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Robishaw v. Providence Probate Court

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

September 12, 2016

PATRICIA ROBISHAW, Executrix of the Estate of H.E.R., Plaintiff,
THE PROVIDENCE PROBATE COURT; PAUL V. JABOUR, in his Official Capacity as Clerk of the Providence Probate Court; and CITY OF PROVIDENCE, Defendants.


          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge.

         This matter emanates from a state court guardianship petition relating to H.E.R. and her capacity to care for herself due to Alzheimer's disease. Patricia Robishaw, as the executrix of H.E.R.'s Estate (“Plaintiff”), challenges the lawfulness and constitutionality of two fees associated with the guardianship petition: (1) the fees charged by H.E.R.'s court-appointed guardian ad litem (“GAL Fee”); and (2) the statutory fee for filing a petition in the Rhode Island Probate Court (“Probate Court Fee”). Now before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”). (ECF No. 31.) In it, Plaintiff asks the Court to hold that the two fees violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act (Counts I and V), the United States Constitution's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses (Counts II, III and VI), and Article I, Section 2 and 5 of the Rhode Island Constitution (Count IV and VII). (See Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 31; Am. Compl., ECF No. 10.)[1] For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED, and the Court sua sponte GRANTS summary judgment for Defendants.[2]

         I. Background[3]

         The events leading up to this action commenced on May 24, 2012, when Patricia Robishaw filed a petition with the Providence Probate Court asking the court to appoint Robishaw as guardian of her aunt, H.E.R. (Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) ¶ 35, ECF No. 29.) Robishaw accompanied the petition with a $30.00 filing fee. (Id. ¶ 38.) Robishaw also included a Decision Making Assessment Tool (“DMAT”) from Brian Ott, M.D. (Id. ¶ 36.) Dr. Ott was not H.E.R.'s primary care physician, (see Part 1 of Ex. to SOF PL0050, ECF No. 29-1), but nevertheless diagnosed H.E.R. with Alzheimer's disease “which will become progressively more severe over time.” (Part 2 of Ex. to SOF PL00143, ECF No. 29-2.) Based on his assessment, Dr. Ott concluded that H.E.R. required a substitute decision maker for financial matters, as well as limited assistance in health care matters, relationships, and residential matters. (Id. at ¶ 00146.)

         On May 24, 2012, in response to Robishaw's petition, the Providence Probate Court appointed Robert R. Nocera as H.E.R.'s guardian ad litem (“GAL”) pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15-7. (SOF ¶ 43, ECF No. 29.) After interviewing H.E.R. and Robishaw, as required by statute, Nocera filed a Guardian Ad Litem Report with the Providence Probate Court. (Id. ¶ 47.) The report contained a detailed account of Nocera's investigation into H.E.R.'s condition and concluded, inter alia, that “[t]he guardian ad litem is of the opinion that [H.E.R.] is in need of at least a limited guardian at this time.” (Part 2 of Ex. to SOF PL00129, ECF No. 29-2; Id. ¶¶ 47-48.)

         After Nocera filed his report, H.E.R. formally objected to the petition and submitted a competing DMAT from her primary care physician, Dr. Richard J. Ruggieri and a psychologist, Dr. Eugene D'Andrea. (SOF ¶ 51, ECF No. 29.) Drs. Ruggieri and D'Andrea concluded that H.E.R. did not need a substitute decision-maker in financial, health care, relationships, or residential matters. (Part 2 of Ex. to SOF PL0117; ECF No. 29-2.)

         The probate court refused to credit Dr. Ruggieri's DMAT because it relied on guidance from Dr. D'Andrea and instead ordered H.E.R. to submit to another examination by Dr. Ott. (SOF ¶ 57.) Dr. Ott examined H.E.R. on July 19, 2012 and arrived at the same conclusions stated in his original DMAT. (SOF ¶ 59; see Part 1 of Ex. to SOF Pl0090-91, ECF No. 29-1.)

         With Dr. Ott's follow-up report, the probate court conducted a chambers conference with counsel. (SOF ¶ 60, ECF No. 29.) At the conference, it was agreed that Attorney Arlene Violet would be appointed H.E.R.'s guardian for finances and health care. (Id. ¶ 61.) They agreed not to appoint a guardian to manage H.E.R's personal relationships or residential matters. (Id.)

