How the state failed William Dean
William Dean’s mental health had started to deteriorate by the spring of 2012.
His mother, with whom he was close, had recently died. Her passing wasn’t sudden – she was 102 – but it plunged Dean into a deep depression that escalated to paranoia and hallucinations.
Other family members grew worried.
Dean, then in his late 60s, already lived with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that gave him savant-like musical abilities but also made social situations difficult and made it hard for him to live alone.
In May 2012 he checked into the emergency department at PenBay Medical Center in Rockport for an evaluation. After a few weeks he was transferred to Dorothea Dix, a psychiatric hospital in Bangor, for further monitoring. It was supposed to be temporary but he ended up staying for a year.
During that year, his life was upended.
Shortly after his hospitalization, the state Department of Health and Human Services applied for and was granted conservatorship over his finances. It sold one of his houses for less than half the assessed value – ostensibly to cover the cost of his care while hospitalized, which would have been thousands of dollars a month. It tried to sell the other house but only after failing to winterize it over the winter, which diminished its worth. It liquidated most of his possessions, including a concert-quality organ and several family antiques. It even approved the euthanizing of his companion, a 10-year-old Himalayan cat named Caterpillar.
Dean was released from the hospital without a home to return to. His prized organ was gone. His cat was dead.
The ordeal initiated a legal battle that continues today, more than four years later.
In late 2015, a court denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Dean’s family. In allowing the case to move forward, the judge was pointed in his criticism of how the state handled his estate.
“It seems clear that, had DHHS as Mr. Dean’s public conservator pursued a strategy aimed more at conserving his assets temporarily rather than liquidating them permanently, Mr. Dean would be much better off today,” wrote Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton.
But the state appealed that decision to Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which overturned the lower court ruling and concluded in March that DHHS could not be held liable for all that happened. Not because it was in the wrong – the court had no opinion on that – but because it had sovereign immunity.
Dean never got to see that decision. He died last October at age 71.
His sister, Claire Perry, and cousin Pamela Vose, along with their lawyers – David Jenny and Cynthia Dill – continue to fight.
Although the supreme court ruling has left few options, they are working on legislation that would authorize them to file a new lawsuit against the surety bond the state was required to submit as insurance for Dean’s assets. Dill believes it’s the first time anyone will have challenged a bond in a public guardianship case. A public hearing on that bill will be held Wednesday.
A new legal fight may solve the mystery over why the state acted the way it did in Dean’s case. Why did it seek conservatorship in the first place? Why did it move so fast to sell his house and other assets? Was it a massive overreach by a government body or simply a series of missteps exacerbated by poor communication?
The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which represented DHHS in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case other than to say, “The Law Court correctly applied well-established law when it ruled that the claims … must be dismissed.”
A national advocacy group that has been following the case, however, said there is no question the state failed Dean.
“William Dean was harmed financially and emotionally by the very guardianship put in place to protect him. Sadly, the system protected itself instead of Mr. Dean,” said Elaine Renoire, a spokeswoman for the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.
Barbara Schlichtman, an attorney with the Maine Center for Elder Law who has worked on guardianship cases, agreed that Dean’s case appears to have been handled poorly. But she cautioned against using Dean to make wholesale changes to the state’s probate code.
“Sometimes, the state is the only option,” Schlichtman said. “It’s not like the state is this big bad entity. They really do a service. I guess the question is, how much liability does the government have in carrying out this duty?”
Right now it has little, and that’s the point, Jenny said.
“The Maine supreme court has given the department a license to steal,” Jenny said.
Vose said even if the law was on the state’s side, that doesn’t make it right.
“If you look at the mission statement for DHHS, it talks about protecting and caring for people and working with families. Then you look at how they handled this,” she said. “Why didn’t they just say, at any point, ‘What can we do to fix this?’ ”
HOW BACK TAXES PLAYED A ROLE
William Dean and his mother, Alice, had always been close. He helped take care of her, and she helped pay his bills. When she died, Dean was lost, his sister said, and once he was committed to Dorothea Dix, there was no one to oversee Dean’s finances.
He owned two houses, one overlooking the water in Owls Head and another near downtown Rockland that had been deeded to him by his parents in 1994.
Back taxes were owed on both properties, but that was nothing new. Dating to 1997, there were seven tax liens on the Owls Head cottage and one on the Rockland house, according to the Knox County Registry of Deeds. The taxes were always paid shortly after each lien was filed.
