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In re Tyler

Supreme Court of Delaware

April 17, 2019

In the Matter of JANE TYLER, A person with a disability.

          Submitted: April 3, 2018

          Court Below: Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware C.M. No. 08925-N-MZ

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, and SEITZ, Justices.

          ORDER

          KAREN L. VALIHURA JUSTICE

         (1) The parents and legal guardians of Jane Tyler ("Appellants")[1] appeal the decision of the Court of Chancery and request that this Court reverse and remand this matter with instruction. Jane is a twenty-six-year-old woman with severe autism, which renders her unable to speak, care for herself, or make significant decisions. Jane currently lives in a group home under contract with the Delaware Division of Developmental Disabilities Services ("DDDS"). In October of 2017, certain members of Jane's group home staff alleged that Mr. Tyler may have sexually abused Jane on more than one occasion. The matter was referred to the New Castle County Police Department and several State agencies.

         (2) Although no agency arrested or pressed charges against Mr. Tyler, the Court of Chancery limited his visitation rights to the common areas of Jane's home in an interim ex parte order dated October 18, 2017 ("Interim Order"), and ordered an investigation by the Guardianship Monitoring Program ("GMP"). The GMP filed the report of its investigation ("GMP Report") under seal on January 11, 2018 and recommended continuing the visitation restrictions. The Court of Chancery agreed and issued its Order for Supervised Visitation on January 26, 2018. The Appellants filed a Petition for Relief challenging the visitation restrictions and the continued confidentiality of the GMP Report. The Master in Chancery denied these requests. Appellants then filed exceptions to the Master's order, which the Court of Chancery denied. On appeal, the Appellants argue, among other claims, that the Court of Chancery denied them due process by maintaining the GMP Report under seal pursuant to Court of Chancery Rule 180-D ("Rule 180-D"), and that the court improperly invoked 24 Del. C. § 1768 ("Section 1768") to maintain the GMP Report under seal. Appellants, however, no longer challenge the visitation restrictions.

         (3) After reviewing the record, we conclude that the Court of Chancery did not err in relying upon Rule 180-D for the continued sealing of the GMP Report. Further, we reject Appellants' contention that the Vice Chancellor overruled the Appellants' exceptions without conducting a meaningful review. Accordingly, except to the extent it may have relied upon Section 1768, an issue which we need not address, we AFFIRM the Court of Chancery's June 12, 2018 Master's Final Order and its September 26, 2018 Order Overruling Exceptions and Adopting Master's Report.

         Facts and Procedural History

         (4) On May 18, 2011, the Court of Chancery appointed Appellants as Jane's co-guardians. At that time, Appellants were represented by Kevin O'Brien ("O'Brien"). Since 2012, Jane has lived in a group home. The Appellants have had disagreements with the group home staff since 2016, and, on several occasions, Mr. Tyler has had heated arguments concerning care issues with the group home's staff. Appellants, who are Caucasian and Jewish, believe that some of the African-American and Muslim staff harbored racial and anti-Semitic animosity toward them.[2] When the Appellants visit Jane together, their preference has been to visit in the family room "common area," but they would sometimes visit Jane in her room if she was unwilling to come out.

         (5) On October 18, 2017, DDDS filed a Motion for Supervised Visitation ("Motion"). DDDS served this Motion on O'Brien. In its Motion, DDDS alleges that on October 12, 2017, NHS reported allegations that Mr. Tyler sexually abused Jane. DDDS reported these sexual abuse allegations to the New Castle County Police Department, the Department of Health and Social Services Division of Long Term Care Residences Protection, and the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Attorney General's Office. The Court of Chancery ordered the GMP to investigate. While these investigations were pending, DDDS sought an order from the Court of Chancery prohibiting Mr. Tyler from unsupervised visitation with Jane.

         (6) About forty-two minutes following the filing of the motion for supervised visitation, the Court of Chancery entered the Interim Order prohibiting Mr. Tyler from having unsupervised visits with Jane or removing Jane from the group home. The Interim Order provided that it could be reviewed upon a showing of good cause by Mr. Tyler or upon completion of all investigations of alleged sexual abuse.

