Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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Cheryl Brown and Matthew Denis were involved in a traffic accident, when Denis’s truck bumped into Brown’s car from behind. Denis claimed the accident happened when he inadvertently took his foot off the brake as he turned to roll the rear window down to provide fresh air to his dog, who was riding in the back seat. Denis’s truck, which was positioned behind Brown’s car, rolled forward five to six feet, striking her rear bumper. The collision took place in stop-and-go traffic. Denis, a sergeant with the Vermont State Police, estimated his speed at impact to be two miles per hour and did not believe there was any damage caused to Brown’s vehicle from the collision. Brown claimed the impact caused a scratch on her rear bumper. The truck Denis was driving did not have any markings indicating it was a police vehicle. Brown filed suit against the State of Vermont alleging it was responsible for injuries she sustained in the accident due to Denis’s negligence. Brown also raised constitutional claims, alleging: (1) due process and equality of treatment violations under the Vermont Constitution’s Common Benefits Clause, and (2) an equal protection, and possibly a due process, claim under the United States Constitution. Brown did not name Denis as a defendant in her suit. Brown’s constitutional claims were based on her assertion that Denis received favorable treatment because he was not prosecuted for causing the accident or leaving the scene without providing identifying information. Before trial, the court dismissed the due process and equal protection claims under the United States Constitution on the basis that Brown had only sued the State, and not Denis personally, and that the State was not a “person” for claims arising under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The court further ruled that Brown lacked standing to assert any claim based on the State’s failure to prosecute Denis. The court also dismissed the Common Benefits Clause claim because Brown lacked any cognizable interest in the prosecution or discipline of Denis. Lastly, the court held that, to the extent a due process claim had been raised, it was undisputed that Brown received the information required to be exchanged in the event of a car collision shortly after the accident, and her ability to file suit against the State as a result of the accident showed her due process rights were not impeded. On appeal, Brown alleged several errors in pre-trial and trial rulings, as well as in the failure to grant her a new trial. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Brown v. Vermont" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Human Rights Commission and three female employees of the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) filed suit against the State (the DOC and the Vermont Department of Human Resources (DHR)) claiming that the DOC violated the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (VFEPA) by paying a male employee in the same position as the female plaintiffs as much as $10,000 more annually without a legally defensible, gender-neutral reason. The trial court granted summary judgment to the State, concluding that although plaintiffs established a prima facie case, the undisputed facts established that the wage disparity was due to legitimate business reasons and not gender-based. After review, the Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs' case. View "Vermont Human Rights Comm'n v. Vermont" on Justia Law

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Claimant Roxanne Moran appealed a superior court's dismissal of her complaint for lack of jurisdiction. Claimant, a former employee of the Vermont State Hospital, separated from state service and applied for ordinary disability-retirement benefits in November of 2011. The Medical Review Board denied benefits, and claimant requested an evidentiary hearing after which benefits were again denied. Claimant then pursued an appeal to the superior court under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 75. The court dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction, and claimant appealed. On appeal, claimant argued that because the superior court had jurisdiction over the appeal the Rule 75 action should not have been dismissed. In the alternative, claimant argued that, even if the superior court did not have jurisdiction to review the Board's decision, her timely filed Rule 75 complaint was sufficient to preserve the Supreme Court's jurisdiction under Vermont Rules of Appellate Procedure 3 and 4. In addition to its brief directly responding to claimant's arguments on appeal, the State also filed a motion to dismiss a portion of the appeal as untimely. Finding no reversible error and that the superior court indeed lacked jurisdiction to hear claimant's appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Moran v. Vermont State Retirement Board" on Justia Law

