Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
Peachey v. Peachey
Defendant-father Mahlon Peachey appealed a final relief-from-abuse order issued by the family division of the superior court, which prohibited father from contacting mother Sarahann Peachey or the parties’ children except during one weekly telephone call with the children. Father argued his right to due process was violated because the court conducted the evidentiary hearing remotely and he missed a portion of the hearing due to technical issues. He further argued the restrictions on parent-child contact imposed by the court were an impermissible modification of the existing contact order that was not supported by a finding of changed circumstances or an assessment of the statutory best-interests factors. Finally, he claimed the protective order had to be reversed because it is self-contradictory and not supported by the evidence. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Peachey v. Peachey" on Justia Law
Stocker, et al. v. Vermont, et al.
Plaintiffs were W.H. and B.H., who were abused as children, and their grandparents. They brought this tort action for damages in 2014, arguing that DCF failed to accept or respond to dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse of the children between 2008 and 2012. Among other things, plaintiffs made claims of negligence based on the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ (DCF) failure to perform its statutory obligations and negligent undertaking. The State moved for summary judgment on all counts, arguing in part that the State did not breach any duty owed to plaintiffs, that the State was entitled to sovereign immunity because its actions were discretionary and grounded in public policy, and that plaintiffs could not prove causation. In June 2019, the trial court denied DCF’s motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial. After the close of the evidence, the trial court granted the State’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the record, holding that even if the jury accepted all plaintiffs’ evidence as true and made all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff, “the jury could not find the presence of proximate causation.” It determined that the jury would have had to speculate as to “what actions [DCF] would have taken had they acted on reports of maltreatment of the children that were made and not acted upon” as well as “what it is that would have happened had DCF received that report and acted on it.” Plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s decision granting judgment as a matter of law to the State. They argued the court erred in narrowing the scope of DCF's legally actionable duty and in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that DCF’s actions were the proximate cause of then-children B.H. and W.H.’s injuries. They also argued the discretionary function exception to the State’s tort liability did not bar their claim and that the trial court improperly considered factors other than the law and evidence in granting the State judgment as a matter of law. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Stocker, et al. v. Vermont, et al." on Justia Law
In re C.L.
Mother appealed a superior court decision terminating her parental rights to her five-year-old son C.L. C.L. separately appealed the court’s decision denying his post-judgment motions to vacate the termination order pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5113(b) and Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), to allow his attorney to withdraw, and to order contact with mother. The Vermont Supreme Court consolidated the appeals for review. With regard to Mother’s appeal, the Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the superior court’s decision. With regard to C.L.’s appeal, the Court found the issue was moot: C.L. argued the superior court should have granted his motion, and that he was prejudiced by its failure to do so because another non-conflicted attorney might have discovered missing evidence or pursued an ineffective-assistance claim, which his trial attorney could not effectively do. But after C.L. filed his appeal, the Defender General appointed a replacement attorney to represent him pursuant to 13 V.S.A. 5274. C.L. therefore secured the relief he was seeking. “Assuming a meritorious Rule 60 claim exists, his new attorney may pursue such claim as long as the family court retains jurisdiction over the matter.” The Court found C.L.’s argument that the family court “abandoned” its discretion when it denied his post-termination motion for contact with Mother, lacked merit. View "In re C.L." on Justia Law
In re N.M., Juvenile
Juvenile N.M. appealed the family division’s order granting the request of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to place him in an out-of-state secure facility. Juvenile argued he was entitled to an independent, second evidentiary hearing, pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5291(d), on the question of whether he should be placed in the secure facility. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded section 5291(d) was inapplicable in the post-disposition phase of this case, and therefore denied the request. Insofar as juvenile made no other arguments in support of his appeal, the appeal was dismissed. View "In re N.M., Juvenile" on Justia Law
In re K.S.
In consolidated appeals, a mother challenged decisions by the family division of the superior court denying her motions for an extension of time to file a notice of appeal and to vacate the order terminating her parental rights to K.S., and concluding that K.S. was not an Indian child for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act. In March 2018, a relative reported that mother had “tossed” K.S. onto a bed during a family argument and that father had used excessive physical discipline on K.S.’s older brother. K.S. was later found to have a buckle fracture on her wrist, which her parents were unable to explain. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) sought and obtained emergency custody of K.S. and her brother, and filed petitions alleging that they were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Mother and father later stipulated to the merits of the CHINS petitions. At the October hearing, mother testified that she understood that she was permanently giving up her parental rights, that her decision was voluntary, and that she believed the decision was in K.S.’s best interests. The court accepted the parties’ stipulations and granted the termination petitions. In December 2019, mother hired a new attorney, who filed a motion for relief from the termination order pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Mother alleged that the attorney who represented her at the relinquishment hearing had rendered ineffective assistance, that the underlying facts did not support termination of mother’s parental rights, and that her relinquishment was involuntary because she did not understand the proceedings. The family division denied the motion, finding that mother’s relinquishment was knowing and voluntary and not the result of coercion by DCF or the foster parents. The court further concluded that it was not required to conduct a separate "best interests" analysis when mother voluntarily relinquished her rights, and she failed to establish that her counsel’s performance was ineffective. Mother untimely filed her notice of appeal, and while a decision on the untimely notice was pending, she filed a second motion to vacate the termination order, adding the argument that the court failed to give notice to the Cherokee tribes or to apply the substantive provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Vermont Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the termination orders. View "In re K.S." on Justia Law
Geraw v. Geraw
This case arose out of a wife’s longstanding efforts to collect money owed to her by her ex-husband under a 2013 final divorce order that was reduced to a money judgment in 2018. Husband contended his then-current assets, including a home and tractor, were exempt from collection under 21 V.S.A. 681 because he purchased them with workers’ compensation settlement funds. He argued in the alternative that, with respect to the tractor, that the tractor should be exempt under 12 V.S.A. 2740(19) because it was “reasonably necessary” for his support. Husband further argued that an investment account he held is a Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside Account (WCMSA) that is also exempt from collection. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Geraw v. Geraw" on Justia Law
In re Appeal of T.O. & L.O.
Petitioners T.O. and L.O. were the grandparents of S.O., a child adjudicated as a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Petitioners appealed an order of the Human Services Board concluding that the Board lacked jurisdiction to determine whether DCF failed to comply with certain provisions of state and federal law concerning the care of children by relatives. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s judgment. View "In re Appeal of T.O. & L.O." on Justia Law
In re C.L.S., Juvenile
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
In re S.R., Juvenile
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
Baron v. McGinty
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