Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law

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Applicant Ahmed Hamid-Ahmed appealed a Vermont Board of Bar Examiners (Board) denying his application to take the Vermont bar exam. Applicant has a bachelor’s degree with a major in criminal justice and a Master of Laws degree (LLM) from Widener University School of Law. However, he does not have a Juris Doctor (JD) or a substantially equivalent law degree from a foreign or domestic non-approved law school, he has not enrolled in a law office study program, and he has not been admitted to any other bar, foreign or domestic. Despite this, applicant argues that he is eligible to take the bar exam under Vermont Rule of Admission to the Bar 8(c)(4)’s “curing provision” by virtue of his LLM. He further argues that the Board violated his due process rights when it denied his application but did not explicitly notify him of the process for appealing that decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. Because appellant did not meet the requirements outlined in the Vermont Rules of Admission to the Bar, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Ahmed M. Hamid-Ahmed" on Justia Law

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Richard Joyce appealed the decision of an appellate officer within the Office of Professional Regulation dismissing his appeal for failure to file a statement of questions for consideration on appeal and complete the record for appellate review by ordering a transcript. Joyce has been a licensed surveyor since 1969. In 2014, Joyce completed a survey of the boundary between two adjoining properties. One of the property owners filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Regulation, Board of Land Surveyors (OPR) regarding Joyce's compliance with professional surveying standards. OPR opened an investigation into the complaint and, after review ultimately dismissed the complaint. Months later, OPR sent Joyce a letter stating that "[n]ew evidence ha[d] been brought to [its] attention . . . that warrant[ed] further investigation and reconsideration." OPR did not disclose the nature or origin of the new evidence. OPR sent Joyce a letter notifying him that "[t]he State Prosecuting Attorney ha[d] filed the enclosed charges and ha[d] asked the Office of Professional Regulation to take disciplinary action against [his surveying] license." A hearing on the charges was held in June 2017; OPR fined Joyce $750 and placed a two-year condition on his surveying license, requiring that he complete additional surveying training within 180 days of the entry of the order. The order noted Joyce's right to file an appeal with an OPR appellate officer within thirty days of the entry of the order. The order also contained instructions on how to request forms for proceeding in forma pauperis, including a statement that in forma pauperis status would make Joyce eligible to receive a transcript of the June hearing without cost. In his filing, Joyce's attorney reiterated that the appeal presented two legal issues, both raised in the attorney's notice of appeal, and that a transcript was unnecessary for resolution of the appeal. Neither Joyce nor his attorney filed a statement of questions, ordered a transcript of the June 2017 hearing, or filed a brief. The Vermont Supreme Court found that because Joyce provided the appellate officer with neither a statement of questions nor a transcript, per OPR rules, the record was not complete, and the appellate officer was effectively unable to conduct a review of the proceedings below. The appellate officer correctly considered the factors relevant to the decision not to review Joyce's filings in a summary manner and to dismiss Joyce's appeal, specifically, the procedural irregularities in the appeal that essentially foreclosed appellate review. View "In re Richard H. Joyce" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, an executor of an estate sued the clinic and physician's assistant who treated the decedent for wrongful death. The trial court dismissed the case because plaintiff failed to file a certificate of merit, as was required by statute. The refiled case was dismissed as untimely. The executor appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which reviewed the trial court's dismissals and found that dismissal was proper in both cases. View "Quinlan v. Five-Town Health Alliance, Inc., dba Mountain Health Center" on Justia Law

