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Legrand v. York County Judge of Probate

Supreme Court of Maine

July 25, 2017

RENEE LEGRAND et al.
v.
YORK COUNTY JUDGE OF PROBATE[1]

          Argued: December 13, 2016

         York County Superior Court docket number CV-2015-269

          Robert E. Mittel, Esq. (orally), MittelAsen, LLC, Portland, and Temma Donahue, Esq., Rioux, Donahue, Chmelecki & Peltier LLC, Portland, for appellants Renee LeGrand and other class members

          Peter J. Brann, Esq. (orally), and Michael E. Carey, Esq., Brann & Isaacson, Lewiston, for appellee York County Judge of Probate

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

          HJELM, J.

         [¶l] Renee LeGrand and other class action members appeal from a judgment entered by the Superior Court (York County, Warren, J.) declining to grant declaratory and injunctive relief from alleged deprivations of constitutional rights arising from the York County Probate Court schedule ordered by former York County Probate Judge Robert M.A. Nadeau.[2] LeGrand argues that delays in court proceedings caused by the court schedule violated class members' rights to meaningful access to the courts and to substantive due process. Judge Nadeau argues that the plaintiffs' claims are moot because he is no longer a judge of probate and that, in any event, the Superior Court did not err on the merits.[3] We conclude that this appeal is not moot and, reaching the merits, affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The court found the following facts, which are supported by competent evidence in the record.[4] See Graham v. Brown, 2011 ME 93, ¶ 2, 26 A.3d 823.

         A. Schedule Changes at the Probate Court

         [¶3] Judge Nadeau was elected York County Probate Judge in 2012 and held that office from 2013 to 2016, after having previously served in the same position from 1997 to 2008. Maine's probate court judges hold judicial office on a part-time basis, and York County funds the position for eight days, or sixty-four hours, per month. When Judge Nadeau began his term in 2013, he and Register of Probate Carol Lovejoy agreed to schedule court days on Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, with three Wednesdays of the month dedicated to routine matters, and all Thursdays and the last Wednesday of every month set aside for contested hearings.

         [¶4] On April 1, 2015, Judge Nadeau made a presentation at a York County Commissioners' meeting where the Probate Court budget for fiscal year 2016 was being considered. He advocated for an increase in funding so that the probate judge's schedule would expand from eight days per month to three days per week, or, alternatively, five days per week, which would make the judgeship a full-time position. Corresponding with these proposed changes, Judge Nadeau recommended an increase in his salary from $48, 498 to $90, 000 or $119, 476, respectively. The Commissioners tabled the issue, but at their next meeting, held on April 15, 2015, they decided to maintain the current number of hours for the probate judge. Nonetheless, they raised Judge Nadeau's salary to $54, 206.

         [¶5] Judge Nadeau left the meeting almost immediately after the Commissioners made that decision. A few minutes later, he emailed Register Lovejoy from his cell phone with instructions to make certain changes to his court schedule. In another email sent later that night, Judge Nadeau altered the schedule more significantly, directing Lovejoy to reschedule Probate Court from Wednesdays and Thursdays to Mondays and Fridays, starting the following week. In yet another email sent the next morning, Judge Nadeau changed the schedule again and directed Lovejoy to implement a trailing trial list with one full week each month dedicated to trials, plus two or three nontrial days each month. Two days later, on April 18, Judge Nadeau sent an email making further scheduling changes that included reserving one court day per month for research and writing.

         [¶6] In some of his communications with Lovejoy regarding the schedule changes, Judge Nadeau expressed his resentment that the County had been unwilling to support what he considered necessary additional court time. As the Superior Court noted in its findings, Judge Nadeau testified that he was "upset" and "disappointed" that the Commissioners declined to grant his request to increase funding for the position he held.

         [¶7] Because Judge Nadeau directed that the schedule changes be implemented immediately, all previously scheduled cases had to be assigned different hearing dates, resulting in delays before those cases could be heard. The shift in the court schedule to Mondays and Fridays also resulted in decreased court time because more holidays fall on those days-a consequence that Judge Nadeau knew would result when he made the change. As the Superior Court found:

Although Judge Nadeau stated that his schedule changes were made to serve litigants, he knew that the schedule changes would cause or exacerbate delays that would harm those litigants. In large part, the schedule changes were intended to get back at the County Commissioners who had rejected Judge Nadeau's request for an increase in salary and court time.

         [¶8] To assist with the growing and "essentially self-inflicted" backlog of cases, Judge Nadeau appointed probate judges from other counties to serve as referees and hear eleven contested York County cases. Additionally, as of the time of the trial in this matter, Judge Nadeau had recently decided to schedule court several times on the Tuesday after a Monday holiday to make up for the lost day, and to dedicate some time on Fridays to routine matters- changes that the Superior Court found were likely motivated in part by this case.

         [¶9] Over time, the altered schedule and appointment of referees cleared a backlog of contested matters, including emergency hearings and trials, because the practice of multi-day trailing trial lists resulted in more settlements and quicker resolutions of contested cases. The schedule changes ordered by Judge Nadeau, however, reduced the amount of court time available for uncontested cases, particularly during the remainder of 2015. For such routine matters, the schedule changes created delays of approximately three months. Throughout this period, Judge Nadeau recommended that litigants appearing in the York County Probate Court contact the County Manager and Commissioners if they were frustrated by court delays.

          B. LeGrand's Probate Court Case

         [¶10] In December 2014, Renee LeGrand, the named plaintiff in this action, filed for joint or sole guardianship of her granddaughter in the York County Probate Court, alleging that her daughter was unfit to act as a parent to the granddaughter. See 18-A M.R.S. § 5-204 (2016). In March 2015, Judge Nadeau issued an order, effective until August 31, 2015, granting LeGrand temporary guardianship of the child. See 18-A M.R.S. §5-207(c) (2016). A hearing on LeGrand's petition for permanent guardianship was scheduled for July and then for August 2015, but the hearing was not held due to scheduling conflicts attributable both to the court and to the attorneys.[5]

         [¶11] On August 28, 2015, LeGrand filed a motion to extend the duration of the temporary guardianship. In September, Judge Nadeau assigned LeGrand's case to a probate judge from another county to act as a referee. See M.R. Prob. P. 53; M.R. Civ. P. 53(a). By this point, the temporary guardianship had expired, and in late October 2015 LeGrand's daughter reasserted legal custody of the child. While the child was living with LeGrand's daughter, the daughter and her partner were arrested in front of the child, causing the child to experience emotional harm, according to LeGrand. In January 2016, LeGrand and her daughter reached an agreement for co-guardianship, wherein the child would reside primarily with LeGrand. The agreement was filed with the court and issued as an order on February 1, 2016, effectively resolving the guardianship dispute while this case was pending in the Superior Court.

         C. The Class Action Suit

         [¶12] On December 2, 2015, LeGrand filed a complaint against Judge Nadeau in the Superior Court, along with motions for class certification, for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, and for an expedited hearing. She filed the action on behalf of herself "and all others similarly situated, " whom she described as individuals adversely affected by scheduling practices in the York County Probate Court. The complaint, as subsequently amended, alleged that Judge Nadeau's alteration of the York County Probate Court schedule interfered with the plaintiffs' right of meaningful access to the courts in violation of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and article I, sections 6-A and 15 of the Maine Constitution; and violated the plaintiffs' substantive due process rights.[6] On those grounds, LeGrand sought declaratory and injunctive relief ...


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