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In re Guardianship of C.H.

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 3, 2018

In re Guardianship of C.H.

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Family Division Mary L. Morrissey, J.

          Michele Boulet, Pro Se, Essex Junction, Petitioner-Appellant. Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, Montpelier, and Jared C. Bianchi, Assistant Attorney General, Waterbury, for Respondent-Appellee Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living.

          Barbara Prine, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Burlington, and Charles Becker, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Rutland, for Respondent-Appellee C.H.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          CARROLL, J.

         ¶ 1. Petitioner Michele Boulet appeals the trial court's decision dismissing her petition for modification of the guardianship of C.H. We hold that the trial court's interpretation of the statute defining who has standing to petition for a modification of guardianship is inconsistent with the plain language and purpose of Vermont's guardianship provisions. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         ¶ 2. On May 1, 2017, petitioner filed a petition for modification of the guardianship of C.H., a developmentally disabled adult who has had a guardian since 2009. C.H.'s first guardian, a member of her immediate family, was removed in 2015 after being substantiated for financial exploitation of C.H. The Commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living (DAIL) was subsequently appointed as C.H.'s guardian. DAIL remains in place as C.H.'s current guardian. Petitioner is a friend of C.H.'s family. In her memorandum in support of her petition to modify C.H.'s guardianship, petitioner stated that she is C.H.'s godmother, has known C.H. since birth and been friends with C.H.'s mother since the two were young children, and that C.H. is petitioner's "honorary niece." She also stated that she provided significant care for C.H. during C.H.'s childhood and had seen C.H. frequently over the years. Petitioner wrote on her petition for modification of C.H.'s guardianship that she "care[d] very much what happens to [C.H.] throughout her life, and want[ed] her to have a quality of life that makes life worth living."

         ¶ 3. Shortly after petitioner filed her petition for modification of guardianship, C.H. filed a motion through counsel to dismiss on grounds that petitioner did not have standing to petition the court for modification of C.H.'s guardianship. In October 2017, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss, deciding, in accordance with C.H.'s argument, that petitioner lacked standing to petition for modification of the guardianship. The trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing on either the petition for modification or the motion to dismiss. Petitioner now appeals the trial court's dismissal of her petition. She raises several arguments in favor of reinstating her petition; as one of her arguments resolves this appeal, we address it alone.

         ¶ 4. We begin by defining the issue on appeal. The trial court's decision exclusively addressed the issue of standing, which is a jurisdictional matter and therefore a prerequisite to a decision on the merits of the petition. Standing is a component of subject matter jurisdiction, and standing to initiate a guardianship proceeding, or to petition for modification or termination of an existing guardianship, is conferred by statute. "Any interested person with knowledge of the facts alleged may request the State's Attorney having jurisdiction to file a petition with the Family Division of the Superior Court alleging that person is developmentally disabled and in need of guardianship." 18 V.S.A. § 9305. Likewise, "[t]he Commissioner [of DAIL], the person with developmental disabilities, or any interested person may petition . . . to modify or terminate the judgment pursuant to which the Commissioner is providing guardianship." Id. § 9316(b). These statutes confer standing for such actions to an "interested person," which in turn is defined as "a responsible adult who has a direct interest in a person with developmental disabilities and includes the person with developmental disabilities, a near relative, guardian, public official, social worker, or clergy." Id. § 9302(4). Taken together, these statutes mean that only "a responsible adult who has a direct interest in a person with developmental disabilities" may initiate a guardianship proceeding for a developmentally disabled person, or petition for modification or termination of such a guardianship.

         ¶ 5. The issue in this case, then, is narrow. Whether petitioner is well-suited to serve as C.H.'s guardian is not at issue, nor are C.H. or DAIL's positions on the merits of modifying the existing guardianship. The sole issue presented here is whether petitioner meets the statutory definition of an "interested person," such that she has standing to petition the court for a modification of C.H.'s guardianship. The merits of her modification petition have not been addressed by the trial court, and we do not reach them here.

