Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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In consolidated appeals, an executor of an estate sued the clinic and physician's assistant who treated the decedent for wrongful death. The trial court dismissed the case because plaintiff failed to file a certificate of merit, as was required by statute. The refiled case was dismissed as untimely. The executor appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which reviewed the trial court's dismissals and found that dismissal was proper in both cases. View "Quinlan v. Five-Town Health Alliance, Inc., dba Mountain Health Center" on Justia Law

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Respondent Gregory Bombardier was a professional engineer licensed by the State of Vermont. He challenged the Board of Professional Engineering’s decision, affirmed by an administrative officer from the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), that he engaged in unprofessional conduct. In 2014, respondent was hired by an insurance adjuster on behalf of an insurance company to investigate a claim filed by Rand Larson against Atlas Plumbing & Heating, LLC. Larson alleged that Atlas had notched a support beam while installing radiant heating in his home, causing his floor to buckle. Respondent inspected Larson’s home. Following respondent’s inspection, Larson hired another engineer, James Baker, to investigate the cause of the floor settlement. After receiving Baker’s report, Larson contacted respondent seeking a reinspection; respondent did not respond. The insurance company provided respondent with a copy of the Baker report, asking whether there was anything in it that would cause respondent to reinspect the property or question his own opinion. Respondent saw nothing in the Baker report that caused him to question his own opinion. In August 2014, the insurer denied Larson’s claim. Larson then filed a professional complaint against respondent. The Board agreed with respondent that there was no new information in the Baker report that would cause respondent to question his own opinion. The Board did discipline respondent, however, based on the investigation that he undertook to determine the cause of the floor buckling at the Larson home. “Had respondent undertaken only to rule out the work done by Atlas Heating and Plumbing as the cause of the damage, this would be a different case. Respondent agreed to a much broader undertaking, however, than ruling out a specific cause.” The Vermont Supreme Court determined that the question of whether a professional engineer has engaged in unprofessional conduct did not turn on whether a client was upset or had filed a complaint. “The fact that a professional engineer may properly limit the scope of his or her work and that a client is satisfied with that work are separate considerations from whether there has been compliance with applicable professional standards in performing the particular work that the professional engineer has agreed to undertake. Similarly, the fact that one might sue a professional engineer for damages in superior court does not obviate the engineer’s independent duty to avoid unprofessional conduct nor does it deprive the Board of its statutory authority to address such conduct.” Having undertaken to investigate and determine the cause of the damage, respondent was required by his professional licensure to competently perform the services he agreed to render. The Supreme Court determined that the Board’s findings supported its conclusion that respondent did not meet the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing practice in carrying out the service that his client retained him to perform. View "In re Gregory J. Bombardier" on Justia Law

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Respondent Gregory Bombardier was a professional engineer licensed by the State of Vermont. He challenged the Board of Professional Engineering’s decision, affirmed by an administrative officer from the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), that he engaged in unprofessional conduct. In 2014, respondent was hired by an insurance adjuster on behalf of an insurance company to investigate a claim filed by Rand Larson against Atlas Plumbing & Heating, LLC. Larson alleged that Atlas had notched a support beam while installing radiant heating in his home, causing his floor to buckle. Respondent inspected Larson’s home. Following respondent’s inspection, Larson hired another engineer, James Baker, to investigate the cause of the floor settlement. After receiving Baker’s report, Larson contacted respondent seeking a reinspection; respondent did not respond. The insurance company provided respondent with a copy of the Baker report, asking whether there was anything in it that would cause respondent to reinspect the property or question his own opinion. Respondent saw nothing in the Baker report that caused him to question his own opinion. In August 2014, the insurer denied Larson’s claim. Larson then filed a professional complaint against respondent. The Board agreed with respondent that there was no new information in the Baker report that would cause respondent to question his own opinion. The Board did discipline respondent, however, based on the investigation that he undertook to determine the cause of the floor buckling at the Larson home. “Had respondent undertaken only to rule out the work done by Atlas Heating and Plumbing as the cause of the damage, this would be a different case. Respondent agreed to a much broader undertaking, however, than ruling out a specific cause.” The Vermont Supreme Court determined that the question of whether a professional engineer has engaged in unprofessional conduct did not turn on whether a client was upset or had filed a complaint. “The fact that a professional engineer may properly limit the scope of his or her work and that a client is satisfied with that work are separate considerations from whether there has been compliance with applicable professional standards in performing the particular work that the professional engineer has agreed to undertake. Similarly, the fact that one might sue a professional engineer for damages in superior court does not obviate the engineer’s independent duty to avoid unprofessional conduct nor does it deprive the Board of its statutory authority to address such conduct.” Having undertaken to investigate and determine the cause of the damage, respondent was required by his professional licensure to competently perform the services he agreed to render. The Supreme Court determined that the Board’s findings supported its conclusion that respondent did not meet the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing practice in carrying out the service that his client retained him to perform. View "In re Gregory J. Bombardier" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend an exception to the general rule to the circumstances of this case, which wanted to impose on attorneys a duty to prospective beneficiaries of undrafted, unexecuted wills. Doing so, in the Court’s view, would undermine the duty of loyalty that an attorney owes to his or her client and invite claims premised on speculation regarding the testator’s intent. Plaintiff filed a complaint against both defendant and his law firm alleging that defendant committed legal malpractice and consumer fraud, specifically alleging defendant breached a duty of care by failing to advise mother on matters of her estate and failing to draft a codicil reflecting her intent. The court granted defendants a partial motion to dismiss on the consumer fraud allegation. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, adding another count of legal malpractice. This amended complaint alleged that defendant breached a duty owed to plaintiff to the extent that he could have successfully challenged mother’s will. According to plaintiff, he filed six affidavits from mother’s relatives, friends, and neighbors indicating that mother was committed to leaving a House she owned to plaintiff. Defendants again moved for summary judgment in which they argued that an attorney did not owe “a duty to a non-client prospective beneficiary of a nonexistent will or other estate planning document.” The trial court ruled there was no duty to beneficiaries of a client’s estate under Vermont law. The Supreme Court agreed. View "Strong v. Fitzpatrick" on Justia Law

