Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

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Plaintiff Reed Doyle witnessed an incident involving Burlington Police Department (BPD) officers in a public park. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff submitted a citizen’s complaint form to the BPD to voice concerns about alleged officer misconduct and unreasonable use of force during the incident. Plaintiff subsequently requested to inspect body camera footage, among other records, related to the incident. The BPD denied his request. After filing a complaint in the civil division against the BPD, plaintiff moved for a partial judgment on the pleadings. He argued that the BPD violated the Public Records Act when charged a fee for costs that would be incurred by complying with his request. The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that based on the plain language of the Act, the BPD could not charge for staff time spent in complying with requests to inspect public records. Accordingly, the Court reversed. View "Doyle v. City of Burlington Police Department" on Justia Law

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Sam Conant owned 204 North Avenue from 1979 to 2002. The City of Burlington, Vermont assessed the property as a duplex in 1985. Conant converted the structure on the property from a duplex to a triplex in 1992 and began renting its three units in 1993. He obtained a building permit prior to construction, but he never obtained the required certificate of occupancy. In October 1993, City assessors inspected the property and found that the building contained three units. Pierre Gingue purchased 204 North Avenue from Conant in 2002 and continued to rent out the three apartments. The City issued a notice of violation to Gingue in July 2017 for “a change of use from a duplex to a triplex without zoning approval,” which the City stated was in violation of the City’s Comprehensive Development Ordinance. Gingue did not dispute that the property is in violation of the ordinance, rather, that the statute of limitations in 24 V.S.A. 4454(a) barred the NOV. Based on the plain language of the statute, the Vermont Supreme Court held the statute of limitations did bar the NOV and reversed the trial court’s decision. View "In re 204 North Avenue NOV" on Justia Law

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Petitioner and respondent were siblings and the children of the donor of the trusts at issue in this case. Both the donor and his wife were deceased. Respondent and a bank were co-trustees of the trusts. In June 2018, petitioner asked the probate division to remove respondent as the individual family trustee of the trusts and appoint petitioner’s wife as respondent’s successor. Petitioner asserted that removal of the individual family trustee would improve administration of the trust. He cited as bases for removal the noncommunicative relationship between him and respondent and respondent’s lack of attention to the investment performance of the trusts. Petitioner appealed the civil division’s determination that it lacked jurisdiction to consider his appeal of the probate division’s dismissal of his petition to remove respondent as trustee. After review of the specific facts presented on appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the civil division’s reasoning but transferred petitioner’s appeal to itself and remanded for further proceedings in the probate division on the petition for removal of trustee. View "In re Peter Val Preda Trusts" on Justia Law

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Luke Purvis appealed the Environmental Division’s denial of his motion for relief under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) and (2). In September 2014, the City of Burlington Code Enforcement Office notified Purvis that it had received a complaint regarding unpermitted expansion of the parking area on his property. It ordered Purvis to restore the area to green space. Purvis appealed to the Development Review Board, arguing that the expansion of the parking area was an unenforceable permit because the expansion first occurred over fifteen years prior. After reviewing various affidavits, drawings, photos, and other exhibits submitted by the City and Purvis, the Board found no violation because it concluded that parking in the area had stopped. Because it found that parking in the area had ceased for a period in excess of sixty days, it held that Purvis had lost the benefit of the fifteen-year limitation on enforcement actions under 24 V.S.A. 4454 and any potential claim to reestablish the right to expanded parking. Purvis appealed that determination to the Environmental Division in May 2015. In August 2016, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, which provided that the parties would dismiss the suit without prejudice. It also provided that the City and Purvis would meet again in another mediation no later than January 15, 2017, to attempt to resolve all disputes. That mediation never took place; no party moved to reopen or extend before August 1, 2017. In March 2018, Purvis moved for relief from the Stipulated Order pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6), arguing that he should be granted relief because he had been represented by conflicted counsel at the time he entered into the Settlement Agreement and submitted the Stipulated Order, and because he had relied on the City’s expressed willingness to mediate after the August 2017 deadline. The Environmental Division held that the motion for relief was unwarranted because Purvis did not file a motion to reopen or extend the time for such a motion before the August 1, 2017 deadline contemplated in the Stipulated Order. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Purvis argued his motion was not time-barred because the order from which he sought relief was not actually a final judgment. Finding no reversible error in the Environmental Division's judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Purvis Nonconforming Use" on Justia Law