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Respondent Gregory Bombardier was a professional engineer licensed by the State of Vermont. He challenged the Board of Professional Engineering’s decision, affirmed by an administrative officer from the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), that he engaged in unprofessional conduct. In 2014, respondent was hired by an insurance adjuster on behalf of an insurance company to investigate a claim filed by Rand Larson against Atlas Plumbing & Heating, LLC. Larson alleged that Atlas had notched a support beam while installing radiant heating in his home, causing his floor to buckle. Respondent inspected Larson’s home. Following respondent’s inspection, Larson hired another engineer, James Baker, to investigate the cause of the floor settlement. After receiving Baker’s report, Larson contacted respondent seeking a reinspection; respondent did not respond. The insurance company provided respondent with a copy of the Baker report, asking whether there was anything in it that would cause respondent to reinspect the property or question his own opinion. Respondent saw nothing in the Baker report that caused him to question his own opinion. In August 2014, the insurer denied Larson’s claim. Larson then filed a professional complaint against respondent. The Board agreed with respondent that there was no new information in the Baker report that would cause respondent to question his own opinion. The Board did discipline respondent, however, based on the investigation that he undertook to determine the cause of the floor buckling at the Larson home. “Had respondent undertaken only to rule out the work done by Atlas Heating and Plumbing as the cause of the damage, this would be a different case. Respondent agreed to a much broader undertaking, however, than ruling out a specific cause.” The Vermont Supreme Court determined that the question of whether a professional engineer has engaged in unprofessional conduct did not turn on whether a client was upset or had filed a complaint. “The fact that a professional engineer may properly limit the scope of his or her work and that a client is satisfied with that work are separate considerations from whether there has been compliance with applicable professional standards in performing the particular work that the professional engineer has agreed to undertake. Similarly, the fact that one might sue a professional engineer for damages in superior court does not obviate the engineer’s independent duty to avoid unprofessional conduct nor does it deprive the Board of its statutory authority to address such conduct.” Having undertaken to investigate and determine the cause of the damage, respondent was required by his professional licensure to competently perform the services he agreed to render. The Supreme Court determined that the Board’s findings supported its conclusion that respondent did not meet the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing practice in carrying out the service that his client retained him to perform. View "In re Gregory J. Bombardier" on Justia Law

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Respondent Gregory Bombardier was a professional engineer licensed by the State of Vermont. He challenged the Board of Professional Engineering’s decision, affirmed by an administrative officer from the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), that he engaged in unprofessional conduct. In 2014, respondent was hired by an insurance adjuster on behalf of an insurance company to investigate a claim filed by Rand Larson against Atlas Plumbing & Heating, LLC. Larson alleged that Atlas had notched a support beam while installing radiant heating in his home, causing his floor to buckle. Respondent inspected Larson’s home. Following respondent’s inspection, Larson hired another engineer, James Baker, to investigate the cause of the floor settlement. After receiving Baker’s report, Larson contacted respondent seeking a reinspection; respondent did not respond. The insurance company provided respondent with a copy of the Baker report, asking whether there was anything in it that would cause respondent to reinspect the property or question his own opinion. Respondent saw nothing in the Baker report that caused him to question his own opinion. In August 2014, the insurer denied Larson’s claim. Larson then filed a professional complaint against respondent. The Board agreed with respondent that there was no new information in the Baker report that would cause respondent to question his own opinion. The Board did discipline respondent, however, based on the investigation that he undertook to determine the cause of the floor buckling at the Larson home. “Had respondent undertaken only to rule out the work done by Atlas Heating and Plumbing as the cause of the damage, this would be a different case. Respondent agreed to a much broader undertaking, however, than ruling out a specific cause.” The Vermont Supreme Court determined that the question of whether a professional engineer has engaged in unprofessional conduct did not turn on whether a client was upset or had filed a complaint. “The fact that a professional engineer may properly limit the scope of his or her work and that a client is satisfied with that work are separate considerations from whether there has been compliance with applicable professional standards in performing the particular work that the professional engineer has agreed to undertake. Similarly, the fact that one might sue a professional engineer for damages in superior court does not obviate the engineer’s independent duty to avoid unprofessional conduct nor does it deprive the Board of its statutory authority to address such conduct.” Having undertaken to investigate and determine the cause of the damage, respondent was required by his professional licensure to competently perform the services he agreed to render. The Supreme Court determined that the Board’s findings supported its conclusion that respondent did not meet the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing practice in carrying out the service that his client retained him to perform. View "In re Gregory J. Bombardier" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend an exception to the general rule to the circumstances of this case, which wanted to impose on attorneys a duty to prospective beneficiaries of undrafted, unexecuted wills. Doing so, in the Court’s view, would undermine the duty of loyalty that an attorney owes to his or her client and invite claims premised on speculation regarding the testator’s intent. Plaintiff filed a complaint against both defendant and his law firm alleging that defendant committed legal malpractice and consumer fraud, specifically alleging defendant breached a duty of care by failing to advise mother on matters of her estate and failing to draft a codicil reflecting her intent. The court granted defendants a partial motion to dismiss on the consumer fraud allegation. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, adding another count of legal malpractice. This amended complaint alleged that defendant breached a duty owed to plaintiff to the extent that he could have successfully challenged mother’s will. According to plaintiff, he filed six affidavits from mother’s relatives, friends, and neighbors indicating that mother was committed to leaving a House she owned to plaintiff. Defendants again moved for summary judgment in which they argued that an attorney did not owe “a duty to a non-client prospective beneficiary of a nonexistent will or other estate planning document.” The trial court ruled there was no duty to beneficiaries of a client’s estate under Vermont law. The Supreme Court agreed. View "Strong v. Fitzpatrick" on Justia Law

