ROCKLAND, Maine — The central question before the state’s high court justices Wednesday was whether the state can be sued for selling the waterfront home of a man in its care for well below its value and allowing his other home to fall into serious disrepair.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Wednesday in the lawsuits filed on behalf of William Dean Jr. and his sister Claire Dean Perry against the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
In December, Justice Andrew Horton of the Maine Business and Consumer Court in Portland ruled that the lawsuits could go forward on the single issue of whether the state breached its fiduciary duty while it served as conservator of Dean’s estate in 2012 and 2013.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Taub argued that state is immune from liability under the Maine Tort Claims Act. He said there are exceptions to the immunity but only when it is specifically spelled out in other laws approved by the Maine Legislature.
Taub said there is no waiver of immunity when the state serves as a conservator. The state was conversator, managing Dean’s money and property because he had been admitted to a state mental health facility.
Attorney David Jenny, who represents Dean, said there is a requirement under the state probate code’s for the state to obtain a surety bond when it becomes a public conservator for an individual. This is such exception written into state law, he said.
“Otherwise, the state is saying there is no judicial recourse for someone who is under the care of the state,” Jenny said.
He said it would make no sense to require the state to take out a bond to cover damages if claims could then not be made against the state.
Attorney Cynthia Dill, who represents Dean’s sister Perry, agreed with Jenny saying the requirement of a bond is the specific waiver of immunity required by the court for the lawsuit to continue.
DHHS had been appointed temporary conservator and had taken control of Dean’s finances and properties in September 2012, after he had been hospitalized for mental health problems. They continued to serve in that capacity through May 2013.
The state argued it needed to become conservator because Dean, who had never lived independently, was not capable of managing his finances, stating in its petition to the probate court that he misspent more than $200,000 from a family trust, that there were tax liens on properties in Owls Head and Rockland he inherited and that he had other unpaid bills.
After being awarded temporary conservatorship, DHHS sold Dean’s waterfront cottage on Castlewood Lane in Owls Head to James Taylor of Massachusetts in January 2013 for $205,000, even though the town had the property assessed at $476,840. The property consisted of 1 acre with 100 feet of shore frontage and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot cottage.
The state also euthanized Dean’s 10-year-old Himalayan cat, Caterpillar, saying there were no family members willing to care for the pet. DHHS tried to sell Dean’s Rockland home on Broadway, but a pipe broke during the winter when there was no heat and caused major flooding, which then led to an outbreak of mold throughout the home, making it uninhabitable, according to court filings.
Relatives of Dean challenged the state in 2013, and a cousin of his, Pamela Vose, is now his conservator. Dean has since been released from the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center and lives in an apartment in Rockland.
Justice Horton stated in his December ruling that “in the span of six months, most of what Mr. Dean owned and valued wound up being sold off, flooded or euthanized, as a result of DHHS’s intervention on his behalf.
“It seems clear that, had DHHS as Mr. Dean’s public conservator pursued a strategy aimed more at conserving his assets temporarily (and winterizing them effectively) rather than liquidating them permanently, Mr. Dean would be much better off today.”
In an October 2015 interview with the BDN, Dean said he was still holding out hope that he would receive justice.
There is no timetable for when a ruling may be issued, but decisions generally are issued within two to eight months.