         ¶ 6. This case is an appeal from the trial court's decision granting a motion to dismiss. Because the motion to dismiss was premised on lack of standing, which, as noted above, is jurisdictional, we apply the standard of Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), under which a court may dismiss an action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Our review under Rule 12(b)(1) is "de novo, with all uncontroverted factual allegations of the complaint accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Inman v. Pallito, 2013 VT 94, ¶ 9, 195 Vt. 218, 87 A.3d 449 (quotation omitted). But the threshold question here is a matter of statutory interpretation, and the definitions of "direct interest" and "interested person" are matters of first impression in Vermont. This Court interprets statutory language de novo. State v. Love, 2017 VT 75, ___ ¶ 9 ___, Vt., 174 A.3d 761. "When construing a statute, our paramount goal is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature." Id. (quotation omitted). When considering the intent of a statute, "we look first at the plain meaning of the statutory language." State v. Thompson, 174 Vt. 172, 174, 807 A.2d 454, 458 (2002). But "[w]here the plain meaning of the words of the statute is insufficient guidance to ascertain legislative intent, we look beyond the language of a particular section standing alone to the whole statute, the subject matter, its effects and consequences, and the reason and spirit of the law." Id. at 175, 807 A.2d at 458.

         ¶ 7. In this context, the plain meaning of "direct interest" suggests a primary, as opposed to derivative, concern with a developmentally disabled person's welfare. Webster's New International Dictionary 738 (2d ed. 1959) (defining "direct" as "[i]mmediate; marked by the absence of an intervening agency or influence; making contact or effected without an intermediary"); Webster's New International Dictionary 1294 (defining "interest" as "[t]o involve the . . . welfare of"). An "interested person," then, is a person with personal knowledge regarding the well-being of a developmentally disabled person who is concerned about the welfare of that person. This definition is consistent with caselaw in other states, the purpose of Vermont's guardianship statutes, and other provisions of those statutes. We begin with the caselaw of other states.

         ¶ 8. We have been unable to find any other states that grant standing in a guardianship proceeding to a person with a "direct interest" in the subject of the putative proceeding. But several states grant standing to a person "interested in the welfare" of the subject of a guardianship proceeding. See, e.g., Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 190B § 5-303(a) ("An incapacitated person or any person interested in the welfare of the person alleged to be incapacitated may petition for . . . appointment of a guardian . . . ."); Mont. Code Ann. § 72-5-325(1) ("On petition of the ward or any person interested in the ward's welfare, the court, after hearing, may remove a guardian if in the best interests of the ward."); Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 30-2619(a) ("The person alleged to be incapacitated or any person interested in his or her welfare may petition for . . . appointment of a guardian . . . ."). Other states grant standing to "an interested person," as Vermont's statute does, but do not define "interested person" in terms of the person's "direct interest" in the subject of a guardianship. See, e.g., Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 190B § 5-306(c) ("The court, at the time of appointment or later, on its own motion or on appropriate petition or motion of the incapacitated person or other interested person, may limit the powers of a guardian . . . ."); N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 464-A:4(I) ("Any relative, public official, or interested person, or any individual in his or her own behalf may file a verified petition for . . . appointment of a guardian . . . ."); N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 464-A:2(XIII) (" 'Interested person' means any adult who has an interest in the welfare of the person to be protected . . . ."); N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-5-303(A) ("An interested person may petition for appointment of a guardian for an alleged incapacitated person."); N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-5-101(I) (" '[I]nterested person' means any person who has an interest in the welfare of the person to be protected . . . ."). Despite these differences, we conclude that the plain language definition of "direct interest" is consistent with the caselaw of other states on the question presented in this case.

         ¶ 9. For example, in In re Barnhart, 859 N.W.2d. 856 (Neb. 2015), the Supreme Court of Nebraska confronted the question of whether certain charities, named as beneficiaries in a person's will, had standing to object to a petition for guardianship filed by that person's relatives. The court concluded that the will beneficiaries did not have the requisite standing, explaining that even though "no legal interest in the ward [was] necessary to contest a guardianship," still, "an objector must show a true interest or attentiveness to the well-being and protection of the ward." Id. at 864. In other words, the will beneficiaries had a financial interest in the subject of the guardianship proceeding, but that financial interest ...


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