Law court civil cases, year in review

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JULY 2009 to JULY 2010

  1. Court adopts common-law strict liability for abnormally dangerous activities: Dyer v. Maine Drilling & Blasting, Inc., 2009 ME 126

Plaintiffs owned a home in Prospect, Maine, that had been in their family since the 1950s; it was more than 70 years old and had a cement foundation and floor. They also owned a garage, built in the 1980s, that had a concrete floor. Defendant Maine Drilling and Blasting was blasting rock near plaintiffs’ home and garage in 2004 connection with the replacement of the Waldo-Hancock County Bridge. Plaintiffs alleged that their home and garage were damaged by the blasting, asserting both negligence and strict liability claims.
The Law Court (with Chief Justice Saufley and Justice Alexander dissenting) overruled a line of cases originating in 1950 and adopted the provision imposing strict liability for “abnormally dangerous activities” from the Second Restatement of Torts. The Court stated that 41 other states had adopted a similar rule. The case was remanded to determine whether the blasting at issue was “abnormally dangerous” under the 6-factor test from the Second Restatement. The dissent criticized the majority for its policy choice in expanding liability and its lack of respect for stare decisis.

  1. Court declines to impose on bystanders a common-law duty to rescue by contacting emergency assistance: Estate of Cilley v. Lane, 2009 ME 133

Joshua Cilley and Jennifer Lane had been romantically involved, off and on. The summary judgment record showed that Joshua visited Jennifer at her trailer one evening. Jennifer told him to leave; he did not. After Joshua grabbed a rifle, Jennifer left her trailer. As she was leaving, she heard a loud pop, which she said sounded like a firecracker. She looked back, saw Joshua fall to the floor, and heard him say, “it was an accident.” Jennifer did not see any blood, and went to contact two friends without investigating whether Joshua was injured. By the time that Jennifer and her friends returned to her trailer, Joshua was having trouble breathing. One of the friends called 911. Joshua was not able to be resuscitated at the hospital. There was record evidence that, had Joshua been brought to the hospital 5 or 10 minutes sooner, he would have survived. The Superior Court granted Jennifer’s motion for summary judgment on the Estate’s claim that Jennifer was liable for negligently failing to assist Joshua by contacting emergency assistance.
The Law Court upheld the judgment in Jennifer’s favor. The Court reiterated the rule that a person owes no duty to rescue another person – even by contacting emergency assistance -- unless the two people have a special relationship (recognized as legally sufficient) or the person created the danger. This is the case (1) despite how dire the imperiled person’s circumstances are, and (2) no matter how slight an effort would be needed to accomplish the rescue. The Court did not wish to expand the number of special relationships in which a duty to aid or protect is already imposed, such as parent-child, recognizing the potential for “boundless liability” if it ruled otherwise.
Sovereign immunity and immunity under MTCA

  1. Sovereign immunity and claim for breach of contract/consent agreement: Knowlton v. Attorney General & Superintendent of Ins., 2009 ME 79

Plaintiff Knowlton worked for Bankers Life and Casualty Company as the branch manager of the Bangor office. The Bureau of Insurance had received 70 complaints that Bankers Life had improperly marketed insurance policies to elderly consumers; some of the complaints involved the Bangor office.
Plaintiff entered into a consent agreement with the State to resolve licensing violations associated with two incidents at a sales recruitment meeting. The agreement described the incidents and required him to pay a $750 civil penalty and submit to a 270-day probation period, among other things. The consent agreement also provided that the State would “forgo pursuing further disciplinary measures or other civil or administrative actions against Mr. Knowlton” as to the violations described in the agreement.
About two weeks later, Bankers Life entered into a consent agreement with the State to resolve various complaints against it, including the ones involving Knowlton. The consent agreement with Bankers Life required, among other things, that its branch managers be relieved of their positions; this would include Mr. Knowlton. Both agreements stated that they were not subject to review or appeal, and were “enforceable by an action in Superior Court.” Plaintiff was later discharged from Bankers Life, and he sued the AG and the Superintendent of Insurance (the “State”) for breach of contract and violation of 42 USC § 1983, based on the State entering into the consent agreement with Bankers Life that called for termination of the branch managers.
The State moved for summary judgment, asserting sovereign immunity (among other defenses). The Superior Court denied the State’s motion only as to the breach of contract claim, concluding that sovereign immunity had been waived by 10 MRSA § 8003(5)(B). Section 8003(5) authorizes the Bureau of Insurance to enter into consent agreements to resolve violations by licensees; Section 8003(5)(B) provides that such “a consent agreement is enforceable by an action in Superior Court.”
On appeal, the Law Court vacated the Superior Court’s decision and entered judgment in the State’s favor, holding that sovereign immunity had not been waived by Section 8003(5)(B) or by the consent agreement. According to the Court, Section 8003(5)(B) was neither an explicit waiver of immunity nor a general statute allowing the State to enter into contracts in its proprietary role involving the establishment of financial obligations between the State and a private party. The Court distinguished situations in which the State enters into a consent agreement to resolve a regulatory enforcement proceeding from ones in which the State enters into a contract in its proprietary role (such as when the Bureau of Insurance hires actuaries to assist it).