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In October 2017, University of Vermont (“UVM”) Police Services, a fully-certified police agency, issued a criminal citation for disorderly conduct to an adult, W.R. The Criminal Division of the Superior Court found no probable cause for the charge and closed the case. Although the case was closed, it garnered significant public attention. In 2018, petitioner Jacob Oblak requested a copy of the affidavit of probable cause from UVM Police Services pursuant to Vermont’s Access to Public Records Act (“the PRA”). UVM Police Services denied access, stating that the “incident remain[ed] an open investigation within UVM Police Services, and the Superior Court, by not finding probable cause, has sealed all records related to possible charges asserted to date.” Petitioner exhausted his administrative remedies and appealed the denial to the Civil Division. In his complaint, petitioner asked the court to: declare that the affidavit of probable cause was a public record and was not subject to the exemptions found in the PRA; order UVM Police Services to release the affidavit in its entirety or in redacted form; and award him costs and attorney’s fees. UVM Police Services moved to dismiss. The Civil Division of the Superior Court upheld the denial of petitioner’s request and dismissed his complaint. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that not only was the record kept by UVM Police Services, but petitioner also requested the record directly from the agency. That UVM Police Services also filed the record with the court did not change its status as an agency record. “The affidavit was prepared by UVM Police Services in the course of public agency business. It is best characterized as a police arrest record. . . . the public has a right to access the affidavit of probable cause because it is an agency record . . . that does not qualify as confidential under the PRA.” View "Oblak v. University of Vermont Police Services" on Justia Law

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Appellants, Neighbors for Healthy Communities (Neighbors), appealed the Environmental Division’s decision to grant an Act 250 permit application to appellees, North East Materials Group, LLC (NEMG) and Rock of Ages Corp. (ROA), for a rock-crushing operation in Graniteville in the Town of Barre. Neighbors argued the court erred in granting NEMG’s application because the proposed operation does not comply with either Act 250 Criterion 1, with respect to air pollution due to silica dust, or Criterion 8, with respect to noise from off-site truck traffic. The Vermont Supreme Court found the trial court committed no error in concluding that NEMG’s rock-crushing operation complied with Act 250 Criterion 1 and Criterion 8. View "In re North East Materials Group, LLC/Rock of Ages Corp. Act 250 Permit" on Justia Law