In most cases where a person is deemed unfit to make financial decisions, a family member assumes the role of conservator. Only in cases where no family member is available does the state seek conservatorship.
Dean, because of his hospitalization, was considered unfit but his family and the state differed on whether someone could step in as conservator.
Perry, his sister, spoke with Vose, his cousin, to see if she would consider acting as his conservator. Perry didn’t want to do it because she and her brother shared a family trust that had been set up by their parents and he technically owed her money taken from that trust. And Vose had a long career as a banking executive, so handling his finances would have been easy.
Vose said she communicated to DHHS officials that she would be interested in being Dean’s conservator but she didn’t sign any paperwork. Then, in July 2012, her husband suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for about a month.
When her husband had recovered and was released, Vose contacted the state again. She was told not to worry. The state, relying on a letter from Dean’s social worker at Dorothea Dix who said he might benefit from a non-family member conservatory, was going to petition for emergency guardianship.
Barbara Cardone, a private attorney who represented the state in probate court, said Dean consented to the state’s request, although nothing was filed in writing. If Dean was hospitalized with a serious mental health diagnosis, his family members questioned whether he could really give consent.
The state argued in court that it needed conservatorship to avoid foreclosure of Dean’s two houses, but it never demonstrated that foreclosure was imminent. In fact, towns rarely kick people out of their homes for nonpayment of taxes, especially people who may have hardships, as Dean did. And Vose said she had offered to pay the back taxes.
The state said it tried to contact Vose prior to the filing to see if she wanted to contest the petition and never heard back. Vose vehemently denies this and said the state made no effort to reach her.
Although the judge granted the state’s request in September 2012, the state sensed a fight. Dean’s social worker, Janice Archer, sent an email to a supervisor at DHHS.
“There are questions about proper notification and there is now a family member interested in serving as guardian/conservator,” she wrote. “This is a very contentious family matter involving money and property. It may get very complicated.”
The state seemed to suggest that it stepped in as conservator in part to avoid a messy fight among Dean’s family members. But that was never communicated until after it was granted conservatorship, and both Perry and Vose said they had no intention of fighting over Dean’s assets.
‘THE STATE MAY HAVE RUSHED’ SALE
After the state had control of Dean’s assets, things moved quickly.
The Owls Head cottage and the Rockland house were put on the market in November 2012. Both were in rough shape, but the Owls Head property, with its 100 feet of ocean frontage, was assessed by the town at $476,840.
The initial listing price was $340,000. Two weeks later it dropped to $299,000. In December, the state entered into a contract with a buyer from Massachusetts. The closing price: $205,000.
Cardone, the state’s contracted attorney, said there is a big difference between assessed value and market value. She said the cottage, which was used mostly as a seasonal home, was in serious disrepair. It had no well and no septic system. That someone was willing to buy it was a surprise.
She also said Dean, who had been living mostly in the Rockland house, was aware of the sale and didn’t object.
Tom Edwards, the assessors agent for the town of Owls Head, later questioned the price and said “the state may have rushed,” according to a newspaper report.
Vose had already filed a petition in December with the Penobscot County probate court to supplant the state as conservator and guardian. But she and Perry also looked for a way to stop the sale, which they had learned was imminent.
They hired an attorney to help draft a temporary restraining order. The next day, Perry drove to Bangor to file a petition with the court to block the sale, but it was too late.
The buyer contacted the state to see about moving up the closing date by one day. Cardone, mindful of a possible legal challenge, said she contacted Perry’s attorney but never heard back so the sale went through.
The buyer, James Taylor of Danvers, Massachusetts, has since renovated the property and rents it out for as much as $3,500 a week.
The sale netted the state a profit of $173,945, more than enough to pay the taxes and to cover Dean’s care at Dorothea Dix to that point. But Dill said Dean’s hospitalization was not a factor in the decision by the estate management people in state government to sell off his estate and he was never billed.
MYSTERY SURROUNDS CAT’S DEMISE
The state continued to try to sell the Rockland home, too, although that proved to be a tougher sell.
Over the winter of 2012-13, after the state had been appointed conservator of Dean’s assets, the house sat empty. No one winterized it. The pipes froze and burst, flooding the house. Because of the damage, the state listed the house at $69,500 – less than half its value – but no buyers emerged.
