Friday, May 13, 2016

Alimony, Short For “All The Money”

Zink v. Zink, 2016 VT 46

By Amy E. Davis

Who doesn’t love a good discussion of alimony, or, as we in Vermont call it, “spousal maintenance”? Spousal maintenance is money you pay your ex-spouse so she (or he) can continue on in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. It’s a hot topic for us divorce attorneys, and is the focus of this case as well.

Husband and Wife divorced in 2007 and agreed that Husband would pay Wife $1800 per month permanently (that means forever). In January 2015, Wife filed a motion for contempt because Husband had not paid her and said he was no longer going to pay her. Husband opposed the motion and filed his own to modify his monthly obligation claiming that he could no longer pay the court-ordered amount of $1800, and that since the final divorce, the parties had agreed to reduce the payments. Husband also argued that both parties’ finances had changed since the divorce.

The lower court found the following: Husband is a self-employed truck driver, and when the parties’ divorced, he lived in his truck and had minimal expenses. Husband remarried and moved in with his new wife. Husband and his new wife, with their combined incomes, can meet their basic needs and have about $250.00 left over each week. Husband also told the court that he did not understand what “permanent” mean, and he thought he was just trying to keep Wife, who was unemployed at the time of the divorce, in their condominium. Since the divorce, Wife sold the condominium, got a job with the University of Vermont, receives retirement funds monthly, and money from Social Security Income monthly.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Coerced or Compliant?

State v. Reynolds, 2016 VT 43

By Andrew Delaney

This is an interlocutory appeal. An interlocutory appeal happens when there’s a trial court ruling that will have a big impact on a case and it’s a big enough question for the SCOV to weigh in during the middle of things. That’s grossly oversimplified, but, hey, that’s kinda what we do here.

Mr. Reynolds “is charged with four felony counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and one felony count of aggravated sexual assault on a victim younger than thirteen.” At the time of the charged conduct, defendant was sixty seven; the alleged victim, his neighbor Z.Z., was seven.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress his statements made to the police, arguing that they “were the product of police coercion and thus taken in violation of his constitutional rights.” The trial court granted the motion after a hearing. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Park Permitting Pushback

In re Waterfront Park, 2016 VT 39

By Andrew Delaney

Burlington sought to amend its Act 250 permit for the Waterfront Park on Lake Champlain. Neighbor challenged Burlington’s right to do so. The Environmental Division granted summary judgment and ruled the Burlington was entitled to seek to amend its permit. Let's take a quick look back.

In 1990, Burlington got a land-use permit for the Waterfront Park. Events were held. In ’93, Burlington sought to amend its permit, and attempted to delegate “timing, duration, and frequency of events and sound levels,” to the Parks and Recreation Commission (I hear there’s a sitcom about this). At any rate, the district commission granted the amendment and imposed 26 conditions, which related to, among other things, maximum sound levels and how to measure them, as well as timing and frequency of events at the park.

In 2008, neighbor bought her property, which is right next door. She researched before she bought and relied on the timing-and-frequency-and-maximum-sound-levels provisions in the permit. She knew there would be festivals and events, but also knew they’d be limited by the conditions. She’s significantly impacted by the events at the Park—“loud noise for extended periods of time, significant vehicular and pedestrian traffic congestion, and limits on her ability to sleep, spend time outdoors, open her windows, and enjoy her property.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Challenging the Reliability of the Government’s Say-so

State v. Taylor2015 VT 104

By Andrew Higley

Nobody likes to lose his or her license. That’s why there are DUI attorneys. The facts here are pretty common of the typical DUI case in Vermont. Defendant was driving through the town of Lyndonville; the police stopped her on suspicion of drunk driving; she submitted to a “preliminary” breath test, and she was then transported to the St. Johnsbury police barracks. There, the officer asked her to submit to another breath test. The test at the police station was conducted on what’s called a DataMaster device. That name always sounded like something out of the Terminator movies. For that reason, I think I’ll refer to it as the “Machine.” The Machine is supposed to be more scientific and reliable than the simple roadside test. At the station, the Defendant blew a 0.158, which is just about twice over the so-called “legal limit.”

Sidenote: for purely criminal DUI purposes, proving a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 is not necessarily required. Instead, the State needs to prove a person was operating a vehicle under the influence of intoxicating liquor (is there a non-intoxicating liquor?). Hence the reason the above quotation marks. But, this case is only an appeal of a civil license suspension. Here, the State is only required to show your blood-alcohol concentration was above .08. The other key difference is the burden of proof. Because the sanction is non-criminal—a license suspension—the State’s burden is only by a preponderance of the evidence, which is roughly only 51%. So the State doesn’t even need a passing grade. 

If The Name Doesn’t Fit, You Can't Collect the Debt

Unifund CCR Partners v. Zimmer, 2016 VT 33

By Thomas M. Kester

This case concerns debt buying, and debt buying is like horse buying except with paper trails longer than horse tails. The present fact pattern happens every so often and, when it does happen, it is the perfect legal storm to learn how the cavalcade of contracts, business records, unjust enrichment, and standing can plummet like Dorthy’s house onto a creditor.

Unifund, who purchased Defendant’s credit card debt, buys debt at a reduced rate and goes after debtors to collect the debt (“buy low, sue high, and take a minimum ¢ on the $ to settle” philosophy). In this case, Defendant owed a balance of $2,453.22 and statutory pre-judgment interest to Citibank. Citibank assigned the debt to Pilot Receivables Management, LLC (“Pilot”), Pilot assigned to Unifund CCR LLC (“UCL”), and UCL assigned to Unifund. The Pilot ---> UCL ---> Unifund transactions all occurred on the same day.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Considering Conditions

State v. Lontine, 2016 VT 26 (mem.)