  1. A city’s hiring of an independent contractor to provide orientation flights for three high school students does not constitute the city’s “use” of an aircraft under the MTCA: Estate of Fortier v. City of Lewiston, 2010 ME 50

Review: under the MTCA, a governmental entity is generally immune from tort claims seeking damages, but liable for “its negligent acts or omissions in its ownership, maintenance or use of any aircraft.” 14 MRSA § 8104-A(1).
Case: Three Lewiston High School (LHS) students died in a plane crash while attending an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) program sponsored by LHS and arranged by LHS with Twin Cities Air Services, an independent contractor that operated a flight school at L-A Airport. The AFJROTC program was part of the LHS curriculum, and the LHS principal was responsible for its overall operation. Plaintiffs (estates of the 3 students) sued the City of Lewiston (among others). One of plaintiffs’ theories was that the City was negligent in failing to prevent the 3 students from flying with Twin Cities because an employee of the City allegedly had knowledge of reckless acts by Twin Cities in the past. The Superior Court denied the City’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Section 8104-A(1) of the MTCA removed the City’s immunity for negligent acts or omissions in its use of any aircraft.
The Law Court (with Justices Levy, Silver, and Jabar dissenting) vacated the Superior Court’s decision, holding that the City did not use the aircraft. According to the Court, the City hired Twin Cities as an independent contractor for it (i.e., Twin Cities) to use the aircraft to provide orientation flights for the LHS AFJROTC program, but the City, itself, did not “use” the Twin Cities aircraft because it had no direct control over the aircraft or the pilot. The Court noted the possibility that, absent such an interpretation, a municipality might be held liable for purchasing tickets on a commercial airline. The dissent focused on the plain meaning of the word “use” and criticized the majority for equating “use” with ownership or maintenance.

  1. MTCA, discretionary-function immunity for evaluations and assessments for possible emergency involuntary commitment; procedural due process, Doe v. Graham, 2009 ME 88