         Pursuant to her guardianship responsibilities, Violet filed a Universal Inventory of H.E.R.'s estate with the probate court on December 6, 2012. (Id. ¶ 65.) Based on this inventory and pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-22-21, the probate court clerk's office calculated the Probate Court Fee due on H.E.R.'s estate as $1, 500. (Id. ¶ 67.) After subtracting the $30.00 paid when Robishaw filed the petition, H.E.R. owed the probate court $1, 470. (Id. ¶ 68.) The court noted that H.E.R.'s “inventory [would] not be filed until additional percentage is paid.” (Id. (emphasis omitted).)

         In a letter to the Clerk of the probate court, H.E.R. objected to this fee, claiming it violated Title II of the ADA and both the Federal and Rhode Island Constitutions. (Part 2 of Ex. to SOF PL 000152, ECF No. 29-2.) The record does not reflect whether the probate court ever responded to this letter. However, H.E.R. never paid the fee. (See Samos Aff. ¶ 18, Amicus Curiae, State of Rhode Island's, App. 83, ECF No. 33-1.)

         Around the same time, Nocera sought his GAL Fee in the amount of $1, 993.75 pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15-7(h). (SOF ¶ 70, ECF No. 29.) H.E.R. objected to the fee on multiple grounds, including that it violated the ADA and various provisions in the Rhode Island Constitution. (SOF ¶ 71.) The probate court denied H.E.R.'s objection and ordered H.E.R. to pay a reduced $1, 100 fee. (Id. ¶ 74.) H.E.R. complied, but also appealed the probate court's ruling to the Rhode Island Superior Court. (SOF ¶¶ 75-78.) The appeal is still pending.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue of fact is only considered “‘genuine' if it ‘may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.'” Cadle Co. v. Hayes, 116 F.3d 957, 960 (1st Cir. 1997) (quoting Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez, 23 F.3d 576, 581 (1st Cir. 1994)). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must “examine[] the entire record ‘in the light most flattering to the nonmovant and indulg[e] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.'” Id. at 959 (quoting Maldonado-Denis, 23 F.3d at 581).

         Further, “a district court has the legal power to render summary judgment in favor of the party opposing a summary judgment motion even though [he or she] has made no formal cross-motion under rule 56.” Nat'l Expositions, Inc. v. Crowley Mar. Corp., 824 F.2d 131, 133 (1st Cir. 1987) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). To do so, however, (1) there must have been “a reasonable opportunity to glean the material” facts through the discovery process, and (2) the targeted party must have received appropriate notice and opportunity to present “evidence on the essential elements of the claims or defense[s]” at issue. Sanchez v. Triple-S Mgmt., Corp., 492 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2007); accord Tucard, LLC v. Fid. Nat'l Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 567 F.Supp.2d 215, 222 (D. Mass. 2008). For the “notice” requirement - at least where the targeted party has moved for summary judgment - “the question is whether, given the procedural circumstances of the case, ‘the original movant . . . has had an adequate opportunity to show that there is a genuine issue [in the case] and that [his or her] opponent is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Nat'l Expositions, 824 F.2d at 133-34 (emphasis in original) (quoting 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720, at 34 (1983)).

         III. Analysis[4]

         The two fees that form the basis of Plaintiff's claims have different forms and functions. The GAL Fee compensates GALs for the advisory services they provide to Rhode Island's probate courts. Under the State's guardianship statute, the probate court must appoint a GAL whenever a petition for an adult guardianship is filed. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15-7(a). The statute then specifically sets out a GAL's responsibilities:

         The duties of a guardian ad litem shall include all of the following:

(1) Personally visiting the respondent;
(2) Explaining to the respondent the nature, purpose, and legal effect of the appointment of a guardian;
(3) Explaining to the respondent the hearing procedure, including, but not limited to, the right to contest the petition, to request limits on the guardian's powers, to object to a particular person being appointed guardian, to be present at the hearing, and to be represented by legal counsel;
(4) Informing the respondent of the name of the person known to be seeking appointment as guardian;
(5) Reviewing the decision making assessment tool(s), petition for guardianship/limited ...

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