PORTLAND — A Superior Court justice has ruled in favor of a York County probate judge in a class action lawsuit initiated by a woman who claimed the judge’s rescheduling of court dates resulted in her losing guardianship of her granddaughter.

But in his ruling, issued Tuesday, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren also criticized Probate Judge Robert M.A. Nadeau for changing the schedule for what he found to be in response to York County commissioners rejecting his request for more court time and a salary increase.

The class action civil suit was filed by Renee LeGrand of New Hampshire, who claimed changes Nadeau made in his court schedule in April 2015 led to her losing guardianship of her granddaughter last fall.

Warren noted that LeGrand, the lead plaintiff in the case, had not been denied access to the probate court, as she had alleged. He also noted that the custody situation has since been resolved – the girl lives with LeGrand in a co-custody situation with the child’s mother, who has visitation rights – and that attorneys for the plaintiff had not identified any other case with comparable circumstances.

“The schedule changes were, at least in part, intended to cause harm in the form of delay affecting probate court litigants in order to send a message to County Commissioners,” Warren wrote in his 22-page decision. “However there is certainly a question whether Judge Nadeau’s actions met the high standard of outrageousness necessary for a substantive due process violation.”

Warren said he was reluctant to question a judge’s decision that more time was needed to prepare for cases and to research and write decisions, particularly when Nadeau often exceeds the 64 hours a month on which York County bases his $54,000 salary.

As well, the Superior Court is not well-equipped to intervene in the scheduling of probate court matters, as LeGrand had requested. “Absent a very compelling reason, another court should not attempt to back-seat drive that process,” Warren wrote.

But Warren also pointed out that Nadeau ordered that April 2015 scheduling change to be immediate rather than through a transition, causing delays and disruption to the court schedule. Nadeau then referred litigants to county commissioners or the county manager if they had concerns about scheduling, Warren noted.

“Although Judge Nadeau stated that his schedule changes were made to serve litigants, he knew that the schedule changes would cause or exacerbate delays that would harm those litigants,” Warren wrote. “In large part, the schedule changes were intended to get back at the County Commissioners, who had rejected Judge Nadeau’s request for an increase in salary and court time.

“It bears emphasis that the court is not ruling that a request to the County Commissioners for some additional court time would necessarily been unjustified. What was unjustified was Judge Nadeau’s response to the Commissar’s denial of his request to have his salary increased to $90,000, or $119,476.”

Warren did acknowledge that one of the scheduling changes made by Nadeau was beneficial, and noted that this year, Nadeau has made modifications to the schedule he’d adopted in 2015. As of February, there was no backlog, with the exception of a three-month delay in getting to routine cases, Warren wrote.

Nadeau said on Thursday he was pleased that Warren based his decision on all of the evidence, and that the due process rights of users of the probate court continue to be protected by him, “despite woefully inadequate county funding for more badly needed judicial time.”

“The families and children who depend on our probate court need much more county support for it than they have been receiving, particularly in the face of an exploded opiate epidemic,” Nadeau said. “The same is true for our growing population of aging parents and other adult incapacitated loved ones faced with the possibility of guardianship but struggling to maintain as many of their legal rights, independence and dignity as possible.”

Nadeau disputed Warren’s finding that he made the 2015 scheduling changes to “get back” at county commissioners.

A backlog of cases involving heroin-related child custody and adoption had developed in 2014, and was exacerbated by increasing numbers of contested adult guardianship cases, he said.

“I made the changes to ultimately enhance efficiencies and full and fair hearings, despite Justice Warren’s recent, collateral misunderstanding to the contrary,” Nadeau said. “The notion that I changed the scheduling as a form of ‘retaliation’ as the county commissioners, manager and register who know virtually nothing about judicial work have asserted is simply incorrect.

“The success of my changes have since proven that success, as the superior court indicated in its decision. … It isn’t and has never been about salary.”

Nadeau urged county commissioners to meet with him to learn about the probate court and support it.

Nadeau isn’t completely out of the woods. In January, the committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability recommended to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that he be suspended for the remainder of his elected term – which ends Dec. 31 – after finding he breached a number of canons that govern judicial conduct, including the re-scheduling issue.

In 2007, Nadeau was censured by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and ordered suspended for 30 days for misrepresentations he made concerning his opponent in his 2004 pre-primary election advertising.

And he was reprimanded twice by a single justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2006 in connection with his conduct in his private law practice. A third count was dismissed with a warning.

Nadeau served as the county’s probate judge from about 1997 to 2008. He lost the 2008 election, but was elected in November 2012 for a four-year term that winds down Dec. 31. He said he is seeking re-election.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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