Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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In this case, the plaintiffs, Stowe Aviation, LLC and Stowe Airport Investment, LP, appealed from a denial of their motion to reopen a breach-of-contract case with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The plaintiffs had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Agency in 2014, outlining their intention to develop and expand the Morrisville-Stowe State Airport using funds secured through the EB-5 program. However, the Agency later transferred its obligations under the MOU to the Department of Financial Regulation (DFR) without informing the plaintiffs, leading to the failure of the airport project.The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Agency, alleging that the Agency breached its contract by failing to perform under the MOU and by transferring its obligations to the DFR without notice. The trial court dismissed the claims, and the case was closed. The plaintiffs then moved to reopen the case and amend their complaint, but the trial court denied their motion. The plaintiffs appealed this order.The Supreme Court of Vermont reversed the order and remanded the case, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying the plaintiffs' motion to reopen the case. The Supreme Court reasoned that plaintiffs could potentially obtain relief to cure a pleading deficiency under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), and it was inappropriate for the trial court to deny relief simply because plaintiffs did not request leave to amend in their opposition papers before the court entered judgment. On remand, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a valid basis to vacate the previously entered judgment to prevent manifest injustice before they can file their amended complaint. View "Stowe Aviation, LLC et al. v. Agency of Commerce & Community Development" on Justia Law

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The Office of Child Support (OCS) filed a parentage action against Cody Thomas, alleging that he was the biological father of a child born in 2017. However, the complaint was lodged in 2021, beyond the two-year limitations period specified under 15C V.S.A. § 402. The Superior Court, Windham Unit, Family Division dismissed the action due to lack of standing. The OCS appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, arguing that its standing should be recognized as the action served the child's best interests. The Vermont Supreme Court, however, upheld the lower court's decision. The court determined that the two-year limitation for challenging parentage under § 402 was clear and unambiguous. It further noted that the statute provided for exceptions to this rule, none of which applied in this case. The court stated that allowing parentage claims beyond the two-year limit posed risks to a child's financial and psychological stability. Therefore, enforcing finality in parentage actions was in children's best interests, aligning with the overall purpose of the Vermont Parentage Act. The court concluded that the OCS lacked standing to challenge the child's parentage and affirmed the dismissal of the case. View "Booker v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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In an appeal from the Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss a case brought by H. Brooke Paige concerning the validity of the 2022 general election. Paige, a legal voter, contended that Act 60, which mandated mailing ballots and a postage-paid return envelope to all active voters due to the Covid-19 pandemic, invalidated all elections and public questions on the 2022 ballot. He argued that Act 60 contravened the Vermont Constitution's requirement for voters to cast ballots in person on election day. He also alleged that mail-in ballots were subject to fraudulent conduct, and separately, he claimed procedural deficiencies regarding the language of two public questions on the ballot. The lower court dismissed the case for lack of standing under § 2603, as Paige could not show that he had been personally injured by the alleged issues. In the appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court found that Paige failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, as his complaint did not allege that the result of any specific election was invalid due to material vote irregularities. The court noted that § 2603 allows voters to contest a particular election or public question, but it does not provide a means to challenge every election and question on a single ballot without distinguishing among them. Thus, the court affirmed the dismissal of Paige's complaint. View "Paige v. State of Vermont" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision to issue a no-stalking order against a man, John Langlois, who was found to have physically assaulted his neighbor, Gail Haupt, on two occasions. The altercations were the result of a property dispute between the two. The defendant argued that the court erred in considering his acts of physical violence as threats under the stalking statute, and that his actions were justified in defense of personal property. The court rejected both arguments.First, it held that physical violence can constitute a threat under the stalking statute because it communicates an intent to inflict physical harm. The court reasoned that by using violence against the plaintiff on two occasions, the defendant conveyed a message that he was willing and able to inflict physical harm, and therefore threatened the plaintiff within the meaning of the statute.Second, the court ruled that the common law defense-of-property privilege is not a defense to a civil stalking order. The court noted that the purpose of the stalking statute is to protect individuals from "severe intrusions on personal privacy and autonomy" and to limit "risks to the security and safety" of the individual. The court concluded that the "critical question in such proceedings is not who was at fault, but who, if anyone, is in need of protection." Therefore, the defendant's actions were not privileged and the court did not err in failing to consider his defense-of-property argument. As a result, the court upheld the no-stalking order against the defendant. View "Haupt v. Langlois" on Justia Law

