Town of Dixfield removed from cat inheritance case

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PARIS — Dixfield selectmen have asked the Oxford County Superior Court to remove the town from an ongoing civil dispute over an inheritance left to feed and care for abandoned cats in town.

A request by the remaining plaintiffs to have their attorney, Seth Carey of Rumford, removed from the case has been granted.

The town will be dropped as a plaintiff in the case, leaving cat caretakers Brenda Jarvis, Donna Weston, Noreen Clarke, Valerie Warriner and Caroline Smith to pursue their claims against defendants David Austin, Gertrude Crosby, Bentley Crosby and Charlotte Mesko.

In the suit filed by Carey in January, the caretakers claim that funds from the estate of Barbara Thorpe have not been properly invested nor has money been disbursed to pay for the care of Dixfield’s abandoned cats as directed by Thorpe in her will.

The defendants have denied mismanaging the money and withholding funds from the cats, and have argued that the caretakers have no standing to sue because they were not specifically named in Thorpe’s will.

When Thorpe died in 2002, she left the bulk of her $200,000 estate “for the purpose of providing shelter, food and health care for abandoned and unwanted cats in the town of Dixfield.” Over the past 13 years, however, no more than a few thousand dollars have been disbursed for the cats’ care.

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Lawyers on both sides of the issue have collected over $16,000, and $22,679 has been paid to the estate’s trustees, Gertrude and Bentley Crosby and Mesko, for fees to manage the estate.

The cats’ caretakers maintain a number of buildings where they care for cats, using personal funds to pay for food, litter, medical bills and building utilities. Two of the plaintiffs estimate they spend nearly $800 a month to help the animals.

While the caretakers benefit from occasional fundraisers, they say they are always strapped for cash and that the funds from the Thorpe estate would go directly to care for the cats.

Jarvis told the Sun Journal that, in 1974, she and her sister Caroline Smith converted their deceased parents’ mobile home into a cat shelter. At first, they took care of two kittens that were dumped on the front lawn, Jarvis said, but then she rescued two adult females and three kittens. From that point on, the mobile home became known around town as a safe haven for abandoned cats.

Before she died, Thorpe had donated money to help Jarvis and, when she died, the caretakers and town officials believed Thorpe’s intention was for her money to assist Jarvis and her friends with their work.

In May, Carey filed two motions with the court, one seeking summary judgment — asking the court to grant the caretakers’ claims outright based on the facts of the case — and the other seeking an accounting of the Thorpe estate and sanctions against the defendants for not filing annual financial statements with the Probate Court.

The superior court dismissed both motions without a hearing because Carey is no longer “authorized to be representing any plaintiffs,” according to court records.

For more than two months, the caretakers had been trying to have Carey removed from the case. When he filed the suit on their behalf, they were not aware there was a complaint before the Board of Overseers of the Bar that he failed to properly discharge his professional duties. Around the time the case was filed, the board placed Carey on a two-year probation, forcing him to turn his current cases over to another lawyer.

Carey appealed the probation with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and while his license remains active until the appeal is heard, the plaintiffs no longer wanted him to represent them. Despite their requests that he stop representing them, Carey continued filing documents with the court in this case.

In April, the court froze the case and named Attorney General Janet Mills as a plaintiff after the caretakers asked the AG and the court for help to remove Carey as their attorney.

Active-retired Justice Robert Clifford has since granted their request to remove him.

On Thursday, Carey issued a written statement to the Sun Journal in response to a request for comment.

In that statement, Carey strongly criticized Mills for stepping into the case, arguing that she does not have the authority to do so.

“Unfortunately, the plaintiff cat ladies do not understand this and think the AG has superpowers and can come riding in on her white horse and save the day (at taxpayer expense),” he said. 

He claimed, “the AG’s office has managed to confuse the plaintiff cat ladies into thinking their lawyer is dispensable.”

In his statement, Carey also said the AG is not supporting the plaintiffs’ claims and “has made it clear that the wishes of decedent Mrs. Thorpe will be disrespected and no cats of Dixfield will receive any funds recovered from the estate, since they are not a recognized charity.”

He also argued that Mills appears to have sided with the defendants in this case and “wants to let the defendants ‘off the hook’ for their blatant and shameless attempt to keep the Thorpe estate funds.”

Carey also had strong criticism for the Sun Journal’s reporting on this case, claiming the newspaper has twisted facts of his disciplinary actions before the Board of Overseers, saying the discipline was based on “ridiculous and baseless” claims. And, he said, publishing his discipline record “is directly responsible for these ladies being sucked into the hysteria” to seek help from the AG to remove him from the case.

“In a nutshell, the only way that attorney Austin and his fellow defendants get away with their illegal actions is to have Carey & Associates removed” from the case, he said. But, “I will not back down until all legal options have been exhausted and the cats of Dixfield get their inheritance.”

Carey established a GoFundMe page to raise money for the cats. The page has raised $190 of its $10,000 goal in the past three months.

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