         (7) On October 19, 2017, the Court of Chancery appointed the GMP to investigate the sexual abuse allegations, and, on November 1, 2017, the Court of Chancery entered a sealed order pertaining to the investigation ("November 1 Order").[3] The GMP filed its report under seal on January 11, 2018 and recommended continuing the restrictions limiting Mr. Tyler's visitation.[4] On January 26, 2018, the court ordered that Mr. Tyler's visitation was limited to the common area of the group home and that he could not visit Jane in her room. Citing Rule 180-D(c)(2), the Court's order sealed the GMP's report because "access by interested parties would be detrimental" to Jane.[5] This order was electronically served on O'Brien, Appellants' counsel in the guardianship proceedings.[6]

         (8) Appellants filed a Petition for Relief ("Petition for Relief") on April 24, 2018 challenging the visitation restrictions and denying the sexual abuse allegations against Mr. Tyler. They requested, in the alternative, that their counsel be granted access to the November 1 Order and the GMP Report.[7] In GMP's response, it argued for keeping the GMP Report under seal pursuant to Rule 180-D. DDDS did not take a position on the use of Rule 180-D, but it asserted that the materials it provided to GMP were "peer review materials" protected from disclosure under Section 1768. On June 12, 2018, the Master issued her report ("Final Report") denying the Appellants' petition, citing to Rule 180-D.[8]In addition, the Court stated that "[t]he GMP report was filed under seal and, as noted in the DDDS petition, contains confidential information protected from disclosure by 24 Del. C. §1768."[9] Accordingly, the Court concluded that "access by [Mr. Tyler] to [the November 1 Order and GMP Report], and the statutorily protected DDDS information referred to in the GMP report, would be detrimental to [Jane]."[10] We agree with DDDS that a fair reading of this aspect of the Court's order is that the Court was not relying upon Section 1768 primarily as a basis to seal the documents, although it noted that some of the underlying documents provided to the GMP and referenced in the reports may be protected by Section 1768. Also, the Master reviewed the merits of Mr. Tyler's petition even though he "failed to participate in these proceedings earlier and did not avail himself of the opportunity to take exception to the January 26 order."[11]

         (9) On June 14, 2018, Appellants filed a Notice of Exceptions to the Final Report. On June 25, 2018, Appellants requested that the adjudication of exceptions to the Final Report be stayed due to a significant deterioration in Jane's health. An emergency care conference was scheduled for June 27, 2018. The Court of Chancery granted the stay under the conditions that Appellants provide an update within seven days of the conference and that the GMP be present at the conference and submit a supplemental report.

         (10) On July 9, 2018, Appellants submitted the required status update about the emergency care conference and informed the Court that Jane's deterioration was largely due to an issue with her antipsychotic medication, and her well-being generally improved after a medication adjustment. In the status update, Appellants also requested that the Court require the GMP and DDDS to "follow up" on a video that allegedly had been taken without Jane's consent.[12] Two days later, the GMP submitted its supplemental report from the emergency care conference ("GMP Supplemental Report"). GMP's Supplemental Report concluded that the visitation restrictions should be continued, as "[i]t is the opinion of this author that the Court [of Chancery] should continue to err on the side of caution in regards to protecting the ward moving forward."[13]

         (11) On July 12, 2018 (the "Supplemental Order"), the Master ruled that Appellants' requests that the Court appoint the GMP to investigate the video taken of Jane and to appoint the GMP to meet with Appellants to resolve these issues did not further the mission of the GMP and were not in furtherance of Jane's well-being.[14]

         (12) On July 26, 2018, Appellants filed their Opening Brief in Support of their Exceptions to the Final Report and Supplemental Order. In that brief, Appellants did not challenge the portion of the Final Report that pertains to the restrictions placed upon Mr. Tyler's visitation rights, as set forth in the original January 26, 2018 order. The Court of Chancery overruled Appellants' exceptions and adopted the Final Report and July 12 Supplemental Order on September 26, 2018.[15] On October 24, 2018, Appellants filed their Notice of Appeal with this Court.

         Issues on Appeal

         (13) Appellants raise three primary issues on appeal: (1) whether the Master committed error by failing to act in Jane's best interest; (2) whether the Master committed error by denying the Petition; and (3) whether the Vice Chancellor committed error by summarily overruling the exceptions without a "meaningful review" and without providing a sufficient explanation of her ruling. Although Appellant's Opening Brief actually raises a host of issues, we focus on the only one that merits serious attention, namely, whether the GMP report can remain ...


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