Review: under the MTCA, employees of governmental entities are entitled to immunity for “performing or failing to perform any discretionary function or duty, whether or not the discretion is abused; and whether or not any statute, charter, ordinance, order, resolution, rule or resolve under which the discretionary function or duty is performed is valid.” This is often referred to by the Court as “discretionary-function immunity.”
Case: Plaintiff Jane Doe sued Dr. Jennifer Graham of Maine Medical Center, two unnamed MMC security guards, and MMC for their allegedly wrongful acts in holding, assessing, and certifying Doe for involuntary commitment. Plaintiff alleged that, after she had confronted her husband about having an affair, he called the police and said she was suicidal. The police arrived at Doe’s home and took her to MMC against her will. At MMC, after Doe adamantly told Dr. Graham that she was not suicidal, Dr. Graham allegedly told Doe she “could make things difficult” for Doe, or she could make it easy if Doe cooperated. One of the security guards allegedly told Doe that the guards would strap her to a gurney and put a diaper on her if she did not give them her wallet. One of the guards allegedly held Doe’s keys in the air and told her she was “stupid” if she thought they would be returned to her. Dr. Graham telephoned several people to get more information about Doe, including the woman with whom Doe believed her husband was having an affair, and allegedly released confidential information to this woman without Doe’s consent. Dr. Graham certified Doe for emergency involuntary commitment, and Doe was taken to Spring Harbor Hospital. Doe was released from Spring Harbor within several hours of her arrival.
The Superior Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Doe’s 13 state-law tort claims and claim under the Maine Civil Rights Act (“MCRA”). As to the tort claims, the issue on appeal before the Law Court was whether the defendants were entitled to discretionary-function immunity. Although the MTCA generally applies only to governmental entities and their employees, the Court previously had held that discretionary-function immunity extended to physicians and support staff participating in involuntary commitment evaluations at both state and private hospitals, as well as to the hospitals themselves, because they act in an official capacity on behalf of the State.
Here, the Court rejected Doe’s argument that this immunity applied only to the “ultimate commitment decision” made by medical professionals, and not to the conduct leading up to that decision. The Court held instead that the immunity applied to the evaluation process, where actions and decisions were being made in furtherance of the State’s interest in protecting the public and treating the mentally ill. Here, Dr. Graham allegedly had inappropriate telephone conversations with third parties, and the security guards allegedly had made rude, embarrassing, or threatening statements to her. The Court concluded that Dr. Graham’s telephone conversations were designed to seek additional information from third parties about Doe’s condition, and that the allegedly unprofessional acts of the MMC security guards were “discretionary acts taken in furtherance of reaching” the diagnosis necessary to determine whether commitment was warranted. These actions, the Court stated, did not “so far exceed the bounds of authority so as to remove Graham and the security guards from the protections of discretionary function immunity.”
Another issue on appeal was whether Doe’s MCRA claim stated a violation of procedural due process. The Court held that, as a matter of law, the statutory procedure employed at MMC did not deprive Doe of liberty without due process of law. The Court employed the Supreme Court’s familiar 3-factor balancing test from Mathews v. Eldridge, which balances: (1) the private interest at stake; (2) the risk of error inherent in the procedure; and (3) the governmental interest in the procedure. The Court did not decide whether state action is required under the MCRA or whether the MMC security guards and Dr. Graham were state actors for purposes of the MCRA.
Trial Practice

  1. Generating “genuine” issues of fact on summary judgment (the Zip Lube problem): Blue Star Corp. v. CKF Properties, LLC, 2009 ME 101

Review: In Zip Lube, Inc. v. Coastal Savings Bank, 1998 ME 81, ¶ 10, 709 A.2d 733, 735, the Court held that a party may not generate a genuine issue of fact to defeat summary judgment by submitting an affidavit from an interested person that contradicts the person’s prior deposition testimony, without an adequate explanation for the changed testimony. This case presents a slight variation on that rule.
Case: Plaintiff Blue Star purchased a mill from defendant CKF and planned to convert it to condos or apartments. Blue Star had obtained financing for the acquisition, but was having trouble finding financing for its planned redevelopment. After CKF had agreed to sell the mill to Blue Star (but before the closing), CKF made a side agreement with the tenants allowing them to stay for a longer period than the 45 days provided by the P&S between Blue Star and CKF. A dispute arose concerning whether and how long two existing tenants could remain at the mill. Blue Star then sold the property and realized a $900,000 gain. Blue Star later sued CKF for breach of contract, fraud, and negligence due to the side agreement and holdover tenancies, alleging that Blue Star would have obtained redevelopment financing but for the holdover tenants’ presence, and would have earned substantial profits from the project.
In discovery, defendants served an interrogatory that asked Blue Star to list all persons with knowledge of possible sources of redevelopment financing. Blue Star did not list the in-laws of Blue Star’s President. During Blue Star’s deposition, Blue Star did not mention its President’s father-in-law as a potential source of redevelopment financing. The parties filed cross-motions for partial summary judgment. CKF submitted evidence that the holdover tenancies had no effect on Blue Star’s inability to obtain redevelopment financing. Blue Star filed an affidavit from its President’s father-in-law stating, for the first time, that he would have provided redevelopment financing to Blue Star, but for the holdover tenancies.
The Law Court upheld the Superior Court’s decision to disregard the father-in-law’s affidavit for purposes of summary judgment because it was inconsistent with Blue Star’s interrogatory answers and deposition testimony in which it failed to list the father-in-law, and Blue Star did not have an adequate explanation for the change/omission.

