Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law

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Neighbors of a proposed solar electric-generation facility challenged the Public Utility Commission's (PUC) issuance of a certificate of public good for the project. At the heart of their appeal was a challenge to the PUC’s conclusions that the Apple Hill project would not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region and would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics. Both of these conclusions rested in substantial part on the PUC’s conclusions that the selectboard of the Town of Bennington took the position that the Apple Hill project complied with the applicable Town Plan, and that the 2010 Town Plan did not establish a clear, written standard. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court determined the evidence and the PUC’s findings did not support these conclusions, so it reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Petition of Apple Hill Solar LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs R.L. Vallee, Inc. (Vallee) and Timberlake Associates, LLP (Timberlake) appealed various aspects of three decisions that culminated in the environmental division granting the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) Act 250 and stormwater discharge permits for a highway project involving the reconfiguration of an interstate exit. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the environmental division erred in dismissing Vallee’s questions regarding Criterion 1 of Act 250; in all other respects, the Court affirmed. Accordingly,issuance of the stormwater permit was upheld, issuance of the Act 250 permit was reversed, and the matter remanded for the environmental division to consider Vallee’s questions concerning Criterion 1. View "In re Diverging Diamond Interchange SW Permit, Diverging Diamond Interchange A250" 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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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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The Vermont Labor Relations Board (Board) dismissed a petition for the election of a collective-bargaining representative filed by appellant-petitioner, Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation (Federation). The petition sought to include part-time faculty teaching for the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) distance-learning program (DLP) in the existing part-time faculty collective bargaining unit represented by the Federation. The Federation filed an initial and amended petition, in response to which the Board issued three orders: an original and two amended orders. The order at issue here was the second amended order: the Board dismissed the petition for failing to propose an appropriate bargaining unit. On appeal, the Federation asked the Vermont Supreme Court to reverse the Board’s dismissal and order the Board to reinstate the petition and conduct an election among the proposed unit members. VSC argued the Supreme Court should affirm the Board’s original decision and order an election or, in the alternative, affirm the Board’s second amended order dismissing the petition. The Supreme Court found the Board’s factual findings demonstrated that DLP faculty and on-campus faculty had different student populations, geographic locations, faculty experiences and teaching platforms, and hiring practices, and compensation considerations. The Board found that the two groups had minimal interactions, because, due to the increase in distance learning, they were inherent competitors, and that new issues for online educators not shared by traditional faculty would arise in the near future. All of these findings supported the Board’s conclusion that there were sufficient differences in the interests between these two groups that combining them would result in an inappropriate collective-bargaining unit. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s dismissal. View "In re Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation, AFT Local 3180" 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

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Mother and her four minor children were undocumented immigrants from Angola living in Vermont. Mother is married to the children’s father. At one time, father indicated that he would join the family in North America but he had not. Mother alleged that father had not contacted or supported the family since 2013. She also testified that there was no place for the children in Angola. In February 2018, mother sought relief under 15 V.S.A. 291, seeking award of sole legal and physical parental-rights-and-responsibilities (PRR) based on father’s abandonment of the family. Mother also asked the court to make special findings that would allow the children to apply for “special immigrant juvenile” (SIJ) status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Father was served by publication in Angola. The trial court concluded that it was in the children’s best interests that mother have sole PRR, both legal and physical. It did not order any parent-child contact with father. The court denied mother’s request for SIJ findings, concluding it lacked authority to make SIJ findings because they were not necessary to its parental-rights-and-responsibilities (PRR) decision. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that given the primacy of a child’s best interests in cases like this and the court’s broad discretion in determining those interests, the trial court did have the authority to make such findings. “It should make such findings when it is in a child’s best interests to do so and where such findings are supported by the evidence.” The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision to allow it to engage in this analysis. Because one of the juveniles would turn eighteen on July 13, 2019, the Supreme Court issued the mandate immediately and directed the court to issue its findings forthwith. View "Kitoko v. Salomao" on Justia Law

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Appellant Jeffrey Severson appealed the trial court’s decision to grant appellees’ the City of Burlington (the City) and the Burlington Conservation Board (the Board) motion to dismiss pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). The Burlington Town Center Project (the Project) was a large real estate project that proposed to redevelop the downtown district of the City. The Board met several times to review various aspects of the Project’s permit application. In early October 2017, nearly ten months after the meeting, Severson emailed the Board’s chair and raised concerns over a January 9 meeting. He asserted that the meeting had violated the Open Meeting Law because it had occurred behind locked doors. Severson requested that the Board cure the violation by holding a meeting in compliance with the Open Meeting Law to conduct a review of the most current version of the Project’s plan and to ratify the other, non-Project related Board actions taken at the January 9 meeting. The Board met on November 13, during which it reviewed a memorandum prepared by the City’s legal counsel and the relevant facts of Severson’s allegations, including information on the staffing procedure of the library on nights when public meetings were scheduled there. The Board determined that no Open Meeting Law violation had occurred. Severson filed suit, and when his case was dismissed, he appealed, arguing the trial court erred when it determined he, as a member of the Board, did not have standing because he did not allege an injury that was actionable under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. The Vermont Supreme Court found that dismissal of Severson’s claim was proper, and thus affirmed. View "Severson v. City of Burlington & Burlington Conservation Board" on Justia Law