Thursday, November 7, 2013

Worsening Heights

Smith v.Wright, 2013 VT 68

The abuse and exploitation of people who cannot adequately care for themselves is a heinous and grotesque state of affairs.  It erodes confidence in our community, causes elected officials to enact laws and expend resources to enforce those laws, and it is just plain repugnant.

In today’s case, Defendant (our would-be “Heathcliff”)—who is 20 years older than Plaintiff (our “Catherine”)—appeals the trial court’s “relief from abuse” order, which order prevents Defendant from having contact with plaintiff for two years.

Plaintiff, we should also mention, is a 19 year old who was born deaf and who, as a result, had some amount of developmental delay.  During all times relevant to this case, Plaintiff lived with her parents.

In a tale of one-sided love, Defendant met Plaintiff, invited her to ride horses with his daughter.  Daughter and Plaintiff soon became fast friends.  Defendant, who was also perhaps a bit jealous, started to take an increasingly active role in Plaintiff’s life.  Now, the game was afoot.

In 2011, during a “stupid game” in which Defendant would drive his truck forward when Plaintiff would try to climb in, Plaintiff was severely injured (“stupid” just doesn’t seem to cover it, does it?). Given his obvious care and compassion for Plaintiff, when she returned home from the hospital, Defendant went to her home, demanding that she come to live with him. Parents issued a no trespass order to Defendant and obtained a voluntary guardianship of Plaintiff shortly thereafter, which gave parents authority over various aspects of her life, including her residence, education, and medical and legal affairs.

Evidently, they had some concerns about Defendant’s intentions and the well-being of their young adult daughter. Imagery of Heathcliff as the angry and malicious young man, hiding behind a veneer of romantic hero, abound.  Defendant’s complicated, mesmerizing and bizarre nature begin to reveal themselves in act two.

Over the following year, there were some interactions and situations not really related to the analysis presented here—suffice it to say, Plaintiff had mixed feelings regarding Defendant and may not have been able to fully grasp or comprehend the nature of the relationship that Defendant believed they had.  These interactions led to Plaintiff’s disclosure to her mother that she had engaged in “sexual encounters” with Defendant starting when Plaintiff was as young as 17 (and defendant was approximately 37).  At this point, Plaintiff and her mother filed a complaint for relief from abuse under 33 V.S.A. § 6933.  After a hearing, an order was issued precluding Defendant from contacting Plaintiff. Defendant appealed.

At trial, the thrust of Defendant’s case was primarily this: that Plaintiff was not a credible witness. On motion to alter or amend judgment, he argued that the court had failed to make sufficient findings regarding Plaintiff’s credibility.

 On appeal, for the first time our Heathcliff raises the claim that there was insufficient evidence that Plaintiff was a vulnerable adult, as defined by statute.  And like Bronte’s Heathcliff, our anti-hero suffers the fate of malicious spurned lovers everywhere.  He is spurned by the tribunal, which just doesn’t understand him—in this case disposing of his first argument with the double-edged sword of justice—he didn’t raise the issue at trial, so it was waived, but even if he had, “[e]xtensive findings are not generally required in civil abuse proceedings, which are aimed at providing relief [not inflicting punishment].” Further, because Heathcliff didn’t raise the issue at the trial level, he can’t now complain that the court didn’t make sufficient findings regarding Catherine’s vulnerability (and thereby removing our dear Catherine from the clutches of our Heathcliff, where if literature teaches us anything she likely would have been turned into a cold, distant creature, far removed from the bright, lovely girl who loved to ride horses with Heathcliff’s daughter).

 Despite the “oops you lose” failure to raise at trial level finding, the court adds insult to Heathcliff’s injury (just like the overbearing Hindley Earnshaw who forced Heathcliff to work in the fields and suggested soto voce that our hero was born of Roma!) by demonstrating, through selective referral to the trial record, that there was substantial evidence that Plaintiff qualified as a vulnerable adult pursuant to Vermont statute.  As the trial court concluded, Defendant’s conduct of gaining her confidence and asserting himself into her relationship with her parents in a manner that took advantage of her vulnerability so as to satisfy his own sexual gratification was “the essence of exploitation.”

 But Heathcliff must, as the tragic narrative dictates, continue in his vendetta like assault on Plaintiff’s legal protections (but unlike Bronte’s anti-hero, ours fails). His next attack is on the court’s failure to make findings in support of its conclusion that Plaintiff was a credible witness.

 Here at least the sword of legal analysis flies swiftly and unerringly to its intended target- stomping Heathcliff’s remaining hope for redemption—“we find no merit to this argument.” The rapier flies true and through, and so dispatches our Heathcliff.  And again, while the SCOV could, as a matter of analysis, stop here, it feels compelled to depart from the narrative of the original.  Instead of Heathcliff discussing his desires for Linton, the SCOV solders Heathcliff in chains, thereby assuring that he will never be reunited with Catherine, even in death.

 The SCOV’s opinion ends with a Brontesque retelling of our Heathcliff’s impassioned reactions to being kept from his one true love, including threatening to shoot her parents when they stood in the way of his attempt to retrieve his dear Catherine.  But, while Defendant claimed this was due to his purely paternal concerns for her, the SCOV opines that it was evidence of his desire to continue the alleged sexual exploitation of dear Catherine.  As a result, Heathcliff is denied access to his one true love, and our version of the story has a happy ending.   

The moral, however, is not so simple.  Despite the facts of this appeal, which involve what would be considered purely interpersonal conduct, it is the SCOV’s analysis and holding regarding what constitutes a vulnerable adult in Vermont (and what constitutes abuse or exploitation of said vulnerable adult) that are likely to be parsed by lawyers for nursing homes, mental health agencies, and other service providers for years to come.  For as this case and Bronte’s narrative shows, the line between romantic interest and exploitation and abuse are often thin and fictional.

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