Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
Haupt v. Langlois
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
Rawley v. Heymann
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
Doherty v. Sorrentino, et al.
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
Thurber v. Thurber
Plaintiff appealed the denial of her motion to enforce a provision in the parties’ final divorce order that gave her the option to purchase jointly owned real property from defendant. The property at issue was a five-acre parcel of land with buildings on the Connecticut River where the parties lived and operated a marina business during their marriage. In the final divorce order, the court gave each party the option to buy out the other’s share of the property. If plaintiff chose not to exercise the purchase option and defendant wished to do so instead, he had to notify plaintiff and send her a check. If neither party wished to purchase the property and business, it was to be sold through a realtor and the proceeds would be split between the parties. In January 2022, plaintiff moved to enforce her option to purchase the marina property. Plaintiff asserted that an April 2020 court order had given her thirty days to notify defendant of her intent to purchase. She argued that the order was stayed by her motion to alter or amend the judgment and subsequent notice of further proceedings, and did not become final until the trial court issued a November 2021 decision. According to plaintiff, she had thirty days from that date to exercise the option and did so by sending a letter with a $25,000 check to defendant on November 30, 2021. Defendant opposed plaintiff’s motion and filed his own motion to enforce the sale of the property to him. Defendant asserted that after plaintiff indicated in her motion to alter or amend that she did not want to purchase the property, he had notified her of his intent to purchase it on June 1, 2020, and mailed her a $25,000 check. At that time, plaintiff responded by offering to sell the property for a much higher price but did not express any interest in purchasing it herself. After the court issued its decision on remand, defendant sent plaintiff a check for the remaining $217,500 along with a quitclaim deed for her to complete. Defendant argued that plaintiff’s first appeal did not stay or alter the deadlines for exercising the purchase option, which expired in June 2020. The family division of the superior court concluded that plaintiff’s purchase option had expired and that defendant effectively exercised his option to purchase the property instead. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Thurber v. Thurber" on Justia Law
Bruner v. Gee, et al.
This case was the second appeal in this partition action, which involved a parcel of property jointly owned by plaintiff Simeon Bruner and defendant Bradford Gee. Plaintiff argued the court erred in assigning the property to defendant and ordering defendant to pay plaintiff for his share. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the trial court applied the correct legal standard and that its findings were supported by the evidence presented, and therefore affirmed. View "Bruner v. Gee, et al." on Justia Law
Posted in: Real Estate & Property Law
Mansfield, et al. v. Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc.
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
Swett, et al. v. Gates
Defendant Brian Gates appealed a trial court’s extension and modification of three stalking orders against him. he parties are longtime neighbors who lived on the same street in Mendon, Vermont. Defendant owned a home on the street; he also owns a vacant lot next to the home of plaintiffs Elizabeth Swett and Doug Earle. In January 2021, plaintiffs sought stalking orders against defendant, alleging defendant was engaging in aggressive and intimidating behavior, including yelling and swearing at them, firing his gun to intimidate them, and otherwise acting in ways that made them fear for their physical safety. Gates raised numerous arguments, many of which related to the requirements for the issuance of initial stalking orders rather than extensions of those orders. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the court acted within its discretion in extending and modifying the orders and therefore affirmed. View "Swett, et al. v. Gates" on Justia Law
City of Burlington v. Sisters & Brothers Investment Group, LLP
Defendant-landowner Sisters & Brothers Investment Group, LLP (SBIG) appealed an environmental-division enforcement order: enjoining it from using real property in the City of Burlington; ordering it to address site-improvement deficiencies as required by an agreement executed by a prior owner and the City; and imposing $66,759.22 in fines. SBIG purchased the subject property in 2004, which was then in use as a gas and service station, a preexisting, nonconforming use permitted under the City’s zoning ordinance. The property had eighteen parking spaces that were required to be used in connection with the service-station business. Following an unappealed 2002 notice of violation (NOV), the prior owner and the City signed an agreement on June 16, 2004—one day before SBIG purchased the property—which set out specific requirements to cure those violations. The agreement required