The state did approve the sale of Dean’s car – a 2000 Cadillac valued at $5,000 – for $385. It also hired an auctioneer to come in and liquidate many of the items in Dean’s two homes – the prize being a Roland Atelier concert organ that retailed for $24,000.
It’s still not clear why the state liquidated Dean’s things if he was going to be discharged from the hospital at some point.
Then there was the cat.
Caterpillar was a 10-year-old Himalayan breed that Dean had adopted from a local animal shelter. Perry said the cat meant the world to her brother.
It soon became a topic of conversation between Archer, the social worker, and Andrew Hardy, the DHHS supervisor who was overseeing Dean’s estate.
In an email Archer sent to Hardy, she said the state should be prepared to call animal control if needed.
Hardy responded, “I have a BB gun.”
Hardy did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Archer also wrote that Dean may move into a group home after he was discharged from Dorothea Dix and wouldn’t be able to bring the cat with him.
“I don’t know if he had the cognition to understand that this means the cat needs to be put down,” she said.
The state never really addressed why the cat ended up being euthanized. Cardone said she couldn’t address the BB gun comment but said she knew Archer and said that the social worker would have taken the cat home herself if it came to that.
In the end, the state took the cat to the veterinarian.
“If it is otherwise healthy, the vet will board it. If the cat is sick and we can justify putting it down we will have that done,” Archer wrote.
Caterpillar was euthanized on Oct. 1, 2012. Dean was not told until after it happened.
“I never would have refused to take the cat if I knew they were going to kill it,” Perry said.
LEFT WITH NO HOME TO RETURN TO
The state’s emergency conservatorship expired in the spring of 2013. Vose became conservator shortly after, although there was little left of Dean’s estate.
He was discharged from Dorothea Dix in June without a home to return to. He lived in an assisted living facility in Camden for a few months before finding a small apartment in Rockland. Vose hired a neighbor to help cook meals and someone else to clean the house.
He still owned the house in Rockland, but the water damage and subsequent mold had made it uninhabitable and he didn’t have the money to fix it because the state had applied nearly all of his assets to his care while it served as conservator.
Dean’s family explored legal options to challenge the state’s actions. Perry filed a lawsuit seeking payment of money her brother had spent from the family trust. Vose, as conservator, filed suit to undo the sale of the Owls Head property and hold the state liable for mismanaging Dean’s assets.
In July 2013, a Knox County Superior Court judge ordered DHHS to transfer $120,000 to an escrow account in case Perry won her suit. It took more than a year, but Perry prevailed.
The remaining funds that were in Dean’s trust were released. Perry received $71,542, and Vose received $48,475. A sizable portion of that, though, was offset by a capital gains tax of $31,000 that was assessed after the sale of the Owls Head home.
The second suit against the state dragged on. There were mediation sessions in early 2015, but they ended in impasse.
Finally, in December 2015, Justice Horton, of the Maine Business and Consumer Court in Portland, ruled that the lawsuit could go forward but only on the single issue of whether the state breached its fiduciary duty while it served as Dean’s conservator in 2012 and 2013.
“The undisputed facts suggest that the effects of DHHS’ management of Mr. Dean’s affairs during what was supposed to be a temporary conservatorship were anything but temporary,” Horton wrote. “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’ intervention on his behalf.”
‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT JUSTICE WOULD LOOK LIKE’
DHHS appealed that ruling and it went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ultimately concluded the state is immune from liability under the Maine Tort Claims Act, which broadly says that a government agency cannot be sued for monetary damages.
Jenny, Vose’s attorney, said he believes the court erred by ruling that the state’s probate code, which protects people like Dean from misconduct by conservators, does not comply with the Maine Tort Claims Act, which protects the state from lawsuits.
He and Dill hope to obtain both a personal relief bill and an amendment to the probate code that either bars the state from acting as public conservator – several other states have similar prohibitions – or outlines a mechanism for holding the state accountable.
Dill acknowledged that the legislative path, which begins this week, is uphill but she hopes that a new lawsuit going after the state’s surety bond will yield more success, at least for Dean’s family. (Disclosure: Dill writes a weekly column for the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Insight section.)
“It’s not just that all this happened, it’s that folks are stuck,” Dill said. “We’re hoping that by making a claim against the bond, the facts will be adjudicated. Right now the state only has to keep claiming sovereign immunity.”
Perry said she’s still left with a simple question: Why did the state dig its heels in so deep?
“It has been such a living nightmare,” she said. “I don’t know what justice would look like at this point.”