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Respondent T.S.S. appealed a Superior Court decision granting the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health's application for a continued order of non-hospitalization (ONH) compelling T.S.S. to continue undergoing mental-health treatment. T.S.S. argued that the superior court erred in interpreting 18 V.S.A. 7101(16) and applying it to the evidence. T.S.S. suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. T.S.S. "has demonstrated a clear pattern that for a short period of time, despite denying that he has a mental illness, he, on orders of non-hospitalization, will take medications and improve significantly. But when he is off the order of non-hospitalization, he quickly goes off medications and deteriorates." Over the fifteen-year history testified to at the hearing, there was no evidence that T.S.S. exhibited assaultive behavior or posed a danger to others. There was evidence, however, that at times T.S.S. posed a danger to himself. In June 2013, the commissioner filed an application for continued treatment. T.S.S. did not contest the application and stipulated to entry of the order. On May 27, 2014, the superior court granted the commissioner's application. T.S.S. appealed. Upon review of the Superior Court's interpretation of 7101(6), the Supreme Court concluded that the superior court applied the wrong legal standard to the evidence, and that the evidence and findings did not support a continued ONH in this case. View "In re T.S.S." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ralph Nelson, the former town manager of St. Johnsbury, appealed a trial court decision granting partial summary judgment to defendants, the Town of St. Johnsbury and its individual selectboard members (collectively "the Town"), on his claims of wrongful termination; violation of procedural due process under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1983; violation of Chapter I, Article 4 of the Vermont Constitution; and promissory estoppel. In September 2010, the selectboard formally hired plaintiff as town manager after he served briefly on an interim basis. According to plaintiff, the Town's attorney advised him on three separate occasions that he could be removed only for serious misconduct, which the attorney assured was "an extremely high bar." As town manager, plaintiff undertook a major project to renovate and lease the Town's Pomerleau Building. He gained voter approval on a renovation budget and negotiated a lease with a potential tenant. The selectboard contended plaintiff made certain misrepresentations about the proposed lease, which plaintiff denied. Selectboard chair James Rust informed plaintiff that the board had concerns about his performance and gave him a letter stating that the board would be conducting an inquiry. Rust called plaintiff and notified him that the selectboard would be meeting but that plaintiff was not obligated to attend (plaintiff nonetheless attended). When the meeting convened that evening, the selectboard immediately recessed to executive session. After forty-five minutes, the board asked plaintiff to join them, at which time they discussed the lease. The selectboard asked plaintiff if he wanted to resign, and he declined. Consequently, the board returned to public session and passed a vote of "no confidence." According to plaintiff, he did not understand until that time that the selectboard was terminating his employment. Upon review of the parties' arguments on appeal, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded on the trial court's dismissal of the wrongful termination, Civil Rights Act, and state constitutional claims. The Court affirmed the court's dismissal of the promissory estoppel claim and its grant of summary judgment on the qualified immunity defense. View "Nelson v. Town of St. Johnsbury" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Daniel Brown appealed a superior court decision granting summary judgment to the State on his claim of employment discrimination in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. He argued that summary judgment was improper because genuine material issues of fact remained as to whether his membership in the Vermont National Guard was a motivating factor in the State's decisions not to promote him, and ultimately to terminate him from his position. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Brown v. Vermont" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case was whether the constitutional rights of a putative biological father who seeks an order of parentage when a court has already issued a parentage order determining the minor child's parents. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that Vermont's parentage statute does not authorize a court to allow a second parentage action involving a particular child brought by or against a different putative parent unless constitutional considerations require the court to entertain the second parentage case. In this case, even if plaintiff was the genetic parent of the minor child, he did not have constitutionally-protected parental rights. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's decision denying plaintiff's motion for genetic testing and dismissed his complaint for establishment of parentage. View "Columbia v. Lawton" on Justia Law

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Applicant Marilyn Clifford appealed the denial of long-term home-care benefits under the Medicaid-funded Choices for Care program, arguing that a second home on an adjacent piece of property should have been excluded from the financial-eligibility calculation. Given the language of the regulation, the legislative history that led to its promulgation, and the policy considerations attending the Medicaid program, the Supreme Court concluded that the Secretary correctly interpreted the home-exclusion rule when he reinstated the determination of the Department of Children and Families denying the benefits. Thus, the Court found no compelling indication of error in the Secretary’s determination and affirmed. View "In re Marilyn Clifford" on Justia Law

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The State of Vermont appealed a trial court's dismissal of a civil driver's license suspension complaint.  The trial court found that the statutory requirements for civil suspension had not been met. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, finding that indeed, the statutory requirements for civil suspension had not been met. View "Vermont v. Spooner" on Justia Law

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Kayla Eaton's lawsuit against her former employer and supervisor for sexual assault was dismissed for failure to prosecute. She claimed that her ability to prosecute the case was thwarted by a licensed polygraph examiner, Leroy Prior, who determined that she did not tell the truth in responding to questions about the alleged assault. Ms. Eaton and her father Robert Eaton filed this action against Prior, claiming negligent administration of the polygraph examination, and against the Vermont State Police and Lt. Matthew Belmay, alleging that they improperly disclosed the examination results and conspired to cover up Prior's misconduct. The trial court entered judgment for defendants on the ground that the suit was barred by the three-year statute of limitations applicable to actions for "injuries to the person," under 12 V.S.A. 512(4), and the Eatons appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court correctly concluded the statute of limitations applied to this case, however, the court mistakenly failed to consider the applicability of 12 V.S.A. 511's general six-year limitation period to the claims for economic harm resulting from dismissal of the underlying lawsuit and other alleged economic costs.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Eaton v. Prior" on Justia Law