Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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Plaintiff Christopher McVeigh sought a declaration that defendant, the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA), was the functional equivalent of a public agency for purposes of the Vermont Public Records Act (PRA), and therefore had to comply with plaintiff’s request for copies of its records. The civil division concluded that the VSBA was not a public agency subject to the PRA and granted summary judgment in favor of the VSBA. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "McVeigh v. Vermont School Boards Association" on Justia Law

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Husband’s estate, through a special administrator, appealed a family division’s order concluding that in light of husband’s death prior to entry of a final divorce order, it lacked jurisdiction to consider the enforceability of the parties’ stipulated agreement. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family division correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction. "Although the parties’ agreement may be enforceable as a contract independent of the anticipated divorce, the civil division of the superior court, and not the family division, is the proper forum for litigating that issue." View "Maier v. Maier" on Justia Law

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Masiello Real Estate, Inc. appealed a superior court’s conclusions of law on its breach-of-contract, quantum-meruit, and negligent-misrepresentation claims following a bench trial. Masiello’s claims stemmed from seller Dow Williams’ refusal to pay it a real estate commission under their right-to-market agreement. Seller owned a 276-acre property in Halifax and Guilford, Vermont. In 2013, he executed a one-year, exclusive right-to-market agreement with Chris Long, a real estate broker who worked for Masiello. Seller and broker agreed on a $435,000 asking price and a fixed $25,000 broker commission. The agreement had a one-year “tail” that compelled seller to pay the commission if, within twelve months of the agreement’s expiration, seller sold the property and Masiello was the procuring cause. The listing agreement would be renewed several times after negotiations with prospective buyers failed. Michelle Matteo and Torre Nelson expressed an interest in the property. Nelson, having obtained seller’s contact information from seller’s neighbor, contacted seller directly and asked if he was still selling. Between August and September 2016, Nelson and seller discussed the fact that seller wanted $400,000 for the property and buyers wanted seller to consider a lower price. No offer was made at that time. The tail of a third right-to-market agreement expired on September 30, 2016. Between September and November of that year, Nelson and Matteo looked at other properties with the other realtor and made an unsuccessful offer on one of those other properties. Returning to seller, Nelson, Matteo and seller negotiated until they eventually agreed to terms. Believing that it was improperly cut out of the sale, Masiello sued seller and buyers. The superior court concluded that because the property was not sold during the tail period, and because Masiello was not the procuring cause, no commission was due under the contract. The court further held that there was no negligent misrepresentation and that Masiello was not entitled to recovery under quantum meruit. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Masiello Real Estate, Inc. v. Matteo, et al." on Justia Law

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In an interlocutory appeal, defendants challenged the trial court’s denial of their motion to dismiss plaintiff’s medical malpractice claim. They contended dismissal was required because plaintiff did not file a certificate of merit (COM) with her complaint as required by 12 V.S.A. 1042(a) and the trial court did not find, nor did the complaint show, that this was a “rare instance” where expert testimony was unnecessary under section 1042(e). The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendants and therefore reversed the trial court’s decision. View "Bittner v. Centurion of Vermont, LLC et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs were W.H. and B.H., who were abused as children, and their grandparents. They brought this tort action for damages in 2014, arguing that DCF failed to accept or respond to dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse of the children between 2008 and 2012. Among other things, plaintiffs made claims of negligence based on the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ (DCF) failure to perform its statutory obligations and negligent undertaking. The State moved for summary judgment on all counts, arguing in part that the State did not breach any duty owed to plaintiffs, that the State was entitled to sovereign immunity because its actions were discretionary and grounded in public policy, and that plaintiffs could not prove causation. In June 2019, the trial court denied DCF’s motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial. After the close of the evidence, the trial court granted the State’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the record, holding that even if the jury accepted all plaintiffs’ evidence as true and made all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff, “the jury could not find the presence of proximate causation.” It determined that the jury would have had to speculate as to “what actions [DCF] would have taken had they acted on reports of maltreatment of the children that were made and not acted upon” as well as “what it is that would have happened had DCF received that report and acted on it.” Plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s decision granting judgment as a matter of law to the State. They argued the court erred in narrowing the scope of DCF's legally actionable duty and in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that DCF’s actions were the proximate cause of then-children B.H. and W.H.’s injuries. They also argued the discretionary function exception to the State’s tort liability did not bar their claim and that the trial court improperly considered factors other than the law and evidence in granting the State judgment as a matter of law. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Stocker, et al. v. Vermont, et al." on Justia Law

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Portland Street Solar LLC appealed a Public Utility Commission order denying Portland Street’s petition for a certificate of public good (CPG) to install and operate a 500-kW solar group net-metering system adjacent to a previously permitted solar array owned by Golden Solar, LLC. Interpreting the definition of “plant” set forth in 30 V.S.A. 8002(18), the Commission determined that the proposed Portland Street project would be part of a single plant along with the already-approved adjacent Golden Solar project and thus would exceed the 500-kw energy-generating-capacity limit applicable in the net-metering program. On appeal, Portland Street argued the Commission’s decision was inconsistent with the Vermont Supreme Court’s controlling precedent, as well as prior Commission decisions involving similar cases, and that the Commission exceeded its statutory authority by expansively construing the component parts of section 8002(18) that defined the characteristics of a single plant. Applying the appropriate deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court concluded the Commission’s self-described expanded and refined interpretation of what constituted a single plant under section 8002(18) was not arbitrary, unreasonable, or discriminatory and did not amount to compelling error that would require the Court to intervene in matters the Legislature has delegated to the Commission’s expertise. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commission’s decision denying Portland Street’s petition for a CPG to install and operate its proposed facility under the net-metering program. View "In re Petition of Portland Street Solar LLC" on Justia Law