  1. Summary judgment record and the importance of Rule 56(h) statements: Chase Home Finance, LLC v. Higgins, 2009 ME 136

Review: Rule 56(h) requires parties filing and opposing motions for summary judgment to file statements of material facts pursuant to Rule 56(h)(1) (supporting statement), Rule 56(h)(2) (opposing statement); and 56(h)(3) (reply statement). Rule 56(h)(4) states, among other things, that the court has no duty to search for, or consider, facts that are not referenced in a Rule 56(h) statement of facts.
Case: This is a foreclosure case in which the Superior Court granted summary judgment to plaintiff Chase Home Finance (“Bank”). Defendants argued that there was a genuine issue of fact as to (1) whether they had received proper notice of default and the right to cure before acceleration, and (2) the amount due on the note. In support of its motion for summary judgment (in particular, when replying to the defendants’ Rule 56(h)(2) opposing statement of facts), the Bank had filed documents, including an affidavit, that addressed these very facts. However, the Bank had failed to include these facts in its Rule 56(h)(1) statement or its Rule 56(h)(3) statement.
The Law Court vacated the summary judgment and remanded to the Superior Court, ruling that certain facts relied upon by the Bank were not part of the summary judgment record and would not be considered. Without those facts, the Court concluded, there was a “genuine issue” (i.e., a dispute) as to whether the defendants had received the proper notice, and there was no record evidence as to the amount due on the mortgage note.
Appellate practice

  1. Final judgment rule: Fiber Materials, Inc. v. Subilia, 2009 ME 71

Review: final judgment rule states that no party may appeal a trial court’s decision on a motion or other interlocutory matter before final judgment has been entered.
Case: Plaintiff Fiber Materials, Inc. (FMI), sued its former President Maurice Subilia for fraud and other wrongdoing. Subilia appealed from a Superior Court order denying his motions to disqualify FMI’s attorneys and to strike 3 paragraphs from the complaint. Subilia had argued that FMI had improperly used a memorandum protected by his attorney-client privilege that FMI found on his FMI-owned computer.
The Law Court dismissed the appeal because it involved an interlocutory matter and no exception to the final judgment rule applied. The Court discussed the 3 recognized exceptions to the final judgment rule: (1) the “death knell” exception – where substantial rights will be irreparably lost if review is delayed until final judgment, (2) the “collateral order” exception -- (i) where the decision is a final determination of a claim that is separable from the gravamen of the litigation; (ii) involves a major unsettled question of law; and (iii) would result in the irreparable loss of rights absent immediate review, and (3) the “judicial economy” exception – rare case in which appellate review can establish a final, or practically final, disposition of entire litigation. The Court concluded that none of exceptions applied. In terms of the death knell exception, there was no irreparable loss of substantial rights because the allegedly privileged information was already disclosed to other parties.

  1. Record on appeal: Springer v. Springer, 2009 ME 118

Review: M.R. App. Proc. 5(b)(2)(A) requires an appellant to include all evidence that is relevant to any findings that the appellant is challenging on appeal. When a transcript is unavailable, Rule 5(d) allows for the filing of a trial-court approved “statement of the evidence or proceedings” from the best means available. When the issues on appeal can be resolved without examining the entire trial court record, Rule 5(f) allows a trial-court approved “statement of the case,” upon the parties’ agreement.
Case: Two years after the district court entered final judgment in a divorce case, Katrina Springer moved to modify the child-support provision. The district court held a hearing, which was not recorded, and made findings based on the evidence presented at that hearing. Both parties appealed from the decision to modify the child support.
The Law Court affirmed the district court decision – rejecting both the appeal and the cross-appeal -- because neither party had provided the Court with an adequate record to review the district court’s factual findings, such as the transcript, a trial-court approved statement of the evidence or proceedings (if no transcript is available), or a trial-court approved statement of the case that had been agreed upon by the parties.

