State can’t be sued for selling property, euthanizing cat of man in its care, Maine’s top court rules
William Dean died before the conclusion of his four-year case, but now
his attorney wants legislation to make the state accountable when ‘the
duty of care is so grossly breached.’
William Dean plays the organ, an instrument he mastered without any
lessons. His family retained his three organs after the state tried to
sell them. Dean died in October at the age of 71, while his lawsuit
against the state was pending. 2015 photo courtesy of the Dean family
ROCKLAND — The state is immune from liability for selling the
waterfront house of a man in its care for well below its value, allowing
another home he owned in Rockland to fall into disrepair, selling off
his personal belongings and euthanizing his cat.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday in the lawsuit
brought on behalf of William Dean against the Maine Department of Health
and Human Services.
William Dean's home in Owls Head was sold for $205,000, less than half of its assessed value. Photo by Stephen Betts/The Courier-Gazette
The ruling comes nearly four years after the original lawsuit was
filed and nearly six months after the high court justices heard
arguments on the matter. Dean has died since that hearing, succumbing to
natural causes on Oct. 16. He was 71.
Cynthia Ann Dill, Dean’s Portland-based attorney, said Thursday that
she respects the ruling but urged the Maine Legislature to expressly
provide by statute that when the DHHS acts as a public guardian it
is “accountable for damages caused when, as in this case, the duty of
care is so grossly breached.”
Dean suffered from mental health issues throughout his life. Among
other things, he had Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder
that made it difficult for him to interact with other people.
He also was a musical savant. He never had a music lesson but was
able to play a song if he had heard it once. His musical instrument of
choice was the organ.
After his mother died, Dean had a mental health crisis and was
admitted to the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor in May 2012.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services filed a motion on
Sept. 5, 2012, in probate court seeking to be named his conservator and
guardian. The state said that he was not competent to manage his
properties, and that bills had not been paid, including property taxes.
Dean’s cousin Pamela Vose had offered to be conservator, but had a
family medical emergency and asked that the state not appoint anyone
else while she dealt with that situation.
However, the state filed for conservatorship without letting Vose
know, contending there was “no suitable private party available and
willing to assume such responsibilities.” A probate judge in Penobscot
County approved the temporary appointment of the DHHS as conservator and
guardian on Sept. 6, 2012.
Before the end of that year, the state put Dean’s Owls Head cottage
and the Rockland family home up for sale, citing tax liens and other
bills that had to be paid. He had inherited the properties when his
parents died. In January 2013, the waterfront cottage in Owls Head was
sold for $205,000, even though the town had the property – 1 acre with
100 feet of ocean frontage and the 1,000-square-foot, two-story cottage –
assessed for tax purposes at $476,840.
The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which represents the DHHS in
lawsuits, argued that the Owls Head property was not worth the taxable
value because of problems with septic and water systems and because it
was next to a property that was in deplorable condition.
According to court records, the state moved up the sale date of the
Owls Head property by one day after the family found out about the sale
and informed the DHHS it would seek a court injunction to stop the sale.
The state also tried to sell the Rockland home on Broadway, but a
pipe burst during the winter when there was no heat and caused major
flooding, which then led to mold throughout the home, making it
Money from the sale of Dean’s assets paid for his care and went to
his estate, the value of which dropped dramatically, according to court
papers filed by David Jenny, Dean’s attorney. He said Dean had $654,000
worth of real estate that was free of mortgages in September 2012, but
he was down to $20,000 in assets when he was released from Dorothea Dix
in 2013 after less than a year under DHHS conservatorship.
Following his release, Dean rented one apartment and then another in Rockland.
In an October 2015 interview, Dean said the state’s decision to
euthanize his longtime companion, a 10-year-old Himalayan cat named
Caterpillar, bothered him the most.
Dean said he also was upset that the state sold his 2000 Cadillac
Eldorado. The car was sold for $385, even though the book value was
Dean was aware the state was trying to sell the Owls Head property
while he was in the hospital, but did not learn about the sale and the
low price until after he was discharged. “I was not very happy about
it,” he said.
Among the possessions that the state tried to sell but were retained
when the family took legal action were Dean’s three organs. When asked
in 2015 what he would like to come out of the legal proceedings, Dean
had a one-word answer.
“Justice,” he said.
Claire Dean Perry, William Dean’s sister, originally sued DHHS on her brother’s behalf in May 2013.
“I feel absolutely devastated. I feel like a Mack truck went over me,” she said Thursday.
Dean Perry said she wanted a jury to hear the case and decide whether
the state had acted improperly. She said the loss of the Owls Head home
and the loss of the cat and car weighed down her brother in his final
“It permeated his whole being,” she said.
In December 2015, Justice Andrew Horton of the Maine Business and
Consumer Court in Portland ruled that the lawsuit could go forward on
the single issue of whether the state breached its fiduciary duty while
it served Dean’s conservator in 2012 and 2013.
The DHHS appealed that lower court ruling. Assistant Attorney General
Christopher Taub argued that the state is immune from liability under
the Maine Tort Claims Act. He said there are exceptions to the immunity,
but only when it is spelled out in other laws approved by the Maine
The Supreme Court justices agreed, saying there is nothing in the
state’s probate laws that waives immunity, even when the state serves as
a conservator for someone in its care.