Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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Father appealed the dismissal of his motion to vacate the family court’s order terminating his parental rights to son C.L.S. In his motion, father argued the termination order had to be set aside under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) because he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The family court determined that it lacked jurisdiction under 33 V.S.A. 5103(d) because father filed the motion after C.L.S. was adopted, and dismissed the motion. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family court correctly interpreted section 5103(d), and that its application of the statute did not deprive father of his rights to due process or equal protection. View "In re C.L.S., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Juvenile S.R. appealed a family division order granting the Department for Children and Families' (DCF) request to place him in a secure out-of-state psychiatric residential treatment facility pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5926. In November 2019, mother stipulated that S.R. was CHINS. The stipulated merits order indicated that S.R. and mother were homeless, mother needed to undergo a medical procedure that would preclude her from caring for S.R., and S.R. had mental health and behavioral needs that needed continued treatment. The stipulated order included a statement that S.R. did not meet criteria for voluntary or involuntary mental health admission. Mother stipulated that she was unable to meet S.R.’s needs for stability, housing, and mental and behavioral health services. The COVID-19 pandemic struck, delaying court hearings. Over the following months, S.R. moved through a series of ten to twelve placements. The constant changes in placement prevented S.R. from establishing any therapeutic connections with service providers and also inhibited S.R.’s educational progress. S.R. was charged with delinquency several times after he reportedly became abusive during three of his placements. DCF, Mother and S.R.'s guardian ad litem eventually agreed on a placement in Harbor Point, Virginia. S.R. himself objected to placement at Harbor Point, and to any other placement out-of-state, unless a program could be found in New York, where his mother was living at the time of the hearing. The court ultimately granted DCF’s motion for out-of-state placement, finding that there were no equivalent facilities in Vermont, and that placement at Harbor Point was in S.R.’s best interest. On appeal, S.R. argued the court erred in granting the motion for out-of-state placement in the absence of any psychiatric or psychological evaluation supporting a conclusion that psychiatric residential treatment was necessary for him. He contended his placement was akin to the involuntary commitment of an adult, and that involuntary commitment decisions had to be supported by full psychiatric evaluations and expert testimony. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the order was not supported by sufficient evidence, and reversed. "While we have no doubt that everyone involved in the proceeding below was concerned with S.R.’s best interest and acted in good faith, and it may be that DCF’s position is ultimately adequately supported, the record simply does not contain the sort of expert evidence required to support long-term placement in a locked psychiatric residential treatment facility over S.R.’s objection." View "In re S.R., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Ian Baron appealed a Vermont magistrate decision declining to register and exercise jurisdiction over his petition to modify a Virginia child-support order. Baron argued that because the requirements of 15B V.S.A. sections 1602 and 1611 were met, the magistrate was required to register and exercise jurisdiction over his petition to modify. To this, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, and remanded for further proceedings on whether the Virginia child-support order should have been modified. View "Baron v. McGinty" on Justia Law

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Petitioner H.H. appealed a Vermont Human Services Board order upholding the Department for Children and Families’ (DCF’s) substantiation of a report that she placed her daughter at risk of harm from sexual abuse. The Board granted summary judgment to the State, concluding that the stipulated findings in a related child-in-need-of-care-or-supervision (CHINS) proceeding precluded petitioner from contesting her substantiation and resulting placement on the Child Protection Registry. Petitioner argued the Board erred in applying collateral estoppel on the basis of the CHINS adjudication. To this, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Appeal of H.H." on Justia Law

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Husband appealed the parties’ final divorce order relating to property division, arguing that the family division erred by: (1) barring him from conducting discovery of a non-party concerning a trust in which wife had an interest; and (2) awarding wife a lump sum as a retroactive temporary spousal award even though wife had neither requested nor been granted temporary spousal maintenance. The Vermont Supreme Court determined: (1) the Wife's interest in the trust was not vested or subject to modification or divestment as long as Wife's father was alive, so Husband was not entitled to discovery relating to the trust; and (2) the lump-sum payment as part of the property division was "well within" the trial court's discretion, and "any error by the court in characterizing the challenged $18,000 lump-sum award as a payment in lieu of a retroactive award of temporary maintenance is harmless." Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "Noble v. Noble" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether Vermont had to recognize and register an Alabama order granting plaintiff father, W.H., sole physical and legal custody of juvenile M.P., who resided in Vermont and was in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) pursuant to a Vermont court order. The family division concluded that Alabama lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate matters related to M.P.’s custody and denied the registration request. On appeal, plaintiff contended Alabama had jurisdiction under the applicable state and federal laws and that Vermont was therefore obligated to recognize and register the Alabama custody order. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "W.H. v. Department for Children and Families" on Justia Law

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Ashlie Brannan appealed a trial court’s determination that Ashton Peralta was a de facto parent of A.Z. pursuant to 15C V.S.A. 501. She argued the court erred both in denying her motion to dismiss and in evaluating the factors set forth in section 501(a). Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Peralta v. Brannan" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the family division’s decision declining to adjudicate her a de facto parent of J.F. pursuant to 15C V.S.A. 501(b). The family division found that plaintiff had failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence four of the seven factors outlined in section 501 to be recognized as a de facto parent, namely that the person seeking de facto parentage: “undertook full and permanent responsibilities of a parent of the child without expectation of financial compensation”; held out the child as their own; “established a bonded and dependent relationship with the child that is parental in nature;” and that “continuing the relationship between the person and the child is in the best interests of the child.” Plaintiff argued on appeal of the Vermont Supreme Court that she proved the above-mentioned factors by clear and convincing evidence. Finding no abuse of discretion or other reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the family division’s decision. View "Lanfear v. Ruggerio & Fennimore" on Justia Law

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Damon Petrie appealed the family division’s denial of his motion to dismiss his ex-wife, Angela Blake’s, attempt to enforce a judgment she obtained in their divorce action. Petrie claimed enforcement of the judgment was barred by the applicable statute of limitations because the judgment was not renewed within the required time. In denying the motion, the family division found Blake had complied with the family division rules for enforcement proceedings and with 12 V.S.A. 506. It then granted Petrie’s motion for interlocutory appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed that Petrie’s motion to dismiss should have been granted and therefore reversed and entered judgment in his favor. View "Blake v. Petrie" on Justia Law

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Defendant Raymond Harrington appealed the issuance of a relief-from-abuse order requiring him to have no contact with and stay a hundred feet away from plaintiff Melissa Scheffler (his sister), her residence, and their mother’s home. The trial court issued the order because it concluded that defendant stalked plaintiff, within the meaning of 12 V.S.A. 5131, by driving by her home on multiple occasions and honking his horn, which the court found constituted surveillance. On appeal, defendant argued his actions did not amount to surveillance because surveillance requires “an intent to engage in a close watch or observation.” To this, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed, because, based on the trial court’s findings, there was no evidence defendant was closely watching or observing plaintiff. View "Scheffler v. Harrington" on Justia Law