By Andrew Delaney

This is a single, specially-assigned-justice bail appeal. Mr. Lontine argues that the trial court failed to make findings supported by clear-and-convincing evidence that “his release would pose a substantial threat of violence to another person and that no conditions of release could reasonably prevent such violence” under this statute. He also argues that because his trial didn’t commence within 60 days, he’s got a get-out-of-jail-free card.

A little constitutional twist (for those three lawyers who graduated from Harvard in the 70s) in this case. The Vermont Constitution provides that a trial has to start within 60 days if a person is held without bail and it’s not a death-penalty or life-imprisonment case. The legislature copied-and-pasted it into a statute.

Mr. Lontine was charged with a bunch of misdemeanor and felony offenses involving his former live-in partner over two different days. When he was arraigned, he didn’t request a public defender. The State requested a hold-without-bail order, and the trial court granted it. Mr. Lontine eventually requested a public defender and the trial court granted the motion that day. Dates were set and so on and so forth. Eventually a weight-of-the-evidence hearing was set, and the trial court continued the hold-without-bail order. At that hearing, defense counsel indicated an intention to depose the complaining witness, though it doesn’t appear any deposition had been set at that point.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

What’s In A Name?

TLOC Senior Living, LLC v. Bingham, 2016 VT 44

By Amy E. Davis

In this case, Defendant Albert Bingham appeals from the trial court’s declaratory judgment. Before the SCOV even rules on it, Bingham files a motion to recuse the entire SCOV because his appeal had been pending for so long. That doesn’t work, and barely makes a footnote in the decision.

Anywho, plaintiff TLOC Senior Living operates a senior living community in Middlebury, Vermont. Plaintiff did business under the name “The Lodge at Otter Creek.” Plaintiff lapsed in its re-registration of the name, and in July 2013, Bingham registered the name under his own name with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office. Plaintiff sued alleging slander of title, trade infringement, unfair competition, and tortious interference with contract. Bingham argued (through many counterclaims) that by registering the name “The Lodge at Otter Creek” as his business name, he foreclosed any right plaintiff had to the name.

Bingham filed a motion to dismiss, a motion for summary judgment, and a motion for default judgment in his favor. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment in its favor. The court denied both motions for summary judgment, as well as Bingham’s motion for default judgment.

Equities and Expectations

In re Estate of Dezotell, 2016 VT 14

By Amy E. Davis

This case answers the question of whether a trial court is bound by the provisions of an early settlement distribution in a wrongful death case, and if not, whether the trial court need hold an evidentiary hearing to divide the settlement in proportion to the pecuniary interests suffered. Only a lawyer could love, or write, that sentence.

Decedent married wife Maria in March 2001. They met online, and he traveled to Romania where she lived, where they got married. Their child, Roger, was cooking in the womb when decedent was killed in an automobile accident in November 2001. Decedent also had a plethora of other children: four from a previous marriage (Renee, Beverly, Sammie-Jo, and Nicole), an adopted daughter (Jennifer), and a daughter from a previous relationship (Melissan).

Maria was appointed to serve as the estate’s administrator, and petitioned the superior court to distribute a combination of insurance proceeds totaling $135,000. The court issued a written ruling following an evidentiary hearing. The court noted that “pecuniary injuries suffered” were not purely economic losses, but could include loss of companionship, compensation for lost intellectual, moral and physical training or the loss of care, nurture and protection the parent provides.

What Comes In? What Stays Out?

State v. Pratt, 2015 VT 89

Evidence, evidence, evidence. It’s what makes a case, whether for the prosecution or the defense; evidence is what the jury takes to its temporary lair and turns into a verdict. Given that fact, it makes sense that the rules of evidence (the factors which allow evidence to be presented, or prohibit it from being mentioned) are one of those legal frameworks that are always, and will always, be constantly argued by attorneys. The Rules—this can come in, or that can’t come in—create pretty big stakes in a jury trial. Considering the fact that there is an entire law school course (and many, many, continuing legal education classes) devoted solely to these Rules, and the inevitable exceptions, one may imagine (correctly) that it is not exactly a precise science. Our case today highlights some of the nuances of the Rules, and allows SCOV to weigh in on its interpretation of what a jury should be allowed to consider, and what it should not, in the context of a criminal trial.

The Petitioner in this case was convicted of Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Minor following a multi-day jury trial. On appeal, the Petitioner raises three issues for the court to review. One of these issues is procedural and, in the interest of brevity, will not be covered here other to say that SCOV disagreed with the Petitioner’s claim of error. The remaining two issues, both concerning the admissibility of evidence, provide for much more informative (and hopefully entertaining) reading.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bail Bungled

State v. Gates2016 VT 36

By Elizabeth Kruska

Twenty four paragraphs in to this bail decision, SCOV gets to what’s really going on here. That there are twenty five paragraphs by five justices devoted to a bail decision, when bail decisions are usually single-justice decisions, also suggests there’s something else going on here.

Jeremy Gates got charged in 2014 with extortion, domestic assault, and unlawful mischief. Sounds bad, right? The allegation, as recounted by SCOV, was that he went to his mom’s residence to get some money. She was his social security payee. She wouldn’t give him money, so he threatened to kill her. He gets social security apparently because he suffers from severe cognitive difficulties. This is in the second paragraph of the opinion, and this is where I start seeing a giant red flag waving around. I totally know what’s coming next.

He was arraigned on the original charges and released on some conditions of release, including a condition that he not have contact with his mom and a condition that he not go to the motel where she was living.