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Dr. Stephanie Taylor appealed Vermont Medical Practice Board decision denying her request to vacate the provisions of a 2005 consent order in which she agreed to a “final and irrevocable” surrender of her medical license. Dr. Taylor contended the Board erroneously: (1) failed to determine whether there were “less restrictive means available to regulate [her] conduct”; (2) violated her right to due process by “shift[ing] the burden onto [her] . . . to guess at the Board’s requirements for reinstatement;” (3) relied on the specification of charges that led to the earlier consent order; and (4) considered a Massachusetts decision revoking her medical license in that state. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Stephanie H. Taylor, M.D." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Heidi and James Glassford appealed a superior court decision denying their motion for summary judgment and granting it to defendant Dufresne & Associates, P.C. on plaintiffs' claims of negligent misrepresentation and violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Plaintiffs were homeowners who purchased their home direct from the builder, D&L Homes by Design, LLC (D&L). D&L hired defendant to certify that the on-site mound sewage disposal system constructed for the home satisfied state permitting requirements. On April 19, 2005, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources issued a Wastewater System and Potable Water Supply Permit for construction of the sewage disposal system on the property, subject to receiving a certification pursuant to 10 V.S.A 1973(e). On October 20, 2005, defendant's employee sent the certification required by the statute. On December 20, 2005, plaintiffs signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to purchase the home from D&L. Although the seller represented that the home and property had received all the necessary permits, plaintiffs never saw the certificate or the letter from the Agency stating that the certification requirement was satisfied. Sometime thereafter, plaintiffs hired an attorney in connection with the closing. On January 13, just prior, plaintiffs' attorney prepared a certificate of title that noted the wastewater and water supply permit. In February 2006, the sewage disposal system failed. In November 2008, plaintiffs hired defendant to investigate the system's failure because they knew defendant had inspected the system prior to their purchase. Defendant prepared a report stating that he had "completed the original" inspection in 2005 and found the system had been installed according to the permitted design. Plaintiffs received other opinions about the disposal system's failure both before and after hiring defendant to inspect the system. Plaintiffs filed a complaint in superior court alleging pecuniary losses from defendant's failure to properly inspect the sewage disposal system and subsequent misrepresentation about the construction of the system in the certification to the Agency. Upon review of the superior court decision, the Supreme Court found that the completion and filing of defendant's certificate was a prerequisite to D&L's ability to sell the home, the certificate was unrelated to the sale. The law required that it be sent only to the government agency that issued the permit. Furthermore, there was no allegation that D&L used the certificate as part of its sales pitch, and no allegation that defendant had any part in the sales. The standard for CPA liability required that a person be directly involved in the transaction that gave rise to the claimed liability. That standard was not met here. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court's decision. View "Glassford v. Dufresne & Associates, P.C." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Paul Choiniere and P&D Consulting, Inc. sued defendants, attorney Anthony Marshall and his law firm, Harris Beach, PLLC, alleging that they made negligent and intentional misrepresentations while representing a client in a matter involving commercial loan guaranties. Choiniere argued that he relied upon the misrepresentations when deciding not to call a $1 million loan that he made in September 2003, and P&D Consulting argued that it relied upon the misrepresentations when deciding to loan an additional $1.3 million in June 2004. Upon review of the dispute, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision granting defendants summary judgment. In sum, the Court held that there were several material issues in dispute that preclude summary judgment, including the viability of the guaranty agreement after an April 28, 2004 letter, whether plaintiffs' reliance on the April 28 letter was justifiable, whether Marshall was authorized to send the letter, and whether there are any economic damages. View "Choiniere v. Marshall and Beach, PPLC" on Justia Law