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Dr. Stephanie Taylor appealed Vermont Medical Practice Board decision denying her request to vacate the provisions of a 2005 consent order in which she agreed to a “final and irrevocable” surrender of her medical license. Dr. Taylor contended the Board erroneously: (1) failed to determine whether there were “less restrictive means available to regulate [her] conduct”; (2) violated her right to due process by “shift[ing] the burden onto [her] . . . to guess at the Board’s requirements for reinstatement;” (3) relied on the specification of charges that led to the earlier consent order; and (4) considered a Massachusetts decision revoking her medical license in that state. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Stephanie H. Taylor, M.D." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Heidi and James Glassford appealed a superior court decision denying their motion for summary judgment and granting it to defendant Dufresne & Associates, P.C. on plaintiffs' claims of negligent misrepresentation and violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Plaintiffs were homeowners who purchased their home direct from the builder, D&L Homes by Design, LLC (D&L). D&L hired defendant to certify that the on-site mound sewage disposal system constructed for the home satisfied state permitting requirements. On April 19, 2005, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources issued a Wastewater System and Potable Water Supply Permit for construction of the sewage disposal system on the property, subject to receiving a certification pursuant to 10 V.S.A 1973(e). On October 20, 2005, defendant's employee sent the certification required by the statute. On December 20, 2005, plaintiffs signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to purchase the home from D&L. Although the seller represented that the home and property had received all the necessary permits, plaintiffs never saw the certificate or the letter from the Agency stating that the certification requirement was satisfied. Sometime thereafter, plaintiffs hired an attorney in connection with the closing. On January 13, just prior, plaintiffs' attorney prepared a certificate of title that noted the wastewater and water supply permit. In February 2006, the sewage disposal system failed. In November 2008, plaintiffs hired defendant to investigate the system's failure because they knew defendant had inspected the system prior to their purchase. Defendant prepared a report stating that he had "completed the original" inspection in 2005 and found the system had been installed according to the permitted design. Plaintiffs received other opinions about the disposal system's failure both before and after hiring defendant to inspect the system. Plaintiffs filed a complaint in superior court alleging pecuniary losses from defendant's failure to properly inspect the sewage disposal system and subsequent misrepresentation about the construction of the system in the certification to the Agency. Upon review of the superior court decision, the Supreme Court found that the completion and filing of defendant's certificate was a prerequisite to D&L's ability to sell the home, the certificate was unrelated to the sale. The law required that it be sent only to the government agency that issued the permit. Furthermore, there was no allegation that D&L used the certificate as part of its sales pitch, and no allegation that defendant had any part in the sales. The standard for CPA liability required that a person be directly involved in the transaction that gave rise to the claimed liability. That standard was not met here. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court's decision. View "Glassford v. Dufresne & Associates, P.C." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Paul Choiniere and P&D Consulting, Inc. sued defendants, attorney Anthony Marshall and his law firm, Harris Beach, PLLC, alleging that they made negligent and intentional misrepresentations while representing a client in a matter involving commercial loan guaranties. Choiniere argued that he relied upon the misrepresentations when deciding not to call a $1 million loan that he made in September 2003, and P&D Consulting argued that it relied upon the misrepresentations when deciding to loan an additional $1.3 million in June 2004. Upon review of the dispute, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision granting defendants summary judgment. In sum, the Court held that there were several material issues in dispute that preclude summary judgment, including the viability of the guaranty agreement after an April 28, 2004 letter, whether plaintiffs' reliance on the April 28 letter was justifiable, whether Marshall was authorized to send the letter, and whether there are any economic damages. View "Choiniere v. Marshall and Beach, PPLC" on Justia Law

