ROCKLAND, Maine — A judge has ruled that legal claims against the state and the buyer of a Rockland man’s waterfront home, which was sold while he was under the state’s care, can go forward.
Justice Andrew Horton also dismissed several other claims made against state officials in the case involving the sale of the Owls Head home of William Dean Jr.
“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,” Horton ruled.
Attorney Cynthia Dill of Portland said the decision Monday in Business and Consumer Court in Portland was important in that it provides an exception to the state’s sovereign immunity when the state serves as a public conservator for an individual.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services had been appointed temporary conservator and taken control of Dean’s finances and properties in September 2012 after he had been hospitalized for mental health problems in May 2012.
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 had misspent more than $200,000 from a family trust, that there were tax liens on properties in Owls Head and Rockland he had 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. And DHHS tried to sell the 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 is now his conservator. Dean has since been released from the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center and currently lives in an apartment in Rockland.
Attorney David Jenney, who represents the cousin and Dean’s estate, said Monday that from a brief look at Monday’s ruling, it appears that Dean has “gotten half a loaf — pretty much as expected.” Jenney had said at an earlier court hearing that his client was impoverished by the state’s actions while he was a ward of the state. Dean had $654,000 worth of real estate that was free of mortgages in September 2012, but less than a year later, he was down to $20,000 in assets.
The state argued that the Owls Head property was not worth nearly the value placed on it by the town. Horton said the state had some good points on that contention.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Taub, who represents DHHS and its officials, said Monday that he had not yet finished reading the 67-page ruling but that one option would be for the state to appeal parts of the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Horton will be holding a telephone conference with the various parties on Dec. 21, Dill said. Barring an appeal or a settlement, the rulings mean the case will go to trial at some point.
Horton ruled against a request by Taylor, who bought Dean’s home, to have the case dismissed through a summary judgment. The justice said there were factual disputes that are best decided at a trial and that Dean’s cousin and current conservator, Pamela Vose, had made a sufficient finding of irregularities in the state’s sale of the property for the matter to proceed.
The judge ruled in favor of DHHS on multiple counts that alleged civil rights violations, intentional misrepresentation and deprivation of due process. But, Horton ruled that Dean’s claim of a breach of fiduciary duty against the state for its handling of his estate while it was his conservator could proceed to trial.
A telephone message left Monday for Taylor’s attorney, Zachary Greenfield, was not immediately returned.