Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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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

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Mother appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her parentage action under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), as well as its denial of her motion to reconsider. She and father were the parents of a child born in Vermont in June 2016. The child also lived with parents for a time in Virginia. Father initiated child custody proceedings in Virginia in August 2016 and was granted custody of the child. Mother appealed that decision within the Virginia court system. Mother then filed a parentage action in Vermont. Following a joint hearing before Virginia and Vermont courts, the Virginia court retained jurisdiction over the custody case, and the Vermont court dismissed the parentage action. Mother essentially argued to the Vermont Supreme Court that Vermont, not Virginia, should have asserted jurisdiction over this child custody case. Finding no reversible error in the trial court’s decision, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pierce v. Slate" on Justia Law

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Wife Nicola Weaver appealed the trial court’s order granting a motion filed by husband David Weaver to modify his spousal maintenance obligation. Wife argues the trial court erred by: (1) reducing her spousal support to zero; (2) inaccurately calculating husband’s actual living expenses because the court declined to consider husband’s current wife’s financial support of husband; and (3) allowing a credit for overpayment of spousal maintenance against a child support arrearage. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with wife that the trial court erred on these three points of law and therefore reversed and remanded. View "Weaver v. Weaver" on Justia Law

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The events leading to this appeal were rooted in the parties’ 2007 divorce. In September 2005, the parties entered into a final stipulation that provided, among other things, that defendant James Billado was to pay plaintiff Laura Cramer $50,000 to buy out her interest in defendant’s business. Before the court entered a divorce judgment, defendant sought to set aside his uncounseled stipulation on the ground that, since signing the stipulation, he learned that while acting as bookkeeper, plaintiff had been stealing money from the business. The trial court rejected his claim, but found that both parties treated the various business accounts as personal accounts, withdrawing funds at will to pay for vacations, credit card debt, and other personal expenses. Defendant turned a blind eye to poor bookkeeping practices since both he and plaintiff received the financial benefit. Given this record, the trial court declined to set aside the parties’ stipulation. Plaintiff recorded a certified copy of the judgment in the Bakersfield land records to perfect her judgment lien on defendant’s property. In 2015, plaintiff filed this foreclosure action alleging that defendant had failed to pay on the 2007 judgment. Defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to set aside the default judgment of foreclosure on the grounds that the trial court erred in allowing service of the foreclosure complaint by tack order and in declining to set aside the default foreclosure judgment in light of his defenses. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court’s orders were within its discretion and accordingly affirmed. View "Cramer v. Billado" on Justia Law

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The parties divorced in 2004 and were parents to two sons, approximately sixteen and fourteen years old. The parental rights and responsibilities portion of the final divorce order was amended several times and those changes were incorporated in a stipulated agreement approved by the family court in September 2008. Under that agreement, mother had sole physical and legal parental rights and responsibilities. Father had parent-child contact with the children every other week. In this appeal, father claimed that, under 15 V.S.A. sec. 670, he was entitled as a matter of right to his sons’ personal records, and specifically, to all of his sons’ mental health records. The family court disagreed and denied father access to the requested records based on the best interests of the children. Finding no reversible error in the family court's order, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Rinehart v. Svensson" on Justia Law

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Defendant Ashley Nutbrown-Covey is the mother of three children: J.N., born in 2013; A.N., born in 2008; and A.C., born in 2004. In August 2011, defendant and A.N.’s father took A.N. (then three years old) to the emergency room for an injury to A.N.’s leg. A.N. was examined by a physician, whose treating records indicate that although it was obvious that A.N. was injured, there were no deformities or external bruising to A.N.’s leg. The physician ordered X-ray examinations, which showed that A.N. was suffering from a spiral fracture of the left leg, meaning that A.N.’s leg had been subjected to significant torque. Although the physician was a mandated reporter, he did not notify the Department for Children and Families (DCF) of A.N.’s injury because nothing indicated that A.N. had been injured by defendant or any other adult. Neither DCF nor the State took any action until 2014. This case presented the question whether the doctrine of issue preclusion bars the State from prosecuting defendant for alleged abuse of one child, A.N., after the family court, in an earlier child-in-need-of-supervision (CHINS) proceeding involving a different child, J.N., found that there was insufficient evidence to adjudicate J.N. CHINS for being without proper parental care or subsistence. The Vermont Supreme Court held that, given the facts of this case, the prosecution was not barred by issue preclusion. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss. View "Vermont v. Nutbrown-Covey" on Justia Law

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Father appealed a family court judgment modifying the disposition plan and terminating his parental rights to the minors A.M., E.M., and L.M. After review of the record, the Supreme Court concluded that a single transgression by father, in the face of otherwise positive evidence and findings as to his compliance with the case plans and his observed parenting abilities, did not support a finding of changed circumstances to warrant modification of the case plan goal. Accordingly, the Court reversed. View "In re A.M., E.M., L.M." on Justia Law

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Mother appealed a superior court decision denying her motion to set aside a previous order terminating her parental rights to her daughter, P.K. Mother voluntarily relinquished her parental rights in the same proceeding in which she entered into a postadoption-contact agreement with P.K.’s paternal grandmother, with whom the child had been placed by the Department for Children and Families (DCF). After DCF removed P.K. from the paternal grandmother’s home and placed her with another pre-adoptive foster family, mother moved to set aside the termination order. The trial court found that mother agreed, at the termination hearing, that "all parties agreed that it was in P.K.’s best interest that custody be transferred to DCF, without limitation as to adoption." Mother argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that the superior court erred by not employing available legal remedies to safeguard her ongoing relationship with P.K., which the court necessarily found to be in P.K.'s best interest in approving the postadoption-contact agreement. She contended that relief was available based on changed circumstances, in this case, the changed circumstances of the paternal grandmother's removal as a preadoptive parent. Finding no reversible error in the superior court’s denial of mother’s motion, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re P.K." on Justia Law

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Mother and father separately appealed a family court judgment terminating their parental rights to the minors D.S. and W.S. Mother contended the court improperly relied on factors beyond her control in concluding that her ability to parent had stagnated. Father contended: (1) the court improperly failed to address individually whether his ability to parent the children had stagnated; (2) the evidence failed to show that he was unable to resume parenting within a reasonable time; and (3) the court violated his right to due process of law by relying on expectations not in the case plan. The Supreme Court concluded that the predicate finding that mother’s failure to progress amounted to stagnation was unsupported, and therefore that the judgment terminating mother’s parental rights was reversed. The Court agreed with father that the trial court's findings were insufficient to support a conclusion that a termination of father’s parental rights was in the best interests of the children. The Court reversed as to both parents and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re D.S. and W.S." on Justia Law