In re Thomas, 22-AP-063

Docket Nº22-AP-063
Citation2022 VT 59
Case DateNovember 18, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

2022 VT 59

In re Estate of Miriam Thomas (Stephen Ankuda, Administrator)

No. 22-AP-063

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 18, 2022


On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division

Justin A. Brown, Peter G. Raymond, and Nathan H. Stearns of Sheehey Furlong & Behm P.C., Burlington, for Appellant.

Jacob S. Oblak and Corey F. Wood of Bergeron, Paradis & Fitzpatrick, LLP, Essex Junction, for Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Eaton, Carroll, Cohen and Waples, JJ.

CARROLL, J.

¶ 1. Estate administrator, attorney Stephen Ankuda, appeals the civil division's order granting former guardian Paul Thomas's motion to dismiss a decision of the probate division. The probate division ordered Thomas to reimburse his mother's estate for what it described as damages incurred during his tenure as her financial guardian. However, the civil division did not have subject-matter jurisdiction because the probate division's order was not a final order. Accordingly, we vacate the civil division's order and remand to the probate division for further proceedings.

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¶ 2. The record reflects the following. Thomas was appointed financial guardian of his mother's estate in 2010 over his siblings' objection. In 2016, siblings filed motions to remove him as guardian under 14 V.S.A. § 3077 and Vermont Rule of Probate Procedure 67. In March 2018, the probate court concluded that Thomas had breached his fiduciary duties to mother's estate and ordered him removed under Rule 67. Later in 2018, the court appointed Ankuda as successor financial guardian. After mother passed away in April 2019, the court appointed Ankuda as administrator of the estate.

¶ 3. In August and September 2020, the probate division conducted six days of evidentiary hearings to determine Thomas's potential liability to the estate. In January 2021, the probate division issued its Findings and Order. The court concluded that Thomas was liable to the estate for $1,013,981. In addition, it ordered Thomas to reimburse the estate for attorney's fees and siblings for attorney's fees and litigation costs. The order provided that after the probate division determined "reasonable fees and costs . . . the court will enter a consolidated final judgment."

¶ 4. Without waiting for final judgment, Thomas appealed, pro se, from the Findings and Order to the civil division. Still pro se, he filed a motion to stay the judgment against him. The civil division granted the motion but noted that "the stay does not apply to the determination of costs/fees which may proceed to conclusion." Thereafter, Thomas, now represented by counsel, filed another motion to stay "pending issuance of a final judgment in case there are any appeal issues to raise with respect to any fees and costs awarded by the [p]robate [d]ivision." The motion alerted the court that the probate division had yet to issue a consolidated final judgment. The court denied this motion, stating that "the order appealed from is sufficiently complete to be a final order."

¶ 5. In January 2022, the civil division granted Thomas's motion to dismiss the Findings and Order concluding that neither Rule 67 nor 14 V.S.A. § 3077 provided the probate division

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with jurisdiction to adjudicate damage claims against financial guardians. Moreover, the court concluded that neither Rule 67 nor 14 V.S.A. § 917 authorized the probate division to order sanctions and surcharges after it had removed the guardian, and that the language authorizing sanctions and surcharges did not provide the authority for the court to award compensatory damages resulting from a guardian's malfeasance.

¶ 6. As administrator, Ankuda now appeals to this Court arguing that the civil division lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to grant Thomas's motion to dismiss, and that even if it had jurisdiction, the statutory framework permitted the probate division to order Thomas to reimburse the estate for losses caused by his fiduciary malfeasance. We agree that the civil division did not have subject-matter jurisdiction.

¶ 7." 'Subject[-]matter jurisdiction' refers to the power of a court to hear and determine a general class or category of cases." Lamell Lumber Corp. v. Newstress Int'l, Inc., 2007 VT 83, ¶ 6, 182 Vt. 282, 938 A.2d 1215. A necessary predicate for appellate jurisdiction is the order appealed from must be a final order. In re Trs. of Marjorie T. Palmer Tr., 2018 VT 134, ¶ 29, 209 Vt. 192, 204 A.3d 623 ("An interested party may take an appeal from the probate division to the civil division if the order appealed from is final as to the subject matter before the court." (quotation omitted)). "An order is final if 'the decree or judgment disposed of all matters that should or could properly be settled at the time and in the proceeding then before the court.'" Id. (quoting In re Webster's Est., 117 Vt. 550, 552, 96 A.2d 816, 817 (1953)). Though no statute or rule defines what constitutes a final, appealable probate order, this Court has "frequently treated probate orders as final even where they did not dispose of the entire probate proceeding," because the "proceedings are frequently lengthy and involve a series of decisions on discrete issues that may be appropriate for immediate review." Id. ¶ 30...

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