Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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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

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Claimant John West appealed a Vermont Department of Labor decision concluding that the 2014 amendment to 21 V.S.A. 644(a)(6) did not apply retroactively. In March 2013, West fell fifteen to twenty feet while working in the course of his employment for North Branch Fire District. He was transported to the hospital and treated for extensive injuries. In September 2014, West relocated to Florida, and at some point thereafter, began working at the Freedom Boat Club. Between 2014 and 2016, several different physicians provided conflicting opinions on the level of West’s permanent impairment. In February 2016, Dr. Joseph Kandel conducted an independent medical examination (IME) at North Branch’s request. At a deposition in September 2018, Dr. Kandel testified that it would be accurate to say that “West suffered an injury to the skull resulting in [a] severe traumatic brain injury causing permanent and severe cognitive, physical, or psychiatric disabilities.” West filed a request for a formal hearing, asserting that he was permanently and totally disabled under section 644(a)(6). Between the date of West’s injury and his request for a formal hearing, the Vermont Legislature amended section 644(a)(6). In January 2019, North Branch filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the pre-amendment version of 644(a)(6), which defined total and permanent disability as “an injury to the skull resulting in incurable imbecility or insanity,” applied to West’s claim because that was the law on the date of his injury in March 2013. Further, North Branch argued that the 2014 amendment did not apply retroactively because despite the Legislature’s stated purpose, the amendment created a substantive change in the law. In any event, because West was employed, North Branch maintained that he was not totally and permanently disabled under either version of 644(a)(6). West argued that, contrary to the Commissioner’s conclusion, the 2014 amendment to 644(a)(6) applied retroactively because it did not create any new substantive rights. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the 2014 amendment applied retroactively and therefore reversed and remanded. View "West v. North Branch Fire District #1" on Justia Law

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Neighbors appealed three Vermont Environmental Division rulings related to their appeal of the Agency of Natural Resources’ (ANR) decision to authorize Snowstone, LLC, to discharge stormwater at a proposed project site pursuant to a multi-sector general permit (MSGP). The court dismissed for lack of statutory standing most of neighbors’ questions on appeal and dismissed the remaining questions as not properly before the court. In addition, the court concluded that neighbors’ motion for a limited site visit was moot, given its dismissal of neighbors’ appeal. Finally, the court granted landowners Justin and Maureen Savage’s motion to intervene in the proceedings. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that neighbors had standing to appeal the ANR’s authorization to act under a MSGP, and that their motion for a limited site visit was not moot. Furthermore, the Supreme Court concluded the court acted within its discretion to allow landowners to intervene. Accordingly, dismissal of neighbors’ appeal was reversed, as was the dismissal of the motion for a site visit, and the court’s decision to grant landowners intervention was affirmed. View "In re Snowstone Stormwater Discharge Authorization (Harrington et al., Appellants)" on Justia Law

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Claimant Sadeta Zebic appealed the Commissioner of Labor’s decision not to certify a question for review to the superior court, arguing that the Commissioner had no discretion not to certify her proposed question. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded it did not have jurisdiction to hear this appeal because claimant previously appealed to the superior court, and the statutory scheme provided that a workers’ compensation claimant could appeal either to the superior court or directly to the Supreme Court. View "Zebic v. Rhino Foods, Inc." on Justia Law

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The City of Burlington and the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) jointly constructed the Champlain Parkway, a roadway project intended to connect Interstate 189 to downtown Burlington, and planned to make numerous improvements to the surrounding area. Fortieth Burlington, LLC (Fortieth) owned property adjacent to the project and challenged the decision of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to grant the project a renewed stormwater discharge permit. Fortieth argued before ANR and the Environmental Division that the agency unlawfully waived a filing deadline in its 2017 stormwater regulations and misinterpreted a provision of its 2017 Stormwater Management Manual. Finding no inconsistency with the governing statute or previous agency interpretations, “no unjust, unreasonable, or absurd consequences, and no compelling indications of error,” the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the City was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. View "In re Champlain Parkway SW Discharge Permit (Fortieth Burlington, LLC, Appellant)" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court’s review centered on whether emails on a university’s server, sent between a professor and third-party entities, concerning the work of those entities, qualified as “public records” subject to public inspection. U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) appealed a superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the University of Vermont (UVM) after the court held that the emails USRTK requested from UVM were not public records. After review, the Supreme Court agreed that the emails at issue were not public records and accordingly affirmed. View "U.S. Right to Know v. University of Vermont" on Justia Law

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Wife Becky Baldauf, in both her personal capacity and as administrator of her deceased husband’s estate, appealed the superior court’s order dismissing her claims against the Vermont State Treasurer and the Vermont State Employees’ Retirement System (VSERS) (collectively, the State). Wife argued she was entitled to receive a retirement allowance on account of her husband’s death while in active service under 3 V.S.A. 465. She also argued the State failed to adequately inform husband about his retirement allowance before his death, and accordingly, husband’s estate was entitled to relief under breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent misrepresentation theories. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded Wife failed to state claims for which relief can be granted, and affirmed. View "Estate of Ronald Baldauf v. Vermont State Treasurer et al." on Justia Law

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Allco Renewable Energy Limited and PLH, LLC (collectively, Allco), challenged the Vermont Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) decision establishing the avoided-cost price caps and parameters of the 2020 standard-offer program. Specifically, Allco argued the PUC failed to make a required annual determination that its pricing mechanism complied with federal law, and that its 2020 standard-offer request for proposal (RFP) was invalid because the market-based pricing mechanism used in the standard-offer program violates federal law. On the PUC's record, the Vermont Supreme Court could not conclude the agency exceeded its discretion in arriving at its determinations regarding the 2020 standard-offer program. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Investigation to Review the Avoided Costs that Serve as Prices for the Standard-Offer Program in 2020 (Allco Renewable Energy Limited & PLH LLC, Appellants)" on Justia Law

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Developer Chelsea Solar LLC sought a certificate of public good (CPG) to construct and operate a 2.0-megawatt (MW) solar electric generation facility off of Willow Road in Bennington, Vermont. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) denied developer’s petition, concluding that the Willow Road Facility and an adjoining facility proposed by developer, “Apple Hill Solar,” were a single 4.0-MW “plant” under the applicable definition of this term. In its decision, the PUC also considered and rejected arguments by intervenors Apple Hill Homeowners Association (AHHA) and Mt. Anthony Country Club (MACC) regarding various CPG factors. It concluded, among other things, that the project would not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region under 30 V.S.A. section 248(b)(1) or have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics under section 248(b)(5). Developer appealed, challenging the PUC’s single-plant determination and its orders granting permissive intervention to AHHA and MACC. Intervenors cross-appealed, arguing the PUC erred in concluding the CPG factors were satisfied. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the PUC’s decision to deny the CPG based on its conclusion that the Willow Road and Apple Hill Facilities were a single plant. Given this conclusion, the Court did not reach the PUC’s evaluation of the CPG factors. The Court found no error in the PUC’s permissive-intervention decision. View "In re Petition of Chelsea Solar LLC" 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