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In Vermont, a dispute arose among the owners of seven lots connected by a private road named Purple Mountain Road over how to allocate maintenance costs for the road. The plaintiffs, who own five of the seven lots, argued that each lot owner should contribute based on the percentage of distance traveled from the public highway along the private road to reach their respective lot. The defendants, who own the remaining two lots, argued that all parcel owners should divide costs equally. The Superior Court, Windham Unit, Civil Division, granted summary judgment to the defendants. The plaintiffs appealed the decision.The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision. The court ruled that in the absence of an express agreement governing the maintenance of a private road, all parties deriving common benefit from the road must contribute "rateably," or in a manner that is reasonable and equitable given the benefits each owner receives, to the cost of maintaining the road, as per 19 V.S.A. § 2702. The court reasoned that all the parties have the right to use the entire private road at any time and share equally in the benefits offered by the road, such as enhanced private and commercial access to their properties and the privacy provided by the cul-de-sac. Therefore, all parties must pay an equal fee for the maintenance of the road. View "Rawley v. Heymann" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff William Doherty appealed the grant of summary judgment to defendant Alphonse Sorrentino. On the morning of November 8, 2019, plaintiff walked a short distance from the Village Inn to the Woodstock Inn in Woodstock, Vermont. It was not precipitating at that time. He remained at the Woodstock Inn for about fifteen minutes. It began to snow as he left the Woodstock Inn to return to the Village Inn. Plaintiff slipped and fell on a sidewalk abutting 81 Central Street. Snow had lightly accumulated on the sidewalk. Defendant arrived after plaintiff fell but before an ambulance transported plaintiff to a local hospital. Defendant was also the sole owner of ACS Design Build and Construction Services, LLC, both of which had main offices at 81 Central Street. The sidewalk was owned by the Town of Woodstock. The Town had an ordinance that required owners of property abutting a [Woodstock] Village sidewalk clear accumulated snow or ice for pedestrian traffic to a minimum width of three feet, and within twenty-four hours of such accumulation. No accumulated snow had been cleared at the time plaintiff fell. Plaintiff sued, alleging that defendant, in his personal capacity, breached a duty to plaintiff to clear the sidewalk of snow, which was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. In moving for summary judgment, defendant argued that he owed no duty to plaintiff because: neither defendant nor the owner of the building, Tanglewood, owned or controlled the sidewalk on which plaintiff fell; landowners abutting public sidewalks owed no duty to the public to keep the sidewalk in a safe condition; and the municipal ordinance did not otherwise create a duty to plaintiff. The civil division awarded summary judgment to defendant concluding plaintiff did not bear his burden to show that defendant knew or should have known of a dangerous condition on the sidewalk. The court determined that plaintiff failed to offer any basis to reach defendant’s personal assets as sole shareholder of Tanglewood, and that plaintiff did not allege defendant owned or controlled the sidewalk where plaintiff fell. The court found that the municipal ordinance did not create a duty of care to plaintiff. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Doherty v. Sorrentino, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kyle Wolfe appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit against Vermont Digger and its editor (collectively, “VT Digger”), arguing that dismissal was improper and alleging that VT Digger’s publication of articles about him was defamatory and constituted a hate crime. VT Digger cross-appealed, arguing that its special motion to strike under Vermont’s anti-SLAPP statute should not have been denied as moot after its motion to dismiss was granted. In October 2021, plaintiff was arrested at the Vermont Statehouse on charges of aggravated disorderly conduct, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest based on conduct directed toward the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. VT Digger published an article in October 2021, titled, “Man arrested at the Vermont Statehouse after threatening House speaker.” In December 2021, plaintiff was released on conditions that required him to stay in Rutland County and prohibited him from possessing firearms or contacting the House Speaker. The same day, VT Digger published an article titled, “Defendant who threatened House speaker released with several conditions.” In February 2022, plaintiff allegedly posted annotated photographs of firearms to his social media accounts, “tagged” the House Speaker in a Facebook post, and asked others to contact the House Speaker, noting in a comment on Facebook, “Yes, I am aware this is technically ‘illegal.’ ” Due to this conduct, plaintiff was charged in March 2022 with violating the anti-stalking order. VT Digger subsequently published an article on March 3, 2022, detailing plaintiff’s new conditions of release. Finally, on March 7, VT Digger published another article describing plaintiff’s social media posts that led to the charge of violating the order against stalking and his conditions of release. Plaintiff filed a complaint against VT Digger in May 2022 accusing it of defamation by libel and slander and requesting the civil division enjoin VT Digger from publishing further articles about him. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim, but concluded the trial court should have granted VT Digger’s motion to strike, and therefore reversed and remanded for the court to award attorney’s fees to VT Digger pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute. View "Wolfe v. VT Digger et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant on their legal-malpractice and Vermont Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) claims. Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC (MBP) owned property abutting Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont, and leased the property to Malletts Bay Homeowner’s Association, Inc. Under the lease, the Association had the obligation to keep the property in good condition. In 2011, following major erosion damage on a portion of the embankment on the lakefront, MBP’s manager notified the Association it was in default for failing to maintain the property and gave the Association forty-five days to make specified, substantial repairs. After the Association failed to make the repairs, MBP filed a complaint against the Association seeking damages and to void the lease for the Association’s violation of its terms. The Association retained defendant Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc. In the following months, the Association took steps to address MBP’s complaints. However, following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the Association breached the lease and was in default but declined to grant MBP’s request for lease forfeiture. Instead, it awarded MBP damages for remediation and attorney’s fees and costs. Both parties appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the Association breached the lease and that MBP was entitled to termination of the lease. Ultimately, the lease was terminated, and the Association’s members were evicted. Members then sued the Association, alleging that it was negligent in its administration of the provisions of the lease requiring it to keep the property in good condition. Members and the Association settled in 2018. As part of the settlement, the Association assigned members its right to sue defendant for legal malpractice. The Association and members filed a complaint against defendant in the instant case in December 2019, alleging legal malpractice and a violation of the VCPA. The crux of their legal-malpractice claim is a lost opportunity to settle. They proposed that, had defendant tried to settle, the Association and MBP would have likely agreed to terms involving repairs and payment of MBP’s attorney’s fees thus avoiding lease termination and eviction of the Association’s members. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was appropriate on the legal-malpractice claim but not on the VCPA claim, and thus reversed and remanded. View "Mansfield, et al. v. Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Energy Policy Advocates challenged a trial court’s conclusion that certain communications between different state attorney general offices were protected from disclosure under a public-records request, and further, that the trial court erred in declining to grant in-camera review of these documents. Additionally, plaintiff argued the trial court improperly granted only half of its fees despite substantially prevailing. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office (AGO) cross-appealed the trial court decision granting plaintiff any fees, arguing plaintiff was not entitled to fees as it did not substantially prevail. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision with respect to the withheld documents and reversed regarding the award of attorney’s fees. View "Energy Policy Advocates v. Attorney General’s Office" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Zephryn Hammond appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant University of Vermont Medical Center on plaintiff’s claims of employment discrimination and retaliatory discharge. Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment in April 2019. In October 2019, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that defendant had discriminated and retaliated against plaintiff based on plaintiff’s race and disabilities in violation of the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). The civil division concluded plaintiff had established a prima facie case that plaintiff’s termination was motivated by racial discrimination. However, it ruled that defendant had articulated a legitimate basis for the termination decision, namely, the performance issues identified in plaintiff’s evaluations and during the disciplinary process, and plaintiff had failed to prove that defendant’s proffered reasons were pretextual. The court determined that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case that plaintiff’s termination was the result of disability discrimination. Finally, the court concluded that the fact that plaintiff was terminated shortly after complaining of possible racial and disability discrimination created a prima facie case of retaliation, but that defendant offered legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for termination and plaintiff had failed to show that the stated reasons were false. It therefore granted summary judgment to defendant on each of plaintiff’s claims. Finding no reversible error in the civil division's judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Hammond v. University of Vermont Medical Center" on Justia Law