Argued: May 3, 2016
Reporter of Decisions
Erika S. Bristol, Esq., Auburn, for appellant parents
Pamela J. Ames, Esq., Waterville, for appellee maternal grandmother
Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.
[¶1] The parents of Priscilla D. appeal from a judgment of the Kennebec County Probate Court (J. Mitchell, J.) granting the child's maternal grandmother's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the parents' petition to annul the child's adoption by the grandmother. Because the Probate Court's termination of parental rights, affirmed in In re Priscilla D., 2010 ME 103, 5 A.3d 677, governs the parents' rights regarding the child, and because the court's error in excluding certain testimony offered by the parents was harmless, we conclude that the Probate Court did not err in declining to annul the 2009 adoption.
I. CASE HISTORY
[¶2] The child is thirteen years old. Since her birth, her mother and her maternal grandmother have had a strained relationship. At this point, there has been nearly a decade of litigation between these parties over responsibility for the child. That history is detailed in our 2010 opinion. See In re Priscilla D., 2010 ME 103, ¶¶ 3-7, 5 A.3d 677.
[¶3] After approximately three years of disputes and litigation between the parents and the grandmother, the court, in 2009, terminated the parents' parental rights. The parents appeared at the 2009 hearing and consented to termination. Because of the parents' hesitation about consenting to termination expressed in a statement read by the parents' attorney and in a colloquy between the court and the mother, the court indicated that it would decide the termination question based on evidence, rather than act solely on the parents' consent.
[¶4] Referencing the record from prior proceedings, which the parties agreed the court could consider, the court found that the parents were unfit and that termination of the parents' parental rights was necessary and in the best interest of the child. See 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(B)(2) (2015). In making the findings that supported its conclusions, the court addressed comments made at the hearing indicating that the grandmother had suggested during settlement discussions that the parents might have limited access to the child and information about the child following an adoption. The court noted that any continued contact with the child was unlikely unless the relationship between the parents and the grandmother improved considerably.
[¶5] The parents appealed the termination of their parental rights, and, in the 2010 opinion noted above, we affirmed. The grandmother then adopted the child.
[¶6] In August 2014, the parents petitioned to annul the adoption, arguing that it was obtained by means of fraud or duress. See 18-A M.R.S. § 9-315(a)(1) (2015). The court held a one-day hearing on the petition. At the hearing, the court excluded certain evidence offered by the parents, including statements allegedly made during settlement discussions that occurred immediately before the termination of parental rights hearing. The excluded statements included those that were referenced in the 2009 hearing regarding the possibility of the parents' continued limited contacts with the child. The court found that such statements were inadmissible pursuant to M.R. Evid. 408(a)(2) (barring admission of evidence of "[c]onduct or a statement made during compromise negotiations or in mediation about the claim" where it is offered "to prove or disprove the validity or amount of a disputed claim").
[¶7] At the conclusion of the parents' case, the grandmother moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court orally granted the grandmother's motion, finding that "the evidence does not indicate and does not prove that without consent, there would not have been a ...