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Vermont Supreme Court to Hear Cases at Vermont Law School

March 12, 2009

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT - The Vermont Supreme Court will travel to Vermont Law School on March 25, 2009, to hear oral arguments in six cases. Continuing the court's tradition of holding session at VLS each spring, arguments will begin at 9:30 a.m. and will be heard in the Robert Fiske Jr. Courtroom on the second floor of Oakes Hall. The public is invited to attend.

Cases on the court's March 25 docket will include an appeal to a 2008 decision in which the plaintiff received substantial punitive damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, a question of whether "forced retirement" violates the Vermont Constitution, and two separate cases addressing issues with the state's workers'-compensation laws.

Here are summaries of all six cases. For more information, please visit the court's website at: http://www.vermontjudiciary.org 


Estate of Albert George v. Vermont League of Cities & Towns, 2008-374
9:30 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.

Albert George worked for the City of Burlington Fire Department for 36 years. He worked his way up from firefighter to assistant chief. In 2003, he died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His estate brought this workers'-compensation action against the department. The estate sought to use expert testimony to prove that Mr. George's work as a firefighter caused the disease. The department sought to exclude the evidence. The Chittenden County Superior Court granted the department's motion to exclude the expert opinions and for summary judgment. The court ruled that the testimony was inadmissible under Vermont Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The estate appeals,arguing that the superior court lacked jurisdiction to enter judgment, and that the court misapplied V.R.E. 702 and relevant caselaw.

Perry Babel v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, 2008-233
10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.

According to plaintiff Perry Babel, Father Paquette had molested boys in parishes in other states prior to being hired by the Diocese of Burlington in 1972. Once hired by the Diocese, the plaintiff claims, Father Paquette molested boys during his assignment to a parish in Rutland. Nevertheless, the Diocese transferred Father Paquette to a parish in Burlington, where between 1976 and 1978, he molested numerous boys, including plaintiff, an altar boy. In 1978 Father Paquette was relieved of his duties due to complaints of abuse lodged by parents of other altar boys.

Plaintiff sued the Diocese many years later after learning that the Diocese had, in other instances, declined to discipline or otherwise sanction priests for molesting children upon learning of the abuse. Plaintiff's suit against the Diocese was based on a theory of negligent hiring and supervision. In 2008, a jury awarded plaintiff $950,000 in compensatory damages and $7,750,000 in punitive damages. The Diocese appeals, raisingseveral issues, including whether the jury's award of punitive damages was proper.

George & Ruth Whitney v. A. James Walton, Jr., et al., 2008-385
11:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

Plaintiffs George and Ruth Whitney were career Vermont state law enforcement officers who were both required by statute to retire against their wishes at the age of 55. Plaintiffs claim that this forced-retirement law violates the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution and brought this action for injunctive relief and damages. The Windham County Superior Court held that the forced-retirement law did not violate the Common Benefits Clause and that, even if there was a constitutional violation, plaintiffs were barred from recovering damages because the State did not waive its sovereign immunity. On appeal, plaintiffs ask this Court to address whether the forced-retirement law violates the Vermont Constitution.

State v. Michael Christmas, 2008-303
1:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.

Defendant was arrested for the murder of Ronald Wilkins. The detective assigned to interview defendant was trained in the Reid technique, which focuses on conversing with the interviewee in order to establish rapport. While in custody at the police barracks, the detective asked defendant whether he wanted to speak with him. Defendant replied, "No." The detective left the defendant, but returned periodically to offer him water, coffee, and bathroom breaks. He also made small talk with defendant, discussing sports and telling defendant personal stories to demonstrate that he had experiences that related to defendant's situation. Approximately ninety minutes after he initially questioned defendant, the detective again asked him if he wanted to talk about what happened. Defendant agreed to talk. The detective read defendant his Miranda rights, which defendant waived before confessing to the murder. At trial, defendant moved to suppress his confession, arguing that he had clearly asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and that the officer's post-assertion interrogation was unlawful. The trial court agreed, finding that the detective's conduct did not honor defendant's Miranda rights. The State appeals, contending that the detective's periodic conversations were permissible under Michigan v. Mosley, 423 U.S. 96 (1975), and Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980).

In re PRB File Nos. 2007.046 & 2007.047, 2008-214/2008-215
2:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.

This case was originally considered by the Court in December 2008, on the brief submitted by disciplinary counsel. At issue is whether attorneys may, under the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct, surreptitiously record a third party and then deny recording the conversation when asked. The attorneys in this case were defending a client in a high-profile murder case when they received a letter from a man in prison indicating that he knew who had actually committed the murder, but that he would not talk to the police. After obtaining an adjournment from the trial court of less than twenty-four hours, the attorneys called the man in prison and recorded the call. During their conversation, the man asked if they were recording him, and they denied doing so. The Professional Responsibility Board decided that the two attorneys violated Rule 4.1 when they falsely denied recording the conversation.

After considering the issues in December, the Court ordered the Defender General, the Attorney General, and the State's Attorneys and Sheriffs to submit briefs addressing the issues of whether there should be exceptions to the Rules of Professional Conduct for defense or government attorneys who falsely deny recording conversations while they are involved in law enforcement or investigative activity, and what the scope of vicarious responsibility is for lawyers supervising police, investigators, or other agents who surreptitiously record conversations and/or falsely deny making such recordings. The United States Attorneys' office has also filed an amicus brief in this case. Oral argument will be divided between disciplinary counsel and the Defender General as appellants, and the Attorney General and the State's Attorneys as appellees (the U.S. Attorneys' arguments will be considered on their briefing).

Henri Cyr v. McDermott's Inc., 2008-290
2:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.

This is an appeal from a denial of workers'-compensation benefits and a constitutional challenge to Vermont's workers'-compensation law. Henri Cyr was employed by McDermott's, a milk-hauling company, as a mechanic's helper. His duties included servicing trucks and cleaning the shop area. One day, Mr. Cyr brought home a Mountain Dew bottle given to him by a co-worker. Several days later, unaware that the bottle actually contained a chemical cleaning agent rather then Mountain Dew, he drank from the bottle and sustained extensive caustic burns to his throat, esophagus, and stomach. Mr. Cyr filed a workers' compensation claim. The Vermont Department of Labor found that Mr. Cyr was intoxicated at the time he drank from the Mountain Dew bottle, and ruled that under 21 V.S.A. § 649, his intoxication was an absolute bar to recovery. The department thereupon granted summary judgment for McDermott's. Mr. Cyr appeals from that ruling. He argues, inter alia, that he presented sufficient evidence to create genuine issues of material fact and that the Department's decision violated his due process and equal protection rights under the United States Constitution.

Media please note: The Vermont Supreme Court guidelines on cameras in the courtroom will apply.

CONTACT: Jennie Clarke, Communications Coordinator
jclarke@vermontlaw.edu,
802-831-1310

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