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Conservatorship of Emma

Supreme Court of Maine

January 5, 2017

CONSERVATORSHIP OF EMMA

          Argued: October 25, 2016

          Patrice A. Putman, Esq., Levey, Wagley & Putman, P.A., Winthrop, and Zachary L. Heiden, Esq. (orally), American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation, Portland, for appellant conservator of Emma.

          Sigmund D. Schutz, Esq., Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, LLP, Portland, for appellee Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] The Kennebec County Probate Court (J. Mitchell, J.) has reported a question to us that concerns public access to information held by probate courts in electronic format, specifically, financial information in conservatorship matters. Because we conclude that the reported question (1)raises broad issues that extend beyond the controversy at hand, (2)requests decisions that are inconsistent with our basic function as an appellate court, and (3) may be rendered moot by subsequent proceedings, we decline to answer the reported question.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] In February 2011, Emmas husband petitioned to be appointed as her guardian and conservator in the Kennebec County Probate Court.[1] He amended his petition, with leave of the court, to seek the appointment of an attorney as Emmas guardian and himself as the conservator of her estate. As conservator, he filed an inventory and accounts identifying the approximate value of the estates assets. See 18-A M.R.S. §§ 5-418, 5-419 (2015).

         [¶3] Emmas husband died in February 2014, and her son successfully petitioned to be appointed as the new conservator. With his petition, Emmas son filed an updated inventory of the estates assets indicating an increase in the value of the estate. After being appointed as the estates conservator in October 2014, the son filed an amended inventory.

         [¶4] In August 2015, Emmas son, as conservator, moved to have financial details regarding the value of the estate removed from the publicly available docket in the case, pursuant to M.R. Prob. P. 92.12. The court summarily denied the motion. The conservator moved for the court to reconsider and to amend the judgment pursuant to M.R. Prob. P. 59 and M.R. Civ. P. 59. The conservator focused in this motion on limiting the availability of the inventory and account information on the Probate Courts public website. After a hearing, the court indicated that it would consider whether to report a question to us pursuant to M.R. App. P. 24(a).

         [¶5] While the court had the matter under consideration, the conservator filed a request for the financial information to be removed from the public docket as an accommodation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 12101-12213 (LEXIS through Pub. L. No. 114-248), based on his argument that persons without the kinds of disabilities that invoke probate court jurisdiction are not subject to public disclosure of that information. Two days later, the court reported to us the following question:

When a conservator files an inventory and account for the ward, a. should the image of the documents be available on line; b. should the summary numbers from the documents be available on line while the document images remain as publicly available only in the court (current practice in Kennebec); c. should neither the image of the document nor any summary numbers be available on line (current practice in fourteen counties); or d. should the Probate Court adopt a policy different from a, b, or c above?

         The court made clear that, despite the request for ADA accommodation, "[t]hat does not appear to be a recurring type of request and no certification of that question is implied." The court entered a separate ruling on the request for ADA accommodation, however, stating that it had "certified a similar issue to the Law Court, " and that "[p] ending the result of that certification, but without deciding the issue finally, the Court will accommodate [the conservator] by removing from the ...


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