the prior owner to take certain steps if it wished to sell the property and provided that the agreement was “specifically enforceable and . . .binding upon the successors and assigns of” the previous owner. The City did not enforce compliance with the agreement before this action. At some point after 2004, SBIG began renting out a small number of parking spaces to private individuals. This was not a permitted use under the zoning ordinance. In July 2017, the gas and service station closed, and SBIG thereafter increased the number of parking spaces it rented out to private individuals. Following complaints about the private-parking use and graffiti, the City contacted SBIG in 2018 about bringing the property into compliance with the zoning ordinance. SBIG took no remedial action, and the City issued an NOV. In June 2019, the Development Review Board (DRB) affirmed the NOV with respect to the change-of-use violation, finding the nonconforming use as a gas and service station had been discontinued for more than one year, which constituted abandonment of that use. In March 2020, the City filed a complaint in the environmental division to enforce the decision and sought fines. The Vermont Supreme Court determined the trial court erroneously found that SBIG knew or should have known about the 2004 agreement, therefore, it reversed the judgment order, directed the trial court to strike the condition requiring SBIG to address the site-improvement deficiencies in the agreement, and remanded for the court to recalculate fines without considering whether SBIG violated the agreement’s terms. View "City of Burlington v. Sisters & Brothers Investment Group, LLP" on Justia Law
Wells et al. v. Spera
Brothers Newton and Jason Wells (plaintiffs) and their mother Beverly Wells, filed suit in September 2017 seeking to partition real property they held as tenants in common with defendant Pall Spera in Stowe, Vermont. The court granted plaintiffs’ summary-judgment motion on the question of whether they were entitled to partition as a matter of law, and issued an order of appointment of commissioners and order of reference by consent of the parties. The order appointed three commissioners and directed them to determine whether the property could be divided, assigned to one of the parties, or sold. They were ordered to determine the fair market value of the property and each person’s equitable share. Neither party reserved the right to object to the commissioners’ report. Ultimately, the commissioners concluded that physical division would cause great inconvenience to the parties. Finding division inequitable, the commissioners awarded defendant first right of assignment due to his ability to buy out plaintiffs’ interest immediately, while plaintiffs required a loan to do so, and because partition would constitute the dissolution of the partnership agreement, which defendant had wished to continue. Plaintiffs filed a motion objecting to the report, citing Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 53(e)(2)(iii). Plaintiffs’ main argument was that the commissioners exceeded their mandate as provided by the order of reference in concluding that partition would result in zoning violations, and the commissioners erred on that question as a matter of law. In the alternative, they argued the equities favored assigning the property to them. The court denied the motion, including plaintiffs’ request for a hearing, and adopted the report without qualification. It reasoned that plaintiffs had not reserved their right to object to the report as required by the plain language of Civil Rule 53(e)(2)(iii). Finding no reversible error in this decision, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Wells et al. v. Spera" on Justia Law
Fleurrey v. Department of Aging and Independent Living, et al.
Plaintiff Tina Fleurrey appealed the dismissal of her negligence claim against defendant landlord 3378 VT Route 12 LLC. In her complaint, she alleged that landlord was responsible for the drowning death of decedent Scott Fleurrey, a fifty-four-year-old man with developmental disabilities, on the property that landlord leased to decedent’s caretakers, Upper Valley Services (UVS) and Azwala Rodriguez. The question on appeal was whether the civil division properly dismissed plaintiff’s claim. Plaintiff argued the civil division erred by misunderstanding the controlling law because landlord owed decedent a duty to protect and because the civil division drew inferences favorable to landlord. The Vermont Supreme Court held that the civil division properly granted landlord’s dismissal motion because: (1) Vermont precedents required an invitee to seek redress for injuries sustained on negligently maintained property from the land possessor who invited the injured invitee to the defective property, rather than from the absentee landlord; (2) §§ 343 and 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts were inapplicable here because those Restatement sections addressed only land possessors, and plaintiff did not allege that landlord was the possessor of the subject property; and (3) no duty could arise where, as here, a plaintiff did not allege that a legal relationship existed between a decedent and a landlord. View "Fleurrey v. Department of Aging and Independent Living, et al." on Justia Law