Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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The issue presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this matter centered on a timber trespass action brought by plaintiffs against a neighboring landowner and the logger who cut plaintiffs' trees. Plaintiffs appealed the jury verdict in their favor, arguing that the damage award was inadequate. Plaintiffs also claimed the jury should have found the neighbor liable for unlawful mischief and that the trial court erred in denying their claims for treble damages, additional costs, and prejudgment interest. Finding no abuse of the trial court's discretion, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Epsom v. Crandall" 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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The trial court found that the parties to this landlord-tenant dispute had an oral rental agreement. Plaintiff-landlord was awarded plaintiff landlord back rent and reimbursement for electric bills. The court granted one tenant damages to compensate him for work he performed on landlord’s properties and another tenant compensatory and punitive damages for breach of the implied warranty of habitability and illegal eviction. Landlord appealed, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) finding there was an oral rental agreement between the parties and that defendants were tenants; (2) awarding rent for only a portion of the period tenants occupied the property; (3) awarding tenant Edson damages because the claim was not properly pled; and (4) awarding tenant Well punitive damages. Tenants cross appealed, arguing that the court abused its discretion in finding there was an agreement to pay rent once the building was compliant with the housing code and erred in awarding landlord back rent based on a theory of unjust enrichment. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the parties entered an oral agreement allowing tenants to stay in landlord’s apartment rent-free for some portion of time. The record did not support the court’s findings as to the terms of that agreement: that tenants agreed to pay rent after the building became compliant with the housing code and that the building did not become code-compliant until the third week of November 2016. Consequently, the award of back rent and reimbursement for electrical costs to landlord was stricken, and that issue remanded back to the trial court to make new findings regarding the nature of the parties’ agreement and to enter any revised judgment if supported by the facts. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s award of damages to tenant Edson for the work he performed for landlord, concluding that the issue was tried by implied consent. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded an award of punitive damages was allowable as damages for breach of the warranty of habitability and affirmed the award of punitive damages to tenant Well. View "Kwon v. Edson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Darryl Montague sued Hundred Acre Homestead, a therapeutic residential community, after a resident of Hundred Acre shot him at the shooting range he owned. He invoked two theories of liability: (1) that as the resident’s mental-health provider, Hundred Acre breached a duty to take reasonable steps to protect him from the resident by warning him of the danger she posed; and (2) Hundred Acre breached a duty to him by accepting and retaining the resident for care in violation of applicable Vermont regulations. Montague appealed the superior court’s dismissal of both. The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review reduced to whether one who provides residential care for an individual had a tort-law duty to warn a potential victim of violence by that individual when that potential victim is neither individually identified or identifiable, nor a member of a discrete identified or identifiable class of potential victims. The Court concluded both theories of negligence failed because neither established that Hundred Acre had a cognizable legal duty to protect Montague enforceable through a private tort action. View "Montague v. Hundred Acre Homestead, LLC" on Justia Law

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Trustee Annette Besaw held a security interest in fifty shares of stock of the Champlain Bridge Marina, Inc. She acquired the interest previously held by Ernest Giroux upon his death, in her capacity as trustee of his living trust. Champlain Bridge Marina was a family business in Addison, Vermont. Ernest (defendant Bryan Giroux’s grandfather) and Raymond Giroux (defendant’s father) started it in 1987. In the beginning, grandfather and father each owned fifty of the Marina’s 100 shares. On December 30, 1998, grandfather sold his fifty shares to father in exchange for the promissory note in which father promised to pay grandfather $272,000 plus interest. The associated January 1, 1999 security agreement gave grandfather a security interest in the fifty shares of Marina stock to secure payment on the note. Trustee appealed the superior court’s ruling on summary judgment that her suit to recover collateral under a security agreement was time-barred. The central issue in this case was when the trustee’s right to sue accrued, starting the statute-of-limitations clock. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded trustee’s right to sue under the security agreement accrued in 2013 when the borrower failed to pay the balance due on the note within forty-five days of trustee’s notice of default and borrower’s right to cure. Accordingly, the suit was not time-barred; the Court reversed and remanded. View "Besaw v. Giroux" on Justia Law

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This case centered around plaintiffs’ landlocked ninety-acre parcel on Roxbury Mountain. Defendants appealed the trial court’s decision that the plaintiffs’ parcel included an appurtenant easement by necessity that crossed some of defendants’ properties. They further contended the trial court erred in holding that Vermont’s Marketable Record Title Act did not extinguish that easement. The Vermont Supreme Court did not decide whether an easement by necessity arose in the first place because the Court concluded that even if it had, the Act would have extinguished it. Accordingly, the Court reversed. View "Gray v. Treder" on Justia Law

