Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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Father appealed a sanctions order imposed by the family division enjoining him from submitting filings in this case unless the filing was signed by a licensed attorney or he first obtained permission from the court. The Vermont Supreme Court determined the trial court acted within its discretion in sanctioning father given his pattern of filing numerous motions that lacked factual or legal support, failing to adhere to procedural rules, and acting without good faith. The Court concluded, however, that the court’s order was overly broad in scope because it applied to all of father’s submissions to the court in this matter and did not clearly provide father with instructions on how to comply. Therefore, the case was remanded for the trial court to amend its sanctions decision accordingly. View "Fox v. Fox" on Justia Law

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Mother appealed a family division order modifying legal parental rights and responsibilities and parent-child contact as to son. The court first issued a parental rights and responsibilities order in 2015, based on the parties’ agreement. In October 2017 father filed emergency motions to modify legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities and parent-child contact, alleging that mother was suicidal and unable to care for son. On the same day, the court granted a temporary modification solely on the basis of father’s filings, awarding sole legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities to father pending a hearing to determine whether a longer-term modification would be appropriate. Following a hearing in January 2018, the court ordered the parties to return to the terms of the original 2015 parentage order, pending a final determination on the motions to modify. At the conclusion of merits hearings held in March 2020 and 2021, the family division issued its order dividing legal responsibility for son between the parties, awarding father responsibility for educational matters and mother responsibility for all other matters. Physical parental rights and responsibilities remained shared, but the court modified the parent-child contact schedule so that the parties alternated weeks on Fridays instead of Thursdays and mother would only care for son after school every other week. On appeal, mother argued this order should have been reversed because the court: (1) abused its discretion by dividing legal rights and responsibilities between the parties; (2) impermissibly relied on DCF history; (3) erred in allowing son’s attorney to participate at the merits hearing; and (4) did not make sufficient findings relative to son’s best interests. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vance v. Locke" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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In dividing the divorcing parties’ assets, a Massachusetts court ordered a special master to sell the Vermont property. After the sale, plaintiff filed an action in a Vermont superior court to rescind the sale and quiet title to the property. Applying the doctrine of comity, the civil division dismissed his action, deferring to the ongoing proceeding in Massachusetts. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the Vermont court should not have dismissed his suit on comity grounds because the Massachusetts court lacked jurisdiction to order the special master to sell the property. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the Vermont court acted within its discretion and affirmed. View "Nijensohn v. Ring" on Justia Law

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Grandparents appealed the probate division’s dismissal of their petition for guardianship of S.O. They argued that: (1) the court should have held a hearing and addressed the merits of their petition; (2) the Department for Children and Families (DCF) violated their due process rights by moving to dismiss the petition; and (3) if there had been a merits hearing, they would have shown that they were suitable guardians and that a nonconsensual custodial guardianship was in S.O.’s best interests. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Guardianship of S.O." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Wife appealed the family division’s May 2021 order granting husband’s motion to permit him to purchase the marital home. Wife argued this was an impermissible modification of the stipulated property division incorporated into the 2017 final divorce order. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with her, and reversed. View "Horgan v. Horgan" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Husband’s estate, through a special administrator, appealed a family division’s order concluding that in light of husband’s death prior to entry of a final divorce order, it lacked jurisdiction to consider the enforceability of the parties’ stipulated agreement. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family division correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction. "Although the parties’ agreement may be enforceable as a contract independent of the anticipated divorce, the civil division of the superior court, and not the family division, is the proper forum for litigating that issue." View "Maier v. Maier" on Justia Law

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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

Posted in: Family Law
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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

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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

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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