court agreed and issued a written decision in July 2017 granting defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal. The court noted that “the jury’s verdict was reasonable” based on the instructions given during the trial. But the court explained that it had erred in not instructing the jury that, to prove custodial interference when DCF is the custodian, the State must produce evidence of “a court order . . . detail[ing] the parent-child contact parameters.” In this amended opinion, the Supreme Court considered whether the State had a statutory right to appeal the trial court’s post-guilty-verdict judgment of acquittal, and, if not, whether the Supreme Court should use its authority pursuant to Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 21 to grant the State the extraordinary remedy of reversing the trial court’s ruling and reinstating the guilty verdict. The Court concluded the State did not have a statutory right to appeal in this case, and declined to exercise its authority to grant extraordinary relief. View "Vermont v. Roy" on Justia Law

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Mother appealed a superior court order that adjudicated her son, B.C., a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). She challenged: (1) the court’s admission of evidence of father’s out-of-court statements; (2) the court’s reliance on findings from a prior CHINS determination; and (3) the sufficiency of the evidence, especially given that B.C. was in the custody of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) when the State filed the petition. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family division erred by admitting evidence of father’s out-of-court statements, and that without that testimony, and in light of the court’s findings with respect to other evidence, the remaining evidence would be insufficient to support a CHINS determination. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order. View "In re B.C." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Willis S. Sheldon, individually as the father of Dezirae Sheldon, and as administrator of the Estate of Dezirae Sheldon, appealed the grant of summary judgment to defendant Nicholas Ruggiero, an administrative reviewer with the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF). Plaintiffs argued that defendant negligently failed to report an allegation that Dezirae’s stepfather Dennis Duby abused Dezirae, eventually leading to Dezirae’s murder at Duby’s hands. Plaintiffs presented alternative theories for defendant’s liability under: (1) Vermont’s mandated-reporter statute, which they argued created a private right of action; (2) common-law negligence; or (3) negligent undertaking. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that even if the mandated-reporter statute creates a private right of action, or alternatively, even if defendant had a common-law duty to report suspected abuse, plaintiffs’ negligent-undertaking claim failed because defendant acted reasonably and prudently in his role as a DCF administrative reviewer. In addition, the Court concluded that defendant never undertook DCF’s statutory obligation to investigate all potential sources of Dezirae’s injuries. View "Sheldon v. Ruggiero" on Justia Law

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A husband appealed a final divorce order, challenging the trial court’s property division, and claimed the court erred in awarding him an amount of spousal maintenance outside the statutory guideline without stating a reason for diverging from the guideline. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Jaro v. Jaro" on Justia Law

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Mark Ogilbee (father) and Caroline Lee (mother) were married in January 1995 and separated in December 2015. Mother filed a complaint for divorce in March 2016 and requested that the court grant her sole legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities. Father conceded sole physical rights to mother, but he sought liberal parent-child contact. He proposed several alcohol-related conditions to ensure his sobriety during his time with their daughter, including abstaining from alcohol during her visits, sending mother frequent breathalyzer tests, and attending treatment groups to support his sobriety. Father also sought legal parental rights and responsibilities in decision-making for their daughter, 50% of the marital estate, and alimony. Father appeals the trial court’s final divorce order, challenging the court’s parent-child contact plan, parental rights and responsibilities determination, and property division. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court found the trial court did not abuse its discretion with respect to setting the parent-child contact schedule. However, the Court determined the trial court's decision failed to adequately explain the rationale behind the division of parental rights and responsibilities, and that portion of the decision was reversed and remanded for further findings and conclusions. The trial court also erred in its property-division determination by valuing the parties' marital assets as of the date of the parties' separation rather than the date of the final divorce hearing. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Lee v. Ogilbee" on Justia Law

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Father Mar-Rea Terino appealed the family court’s denial of his request to include a mechanism in his divorce decree for revisiting parent-child contact for his two-year-old child as the child got older, particularly as the child reached school age. Father also argued the family court erred in failing to address various proposals in his parenting plan. The Vermont Supreme Court found trial court may anticipate that a parent-child contact schedule, which was developed specifically to meet present needs that the child will predictably outgrow, may be ill suited to the child’s best interests at an identified future time. In such cases, the trial court cannot prejudge the child’s best interests at that future time. The court may, however, establish the expectation that the parties will revisit the schedule, through their own negotiation or mediation if necessary, to ensure that it meets the child’s bests interests in that predictable next stage of a child’s life. The parties’ failure to reach an agreement at that time may be an unanticipated change of circumstances. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded courts have the discretion to include such a provision, but should do so sparingly and with an articulated rationale. On remand, the trial court was not bound to exercise its discretion to include a provision of the sort described by the father in his appeal. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to specifically address the various proposals in father’s proposed parenting plan. Finally, although the trial court had the discretion to incorporate provisions regarding dispute resolution between mother and father, it was not required to do so. If, on remand, the trial court elected to address the matter, it may do so, but the Supreme Court concluded its silence on this question did not amount to an abuse of discretion. View "Terino v. Bleeks" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Michele Boulet appealed the trial court’s decision to dismiss her petition for modification of the guardianship of C.H. In 2017, petitioner petitioned for modification of the guardianship of C.H., a developmentally disabled adult who has had a guardian since 2009. C.H.’s first guardian, a member of her immediate family, was removed in 2015 after being substantiated for financial exploitation of C.H. The Commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living (DAIL) was subsequently appointed as C.H.’s guardian. Petitioner was a friend of C.H.’s family. Shortly after petitioner filed her petition for modification of guardianship, C.H. moved to dismiss through counsel to dismiss on grounds that petitioner did not have standing to petition the court for modification of C.H.’s guardianship. In October 2017, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss, deciding, in accordance with C.H.’s argument, that petitioner lacked standing to petition for modification of the guardianship. The trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing on either the petition for modification or the motion to dismiss. Petitioner raised several arguments in favor of reinstating her petition; as one of her arguments resolved this appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court addressed it alone. The Supreme Court held that the trial court’s interpretation of the statute defining who has standing to petition for a modification of guardianship was inconsistent with the plain language and purpose of Vermont’s guardianship provisions. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Guardianship of C.H." on Justia Law

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Husband John Warren appealed the trial court’s denial of his and wife Sandra Penland's (Warren) joint motion to modify their final divorce order. The issue in this case was whether the trial court had jurisdiction under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) to modify a property-division order based on the agreement of the parties after the divorce order has become absolute. The Vermont Supreme Court held the court did have jurisdiction, and accordingly reversed and remanded. View "Penland (Warren) v. Warren" on Justia Law

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Defendant Liana Roy was convicted of custodial interference for taking her four-year-old daughter, who was then in Department for Children and Families (DCF) custody, on a two-day trip out of the state without DCF’s permission. After the jury returned its verdict, the trial court granted defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal, concluding that, in the absence of a court order specifying defendant’s parent-child contact, defendant was not criminally liable. The central question presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this case was whether a parent may be convicted of custodial interference under 13 V.S.A. 2451 for interfering with the custody of the DCF in the absence of a court order specifying the schedule and limitations of the parent’s visitation. The Court held section 2451 did not require such an order and that the evidence of defendant’s knowing and egregious actions in derogation of DCF’s custodial rights supported her conviction. Accordingly, the Court reversed. View "Vermont v. Roy" on Justia Law