  1. Rule 60(b) and preservation of challenge to default judgment: Richter v. Ercolini, 2010 ME 38

Plaintiff Suzanne Richter and the defendants were neighbors who were involved in a boundary dispute. Based on a claim that defendants had encroached on her property, plaintiff filed an action against the Ercolinis, seeking a declaratory judgment, damages from injury to land, and damages from trespass. Defendants filed their answer a few days’ late. Plaintiff immediately filed an affidavit and a request for default and for default judgment, and the clerk promptly entered a default. Defendants moved to set aside the clerk’s entry of default pursuant to Rule 55(c). The trial court denied the motion. At a much later date, the court held a hearing on plaintiff’s request for a default judgment. The court entered a default judgment fixing the boundary between the parties and awarding her $3,300 in damages. The defendants appealed.
At the Law Court, plaintiff argued that the appeal should be dismissed because defendants had not file a Rule 60(b) motion as a predicate to seeking appellate review of the default judgment. The Law Court clarified its previous decisions on this issue by ruling that a defaulted party who has appeared and opposed a Rule 55(b) motion seeking a default judgment (as the Ercolinis had done in this case) need not file a Rule 60(b) motion to preserve for appellate review the grounds presented in its opposition to the Rule 55(b) motion. However, the Court held, once a default judgment has entered, a party who has not previously appeared may not obtain direct appellate review of the court’s discretion to enter a default judgment without first pursuing Rule 60(b) relief before the trial court.
Civil Procedure

  1. Res judicata (claim preclusion) and declaratory judgment actions: Sebra v. Wentworth, 2010 ME 21

Review: res judicata (claim preclusion) bars relitigation of claims in a later action if: (1) the same parties or their privies are involved in both actions; (2) a valid final judgment was entered in the prior action; and (3) the matters presented for decision in the second action were, or might have been, litigated in the first action. This doctrine prevents a party from relitigating issues that were tried, or that may have been tried, between the same parties or their privies in an earlier suit on the same cause of action.
Case: Plaintiff Earleen Sebra and defendants Thomas and Bobbie Jo Wentworth were neighbors in Lisbon involved in a boundary dispute. This was the second time the parties had appeared before the Law Court. In 2001, a dispute arose as to the Wentworths’ right to access part of their property by crossing Ms. Sebra’s property. The Wentworths filed a complaint seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that a 1917 deed granted them an easement, and (2) an injunction prohibing Ms. Sebra from interfering with their use of the easement. In the first case, the Law Court in 2003 affirmed a judgment in Ms. Sebra’s favor, ruling that Thomas and Bobbie Jo did not hold an easement.
After that 2003 decision, Ms. Sebra’s son-in-law transported 3 large boulders and blocked the entrance of the driveway the Wentworths claimed as a right-of-way in the first litigation. In response, Thomas drove his backhoe onto Ms. Sebra’s property and moved the 3 boulders to the side -- and destroyed some vegetation while doing so. After that, Ms. Sebra blocked the driveway again, renting a bulldozer to bring in materials. The Wentworths were undeterred – Thomas again went on her property and cut down a number of trees to widen the driveway (by an area 25’ wide and 50’ long).
In the second lawsuit, Earleen sued the Wentworths for common law trespass. Judgment was entered in plaintiff’s favor, including punitive damages. In the second lawsuit, the Wentworths (unsuccessfully) tried a new argument -- easement by necessity. In the Wentworths’ appeal of the second case, the Law Court addressed the preclusive effect of a declaratory judgment. The Court had previously held that, if a party seeks solely declaratory relief in a prior action and loses, that judgment is not a bar to a later lawsuit seeking relief other than that sought in the first suit. But if a prior declaratory judgment action includes a request for injunctive or some other coercive relief, then traditional claim preclusion rules apply. Here, the Court concluded that, since the Wentworths’ first lawsuit included a claim for injunctive relief, they were barred from raising claims they could have made in the first case, such as an easement by necessity.

  1. Collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) and judicially unconfirmed arbitration awards: Beal v. Allstate Insurance Co., 2010 ME 20

Review: collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) prevents the relitigation of factual issues already decided if (1) the identical issue was determined by a prior final judgment, and (2) the party estopped (or its privy) had a fair opportunity and incentive to litigate that issue in the prior proceeding.
Case: Beal was injured in a collision with a car operated negligently by Toby Prosky. In Beal’s suit againt Prosky, the parties agreed that Prosky was liable and that the “final determination” of damages would be determined by arbitration. The arbitrator found damages were $135,000. The damages recoverable from Prosky were capped at $100,000 per the arbitration agreement (the limit of his policy from Allstate). Beal and Prosky filed a stipulation of dismissal without reducing the arbitration award to a judgment. Beal then sued Allstate (which was also Beal’s insurance carrier) for the remainder of her damages pursuant to her underinsured motorist coverage.
The Law Court concluded that Allstate was in privity with Prosky as to the arbitration proceeding and that Prosky had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the damages issue. Thus, the Court held that the arbitration award collaterally estopped Allstate from relitigating that Beal had suffered $135,000 in damages, even though the arbitration award had not been adopted by a court as a judgment.
Natural Resources