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This was an interlocutory appeal of superior court decision, on appeal from a decision of an appellate officer, remanding this disciplinary case to the Board of Nursing to determine whether the Board intended that the case be continued. The central question for the Supreme Court's review was whether an attorney for the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) within the office of the Vermont Secretary of State has the power to appeal a Board of Nursing decision vacating an earlier consent order suspending from practice appellee, David Shaddy. The Court concluded that the attorney had this power and reinstated the decision of the appellate officer. View "Shaddy v. State of Vermont Office of Professional Regulation" on Justia Law

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The Judicial Conduct Board concluded that respondent Judge Ernest Balivet violated Canon 3(B)(8) of the Vermont Code of Judicial Conduct. The Supreme Court ordered review on its own motion. The alleged violation stemmed from the judge's handling of a grandfather's petition for guardianship of his granddaughter, and a subsequent request for termination of the parents' parental rights to the child. Before the hearing before the Judicial Conduct Board, the parties identified three disputed issues : (1)whether respondent failed to rule in a timely manner on the motion to revoke guardianship filed by the child’s parents; (2) whether respondent caused unnecessary delay in failing to schedule a hearing on the grandfather’s motion to terminate the father’s parental rights; and (3) whether respondent failed to respond in a timely manner to the order of remand from the family court. The Board’s sanction order recognized respondent’s responsibility for undue delay and endemic court management issues, but also acknowledged that the choices and actions of others played a significant role in the overall duration of the underlying case. It took into account respondent’s forthrightness in his dealings with the Board, his good intentions toward the parties, the reasonableness of his rulings in the underlying case, and his willingness to accept conditions intended to prevent this type of problem from recurring. The Supreme Court saw no reason to set aside the recommended conditions of respondent's sanctions. The Court did conclude, however, that characterization of respondent’s reprimand as “private,” rather than “public,” despite the conceded public character of the reprimand, was confusing and "cannot stand." Accordingly, the Court amended the sanction to characterize it as a “public reprimand.” In all other respects, the Court affirmed the Board’s sanction for respondent’s violation of Canon 3(B)(8). View "In re Balivet" on Justia Law

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Respondent Leslie Anne Whittington appealed an Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) order that concluded she committed several acts of unprofessional conduct and sanctioning her to a five-year license suspension. Respondent worked as a Nursing Home Administrator (NHA) from October 2006 until 2010. In its Amended Specification of Charges, the State alleged that respondent committed a host of specified acts that amounted to unprofessional conduct. In particular, the State alleged that respondent engaged in unprofessional conduct by failing to keep the home’s supplies adequately stocked; failing to keep the home adequately staffed; creating an erratic and hostile environment for staff and residents, possibly due to mental or psychological instability; allowing regulatory deficiencies to occur and responding poorly to two routine regulatory by the Vermont Division of Licensing and Protection; failing to ensure that residents’ records were properly kept; improperly interfering with nurses’ delivery of medication to residents and other nursing duties or medical decisions; falsely representing that she was a licensed nursing assistant and was close to earning a nursing degree; and improperly physically removing the ombudsman responsible for the home from the premises. Upon review of the OPR record, the Supreme Court reversed the Administrative Law Officer’s determinations that respondent engaged in unprofessional conduct by questioning a doctor’s withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and on account of the Division of Licensing and Protection survey deficiencies, but affirmed the ALO’s other findings of unprofessional conduct. The case was remanded to the trial court for remand to the ALO for redetermination of the applicable sanction. View "Whittington v. Office of Professional Regulation" on Justia Law