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The Town of North Hero appealed the Property Valuation and Review (PVR) Division hearing officer’s decision to impose a $2000 discovery sanction against the Town in a property-tax-reappraisal appeal brought by the Williams Living Trust. The hearing officer imposed the sanction as a result of a claimed discovery violation by the Town concerning disclosure of an electronic Excel spreadsheet file requested by the Trust. The Trust disagreed with the reappraisal of its property and challenged it through the statutory appeals process. In the notice of appeal, the Trust requested that the Town’s listers provide the Trust with a specific Excel spreadsheet file in “native format” and “unprotected.” The Town had provided the Excel spreadsheet in PDF format, not in the electronic format later requested. The Trust sent additional email requests to the Town asking for the Excel file. The Trust ultimately moved to compel production of the file in the requested format; the Town responded it did not have the file and could not produce “what does not exist.” The PVR hearing officer issued a decision on the Trust’s motion to compel, ordering the Town to make one last effort to obtain a copy of the file requested and giving the Town ten days to comply. In compliance with the hearing officer’s order, the Town conducted another search and located the file and produced it in the format originally requested. The Trust filed a motion describing the Town’s conduct concerning the file request as “blatant misconduct during discovery” and seeking monetary sanctions of $2500 and other sanctions as the hearing officer deemed proper for the Town’s failure to produce the file earlier. The hearing officer imposed a monetary sanction against the Town of $2000 for false statements made by Town officials and the “expenses, effort, and time” the Trust spent as a result of the Town’s failure to produce the file until ordered to do so. No evidence was provided concerning how much time, effort, and expense was incurred by the Trust, and there was no way to determine how the hearing officer determined $2000 to be the appropriate sanction amount. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the sanction, finding the Town had fully complied with the order compelling discovery, making imposition of a monetary sanction against the Town an abuse of discretion. View "Williams v. Town of North Hero" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Alpine Haven Property Owners' Association, Inc. (AHPOA) appealed a trial court's decision in its collection action against defendant-homeowners Harry and Lynette Brewin. In awarding judgment to AHPOA, the court calculated what it considered a reasonable annual fee that AHPOA could charge defendants for services it provided, including garbage pickup and road maintenance. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the court erred in replacing AHPOA's fee with its own given the absence of any evidence to show that AHPOA acted in bad faith or that its fee was unreasonable. Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded for further proceedings. View "Alpine Haven Property Owners Assn., Inc. v. Brewin" on Justia Law

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The Firing Range Neighborhood Group, LLC (Neighborhood Group) appealed an environmental court decision declining to find Act 250 jurisdiction over a firing range operated by the Laberge family (Laberge). Neighborhood Group argued the environmental court erred by: (1) allowing Laberge's untimely appeal; (2) concluding that because Laberge did not rely on donations, it was not operating for a commercial purpose; and (3) granting preclusive effect to a 1995 jurisdictional opinion. The Laberge family owned and operated a 287-acre farm, of which ten acres have been used as a shooting range since the 1950s by Laberge and the public. In November 2015, the recently formed Neighborhood Group requested a new jurisdictional opinion from the Commission. Neighborhood Group argued that since 1995, the range had begun operating with a "commercial purpose," citing the continued acceptance of donations and 2012 berm placements and bench repairs. Members complained of a sharp increase in the volume, intensity, and hours of shooting noise over the years since. In February 2016, the Commission issued a jurisdictional opinion (2016 JO), finding that, due to regular donations from municipalities, the range was now operating for a commercial purpose such that the construction of berms and shooting benches subjected the range to Act 250 jurisdiction. The environmental court declined to impose Act 250 jurisdiction, finding that Neighborhood Group had "fail[ed] to meet its burden of proof showing that cash donations are necessary for the [r]ange to operate" or that "there has been a change in donations to the [r]ange since the 1995 JO was issued that would create a commercial purpose where none existed before." The Vermont Supreme Court determined the environmental court did not abuse its discretion in finding excusable neglect and allowing Laberge's untimely appeal. Neither did it err when it concluded that Laberge, which had never charged for the use of the range and did not rely on donations for its operation, was not operating for a commercial purpose within the meaning of Act 250. "Laberge's range, consisting of a farm field with several benches and earthen berms, is not operating for a commercial purpose any more than a backyard corn maze or community garden space offered to the public free of charge. Act 250 sought to protect Vermont's unique environmental and cultural heritage at a time when the rapid proliferation of large-scale developments was dramatically altering many landscapes and communities around the nation. The text and spirit of Act 250, consistent with our prior decisions, informs our conclusion that the Act was not intended to apply to a family dairy farm that allows the community to target practice on its fields free of charge." View "In re Laberge Shooting Range (Firing Range Neighborhood Group, LLC, Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Bank of America appealed a trial court order confirming the sale of a foreclosed property in favor of Sandra Lockerby. The property at issue was foreclosed by judicial order in December 2015. The foreclosure order included a six-month redemption period, permitting Seamus and Jennifer O’Kelly and the Vermont Department of Taxes to redeem the property before or during June 2016. If the property was not redeemed, it would be sold to the highest bidder at a public sale. A year later, six months after the redemption period expired, Bank of America held a foreclosure sale of the property. The Bank’s representative had difficulty locating the property on the day of the foreclosure sale and did not arrive at the sale in time to enter the Bank’s bid. The auctioneer entered the Bank’s bid on behalf of the Bank. Sandra Lockerby, the only bidder who appeared in person at the foreclosure sale, entered a bid approximately one-third the amount of the Bank’s bid. The Bank subsequently filed a motion to void the foreclosure sale, noting that the Bank’s representative was not able to find the property in time for the sale and therefore could not enter the Bank’s bid. The Bank requested that the trial court grant it sixty days in which to hold a new foreclosure sale. The court issued an order after the hearing stating that the auctioneer’s bid on behalf of the Bank would not be confirmed because it was “improper.” The court further stated that it had learned during the hearing that a bidder was present at the foreclosure sale and “may be entitled to have his or her bid declared as the successful bid.” The court ordered that a second hearing be held on the Bank’s motion to void the foreclosure sale; the bidder hired by the Bank to make its bid did not appear at the hearing. The Bank focused on asking the trial court to exercise its discretion to decline confirmation of the foreclosure sale where, the Bank argued, excusable neglect in the failure to appear and the commercial reasonableness of bids received supported voiding the foreclosure sale. The court resolved the matter by confirming the sale in Lockerby's favor. The Vermont Supreme Court determined the record was not clear whether the trial court believed it had discretion with respect to the confirmation of the sale. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded for the trial court to exercise its discretion in confirming, or not confirming, the sale, including consideration of whether the foreclosure sale satisfied statutory requirements and other factors relevant to the integrity and fairness of the sale. View "Bank of America, N.A. v. O'Kelly" on Justia Law