  1. Vagueness (or lack thereof) in statutory standard for obtaining a permit: Uliano v. BEP, 2009 ME 89

The Ulianos own waterfront property in Bar Harbor with 215 feet of frontage. They applied for a permit to build a pier pursuant to Natural Resources Protection Act. BEP denied the permit. This was the second time the Ulianos had appealed a BEP order denying their application to build a pier. The Law Court had vacated the first decision and remanded it to BEP.
Under NRPA, every applicant for a permit must show the proposed activity meets 9 standards in 38 MRSA § 480-D. One argument made by the Ulianos concerned the “existing uses” standard in § 480-D, which provided that they show that “the activity will not unreasonably interfere with existing scenic, aesthetic, recreational or navigational uses.” The Ulianos contended that this standard, as applied to “scenic” and “aesthetic” “uses,” was overly subjective and unconstitutionally vague.
The Law Court upheld BEP’s denial of the permit, ruling (among other things) that the statutory standard was sufficiently objective and definite. The Court distinguished this case from its 2000 decision in which it held that a town’s zoning ordinance was an unconstitutional delegation and violated due process because it required an applicant to prove that a project will “conserve natural beauty.” The Court reasoned that identifying an “aesthetic” or “scenic” “use” and determining whether a proposed activity will “unreasonably interfere” with that use is a “far more concrete exercise” than requiring an applicant to show that a project will “conserve natural beauty.”
Child Support

  1. Challenging paternity determinations: Godsoe v. Godsoe, 2010 ME 42

Donald and Elizabeth Godsoe were married in December 1998. Several months before the marriage, Elizabeth had engaged in intimate relationships with both Donald and another man names Payson Wiers. Elizabeth gave birth to a son in May 1999. During the marriage, Donald accepted his legal rights and responsibilities as the child’s father, but had expressed his concern to Elizabeth about whether he was the father; Elizabeth was adamant that Donald was the child’s father. In 2005, Donald and Elizabeth were divorced. The uncontested divorce judgment stated that Donald was the father. In 2007, Donald filed a Rule 60(b) motion, seeking to vacate the finding that he was the legal father of the child. The trial court denied the motion. The Law Court affirmed that decision in July 2008.

In November 2008, Donald filed a parental rights and responsibilities action in district court against Elizabeth and Payson Wiers, seeking (1) an order that Wiers and the child undergo genetic testing to determine the child’s paternity; (2) a finding that Wiers, not Donald, was the father; and (3) relief from the divorce judgment; and (4) an order establishing the parental rights and responsibilities as among himself, Elizabeth, and Wiers.
The Law Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Donald’s action, holding that Donald was precluded from relitigating the issue of his own paternity as to both Elizabeth (based on res judicata) and Wiers (based on collateral estoppel asserted defensively by Wiers).  The Court did not address the other issue lurking in the case -- whether (if not precluded from doing so) Donald would have been able to seek to establish parental rights and responsibilities as between himself, the child’s mother, and the child’s alleged biological father.  In short, the Court avoided dealing with whether the court could rule that the child had more than one “father.”
Administrative law

  1. Maine State Retirement System (now Maine Public Employees Retirement System, or MainePERS): due process and the role of the medical board; deference to agency fact-finding: Anderson v. MainePERS, 2009 ME 134