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Appellants Icon Legacy Custom Modular Homes, LLC and Icon Legacy Transport, LLC challenged a series of trial court orders in favor of appellees Dagney Trevor, Merusi Builders, Inc., Osborne Construction, LLC, and Paul Osborne. This appeal arose from the sale and construction of a new modular home that suffered from significant deficiencies. Trevor purchased the modular home; Icon Legacy Custom Modular Homes, LLC (Icon Legacy) and Icon Legacy Transport, LLC (Icon Transport) manufactured and transported the home; Osborne Construction, LLC (Osborne Construction) and Paul Osborne (Osborne) were collectively the contractor involved in the assembly the home; Merusi Builders, Inc. (Merusi) was a subcontractor involved in the assembly of the home. Though not parties to this appeal, Vermont Modular Homes, Inc., David Curtis, and Blane Bovier were Icon’s Vermont-based “approved builders” and three of the defendants in the suit below. In 2015, Trevor purchased an Icon Legacy Custom Modular Home as a replacement to one she lost to fire. The home sustained significant water damage during a rainstorm when water entered the home before the roof installation was complete. Other structural defects emerged after Trevor moved into the home. Although Icon and Vermont Modular Homes repaired some of the damage, major defects relating to both the water damage and alleged improper construction remained in the home. Ultimately judgement was entered against Icon. Icon appealed, arguing multiple errors leading to the outcome against it. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed as to the trial court's thirty-percent upward adjustment of the lodestar damages calculation, and remanded for the trial court to strike that amount from Trevor's attorney fee award. The Court affirmed the trial court in all other respects. View "Trevor v. Icon Legacy Custom Modular Homes, LLC, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Dawn Boynton appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her wrongful termination complaint against her former employer. In her amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that she was terminated from her employment as a medical assistant at defendants’ medical office in Rutland, Vermont in September 2017 in violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and contrary to whistleblower protections. The trial court found that the employee handbook was unambiguous and established an at-will employment relationship that was fatal to plaintiff’s claim of a violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The court also rejected plaintiff’s assertion that defendants violated public policy by terminating her because she qualified as a “whistleblower” under the terms of the handbook, concluding that neither the handbook nor the whistleblower statute covered the conduct she reported. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiff failed to state a claim for violation of a clear and compelling public policy. Furthermore, she did not state a claim under the handbook’s whistleblower policy. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly dismissed plaintiff’s case. View "Boynton v. ClearChoice MD, MSO, LLC" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of an inquest convened to investigate an incident in which police fatally shot a suspected bank robber after a standoff near Montpelier High School in Vermont. The day after the shooting, the State applied to open the inquest. The same day, the State served a subpoena on WCAX-TV, a station of appellant Gray Television, Inc., requiring that the station produce all of its unedited video recordings of the incident. Appellant moved to quash the subpoena, citing 12 V.S.A. 1615, a statute enacted in 2017 that protected journalists from compelled disclosure of information. At the beginning of the court’s hearing on the motion, the State requested that the proceedings be closed, arguing that inquests were secret, investigatory proceedings. The trial court agreed and excluded the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion. On February 16, 2018, following the hearing, the court issued a written decision granting the motion to quash. This was the first court decision interpreting section 1615 since its enactment. On its own initiative, and in light of its ruling excluding the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion, the trial court noted, “[i]nasmuch as this is an ongoing inquest this decision shall remain under seal, as shall the entire inquest file, and shall not be available to the public unless and until the inquest has concluded with indictments or informations.” The pivotal question presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this case was whether a trial-court order granting a motion to quash a subpoena issued in the context of an inquest was categorically exempt from public disclosure. The Supreme Court held the order was a public record presumptively subject to disclosure under the Rules for Public Access to Court Records, and concluded that there was no basis for sealing the record in this case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s denial of appellant Gray Television, Inc.’s motion to unseal the order. View "In re VSP-TK / 1-16-18 Shooting (Gray Television, Inc., Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Juvenile G.B., born in June 2017, appealed a trial court’s order denying his petition to terminate mother’s parental rights and directing the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to prepare a new disposition plan for mother. The Vermont Supreme Court dismissed the appeal for lack of a final judgment. In October 2017, the court held a merits hearing in G.B.’s case. The court found that G.B. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) based on parents’ mental-health issues, substance abuse, failure to consistently engage in parent-child contact, and father’s criminal history. Father did not appear at the hearing; mother was briefly present. The court considered the best-interests factors as to each parent, then granted the petition to terminate father’s rights, concluding that he had not developed a relationship with G.B. and would not be able to assume parental duties within a reasonable period of time. As to mother, the court acknowledged that mother’s relapse resulted in her not being able to play a constructive role in G.B.’s life for seventeen months. The court concluded, however, that mother was ready, willing, and able to resume a constructive role in G.B.’s life and that she “should be given the opportunity over the next six months to reunify with G.B.” Therefore, the court denied the petition to terminate mother’s rights. The court explained that the case was “still at disposition” and directed DCF to prepare a new disposition plan in light of the court’s decision. G.B. appealed the denial to terminate mother’s rights. To the Supreme Court, G.B. argued the trial court failed to view the question of whether mother would be able to parent within a reasonable period of time from the perspective of the juvenile. The Supreme Court determined the order G.B. sought to appeal in this case—the denial of the petition to terminate mother’s rights—was not final because it was neither a final judgment nor a disposition order. The order denying termination of mother’s rights did not finally resolve the status of mother’s parental rights and therefore was not a final judgment. View "In re G.B., Juvenile" on Justia Law