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Between 2010 and 2015, pursuant to a contract with the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC), Wellpath, LLC assumed responsibility for providing medical care to every person in state custody within Vermont. Pursuant to the Vermont’s Public Records Act (PRA), plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) requested from Wellpath any records relating to legal actions and settlements arising from this care. Wellpath declined to furnish the requested records, arguing that, as a private contractor, it was not subject to the PRA’s disclosure requirements. HRDC brought the instant suit, and the trial court entered judgment for Wellpath. The Vermont Supreme Court found the language of the PRA was unambiguous: "where the state contracts with a private entity to discharge the entirety of a fundamental and uniquely governmental obligation owed to its citizens, that entity acts as an 'instrumentality' of the State. ... But because here, for five years, Wellpath was the sole means through which the constitutional imperative that the DOC provide healthcare to those it incarcerates was carried out, Wellpath became an 'instrumentality' of the state, and was thus subject to the disclosure obligations of the PRA." Judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Human Rights Defense Center v. Correct Care Solutions, LLC et al." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review was whether a landlord who had no knowledge that a tenant’s dog had dangerous propensities could be held liable for injuries the dog causes to individuals who enter the property with tenant’s permission. Plaintiff Katherine Higgins, who was badly injured by a tenant’s dog while on the leased property, challenged the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant landlords. When he was showing the house on landlords’ behalf after tenant moved in, a realtor who was representing landlords in marketing the property observed obvious signs around the house that a dog lived there, including door casings that were badly scratched by the dog. The realtor did not see the dog and did not know its size or breed or whether it had ever acted aggressively towards any person or other animal; based on the sound of the dog, he opined that it was “tough and loud.” Plaintiff, a neighbor, was attacked and seriously injured by tenant’s dog, an American Pitbull Terrier, while visiting tenant on the rental property. On appeal, plaintiff renews her argument that landlords have a general duty of care to the public, and that this duty includes a duty of reasonable inquiry concerning tenants’ domestic animals. In addition, she argues that landlords were on notice of the dog’s dangerous propensities on the basis of the observations made by realtor, acting as landlords’ agent. Finally, she contends that landlords are liable to plaintiff on the basis of a municipal ordinance. Finding no reversible error in granting summary judgment to the landlords, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "Higgins v. Bailey" on Justia Law

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Mother appealed a superior court decision terminating her parental rights to her five-year-old son C.L. C.L. separately appealed the court’s decision denying his post-judgment motions to vacate the termination order pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5113(b) and Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), to allow his attorney to withdraw, and to order contact with mother. The Vermont Supreme Court consolidated the appeals for review. With regard to Mother’s appeal, the Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the superior court’s decision. With regard to C.L.’s appeal, the Court found the issue was moot: C.L. argued the superior court should have granted his motion, and that he was prejudiced by its failure to do so because another non-conflicted attorney might have discovered missing evidence or pursued an ineffective-assistance claim, which his trial attorney could not effectively do. But after C.L. filed his appeal, the Defender General appointed a replacement attorney to represent him pursuant to 13 V.S.A. 5274. C.L. therefore secured the relief he was seeking. “Assuming a meritorious Rule 60 claim exists, his new attorney may pursue such claim as long as the family court retains jurisdiction over the matter.” The Court found C.L.’s argument that the family court “abandoned” its discretion when it denied his post-termination motion for contact with Mother, lacked merit. View "In re C.L." on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, a mother challenged decisions by the family division of the superior court denying her motions for an extension of time to file a notice of appeal and to vacate the order terminating her parental rights to K.S., and concluding that K.S. was not an Indian child for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act. In March 2018, a relative reported that mother had “tossed” K.S. onto a bed during a family argument and that father had used excessive physical discipline on K.S.’s older brother. K.S. was later found to have a buckle fracture on her wrist, which her parents were unable to explain. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) sought and obtained emergency custody of K.S. and her brother, and filed petitions alleging that they were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Mother and father later stipulated to the merits of the CHINS petitions. At the October hearing, mother testified that she understood that she was permanently giving up her parental rights, that her decision was voluntary, and that she believed the decision was in K.S.’s best interests. The court accepted the parties’ stipulations and granted the termination petitions. In December 2019, mother hired a new attorney, who filed a motion for relief from the termination order pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Mother alleged that the attorney who represented her at the relinquishment hearing had rendered ineffective assistance, that the underlying facts did not support termination of mother’s parental rights, and that her relinquishment was involuntary because she did not understand the proceedings. The family division denied the motion, finding that mother’s relinquishment was knowing and voluntary and not the result of coercion by DCF or the foster parents. The court further concluded that it was not required to conduct a separate "best interests" analysis when mother voluntarily relinquished her rights, and she failed to establish that her counsel’s performance was ineffective. Mother untimely filed her notice of appeal, and while a decision on the untimely notice was pending, she filed a second motion to vacate the termination order, adding the argument that the court failed to give notice to the Cherokee tribes or to apply the substantive provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Vermont Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the termination orders. View "In re K.S." on Justia Law