Review: Title 5, MRSA, authorizes MainePERS to designate a panel of physicians to assist it in considering members’ applications for retirement benefits. At the request of MainePERS (or its Executive Director), the medical board reviews the applicant’s file and may recommend additional medical review or additional testing to obtain objective evidence of any claimed disability. The medical board issues reports to MainePERS (or to its Executive Director), and these reports are reviewed and considered by MainePERS in deciding whether an applicant has met the statutory standard. The medical board is not subject to cross-examination by the applicant.
Case: Betheny Anderson was formerly an art teacher employed by the Caribou School Department. She sought disability retirement benefits from MainePERS due to a variety of ailments. The applicable statute requires that the applicant prove that she was mentally or physically incapacitated, that the incapacity was “expected to be permanent,” and that the incapacity made it “impossible to perform the duties of the member’s position.” The MainePERS Board of Trustees denied her application because it concluded that she had not proven that any incapacity would be permanent. It reached that decision (after receiving and considering reports from the medical board) in part because it determined that she had not been treating her medical conditions sufficiently aggressively.
The Superior Court (Cuddy, J.) vacated the MainePERS decision, ruling that (1) there was “substantial evidence” to support Ms. Anderson’s claim, and (2) it was a violation of Ms. Anderson’s procedural due process rights for MainePERS to have considered the medical board’s reports without allowing Ms. Anderson to cross-examine members of the medical board.
With respect to the medical board, the Law Court affirmed its 2009 decision on this issue, ruling that it was not a violation of due process for MainePERS to consider the medical board reports in reaching its decisions, even though the medical board is not subject to cross-examination. As to the merits of the underlying MainePERS determination, the Court held that the trial court had made two errors: (1) it had made a credibility determination that the evidence before MainePERS supporting Ms. Anderson should have been accepted by MainePERS (i.e., it had substituted its judgment for the agency’s judgment on questions of fact, contrary to the APA); and (2) it had disregarded MainePERS’s capacity to disbelieve evidence submitted to it or to assign certain evidence lesser weight than contrary evidence. The Court affirmed MainePERS’s decision to deny Ms. Anderson’s application for disability benefits, concluding that the record before MainePERS did not compel a finding that Ms. Anderson had proven that her incapacity was expected to be permanent. The Court re-emphasized that it is the role of administrative agencies to find the facts and make credibility determinations.

  1. Neither an agency’s administrative assessment nor its decision upholding the assessment constitutes a “civil action” that is subject to the 6-year statute of limitations in 14 MRSA § 752: MSAD 27 v. Maine Public Employees Retirement System, 2009 ME 108

Between 1973 and 1987, MSAD 27 had employed six secretaries for whom it had failed to pay retirement benefits to MainePERS. Instead, MSAD 27 had withheld federal Social Security contributions and remitted them to the Social Security Administration. MainePERS first became aware of the error in November 2000. Despite MainePERS’s numerous requests to MSAD 27 for more information about the scope of the problem, MSAD 27 took more than two years to respond to MainePERS. Eventually MainePERS notified MSAD 27 that a total of $80,000 in back contributions and interest were due to MainePERS for these 6 employees, and MainePERS assessed MSAD 27 for this amount (in two pieces). MSAD 27 filed an administrative appeal of the assessments and then, after MainePERS’s Executive Director affirmed the assessments, MSAD 27 filed a Rule 80C appeal of that final agency action.
One of MSAD 27’s main arguments on appeal was that the assessments by MainePERS were barred by the 6-year SOL for “civil actions” in 14 MRSA § 752. The Law Court rejected this argument. The Court held that agency actions such as making assessments or upholding assessments by final agency action were not “civil actions” under Section 752, and thus were not subject to that 6-year SOL. It was MSAD 27, not MainePERS, that had commenced a “civil action” within the meaning of that statute, according to the Court, by filing a Rule 80C action in Superior Court.

  1. Attorney sanctions: Key Equipment Finance, Inc. v. Hawkins, 2009 ME 117

The case involved a deficiency judgment resulting from a bankruptcy sale of a business. Issue for today’s presentation is the sanction imposed on appellant’s counsel for what the Law Court (in a per curiam opinion) described as an “escalating tirade of unsupported accusations and aspersions that fundamentally call into question the trial court’s independence and competence.” Examples of the statements from counsel’s appellate briefs include the following:
“The Superior Court’s finding of no credible evidence to support Hawkins’ contention can only be described as outright bias, extreme naivete, or intentional disregard in order to simplify the instant court action.”
“The Superior Court has fabricated a set of facts to achieve a predisposed end . . . .”
“The actions of the Superior Court are marked by bias and incompetence. This kind of judicial anarchy is not consistent with the notion of substantive due process.”
There were many more quotes similar to these in the opinion. Counsel was fined $2,500.

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