Justia Civil Procedure Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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
Wolfe v. VT Digger et al.
Plaintiff Kyle Wolfe appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit against Vermont Digger and its editor (collectively, “VT Digger”), arguing that dismissal was improper and alleging that VT Digger’s publication of articles about him was defamatory and constituted a hate crime. VT Digger cross-appealed, arguing that its special motion to strike under Vermont’s anti-SLAPP statute should not have been denied as moot after its motion to dismiss was granted. In October 2021, plaintiff was arrested at the Vermont Statehouse on charges of aggravated disorderly conduct, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest based on conduct directed toward the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. VT Digger published an article in October 2021, titled, “Man arrested at the Vermont Statehouse after threatening House speaker.” In December 2021, plaintiff was released on conditions that required him to stay in Rutland County and prohibited him from possessing firearms or contacting the House Speaker. The same day, VT Digger published an article titled, “Defendant who threatened House speaker released with several conditions.” In February 2022, plaintiff allegedly posted annotated photographs of firearms to his social media accounts, “tagged” the House Speaker in a Facebook post, and asked others to contact the House Speaker, noting in a comment on Facebook, “Yes, I am aware this is technically ‘illegal.’ ” Due to this conduct, plaintiff was charged in March 2022 with violating the anti-stalking order. VT Digger subsequently published an article on March 3, 2022, detailing plaintiff’s new conditions of release. Finally, on March 7, VT Digger published another article describing plaintiff’s social media posts that led to the charge of violating the order against stalking and his conditions of release. Plaintiff filed a complaint against VT Digger in May 2022 accusing it of defamation by libel and slander and requesting the civil division enjoin VT Digger from publishing further articles about him. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim, but concluded the trial court should have granted VT Digger’s motion to strike, and therefore reversed and remanded for the court to award attorney’s fees to VT Digger pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute. View "Wolfe v. VT Digger et al." on Justia 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
Energy Policy Advocates v. Attorney General’s Office
Plaintiff Energy Policy Advocates challenged a trial court’s conclusion that certain communications between different state attorney general offices were protected from disclosure under a public-records request, and further, that the trial court erred in declining to grant in-camera review of these documents. Additionally, plaintiff argued the trial court improperly granted only half of its fees despite substantially prevailing. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office (AGO) cross-appealed the trial court decision granting plaintiff any fees, arguing plaintiff was not entitled to fees as it did not substantially prevail. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision with respect to the withheld documents and reversed regarding the award of attorney’s fees. View "Energy Policy Advocates v. Attorney General’s Office" on Justia Law
Hammond v. University of Vermont Medical Center
Plaintiff Zephryn Hammond appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant University of Vermont Medical Center on plaintiff’s claims of employment discrimination and retaliatory discharge. Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment in April 2019. In October 2019, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that defendant had discriminated and retaliated against plaintiff based on plaintiff’s race and disabilities in violation of the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). The civil division concluded plaintiff had established a prima facie case that plaintiff’s termination was motivated by racial discrimination. However, it ruled that defendant had articulated a legitimate basis for the termination decision, namely, the performance issues identified in plaintiff’s evaluations and during the disciplinary process, and plaintiff had failed to prove that defendant’s proffered reasons were pretextual. The court determined that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case that plaintiff’s termination was the result of disability discrimination. Finally, the court concluded that the fact that plaintiff was terminated shortly after complaining of possible racial and disability discrimination created a prima facie case of retaliation, but that defendant offered legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for termination and plaintiff had failed to show that the stated reasons were false. It therefore granted summary judgment to defendant on each of plaintiff’s claims. Finding no reversible error in the civil division's judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Hammond v. University of Vermont Medical Center" on Justia Law
Vermont Journalism Trust v. Agency of Commerce & Community Development
In August 2020, plaintiff Vermont Journalism Trust (VJT) sought from the State emails to or from former Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development Lawrence Miller related to the Jay Peak EB-5 fraud scandal. The State denied the request, citing the Public Records Act's (PRA) litigation exception. Following an unsuccessful agency appeal, VJT filed this suit in October 2020. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which the court granted and denied in part. It found that the requested records were covered by the litigation exception but that outside circumstances had partially overtaken the case. In October 2021, VJT moved to compel the State to produce a "Vaughn" index of the remaining withheld records under 1 V.S.A. § 318(b)(2). VJT argued that the State had do so because it continued to withhold documents. During the pendency of this appeal, the State produced all records responsive to VJT’s public-records request, including those previously withheld. Because no live controversy remains, the Vermont Supreme Court dismissed this appeal as moot. View "Vermont Journalism Trust v. Agency of Commerce & Community Development" on Justia Law
Morton v. Young
Plaintiff Ava Morton appealed the denial of her complaint for an order against stalking. In May 2022, plaintiff’s mother filed a complaint on behalf of plaintiff, who was then seventeen years old, seeking an anti-stalking order against defendant Mayah Young. The affidavit attached to the complaint alleged that in April 2022, defendant had posted a video on the social media platform TikTok that included a half-naked picture of plaintiff. Plaintiff’s mother called the police, who went to defendant’s home, directed her to delete plaintiff’s picture from her phone, and warned her that she could end up in a lot of trouble because plaintiff was a minor. The complaint alleged that afterward, defendant posted another video in which she threatened to hurt plaintiff, followed by two more videos in which she suggested that she still had the picture and might send it to others. The civil division declined to issue a temporary order, concluding that the alleged conduct did not fall within the definition of stalking. Finding no reversible error in the civil division's judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Morton v. Young" 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
Hill v. Springfield Hospital, et al.
Defendants challenged the civil division’s order granting plaintiff Sharond Hill’s request to vacate its previous order dismissing her complaint. In February 2019, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendants Springfield Hospital (Springfield) and Emergency Services of New England, Inc. (Emergency Services) alleging that defendants were negligent in failing to timely diagnose her with appendicitis when she went to the Springfield emergency department in April 2016. Both defendants filed answers denying plaintiff’s claims. In July 2019, Springfield notified the civil division and the parties that it had filed a voluntary petition of bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and that pursuant to § 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, plaintiff’s claims against it were automatically stayed. In response, the civil division issued an order dismissing plaintiff’s case without prejudice. The civil division held a status conference in September 2020; plaintiff’s counsel indicated at the conference that Springfield Hospital may have emerged from bankruptcy and, if not, he might seek relief from the bankruptcy stay. The bankruptcy court issued an order closing Springfield’s bankruptcy case in July 2021. In October 2021, plaintiff moved to vacate the dismissal and reopen her malpractice case. In her motion, plaintiff asserted that none of the conditions set forth in the dismissal order had technically occurred. Alternatively, plaintiff argued that even if one of the conditions had occurred, she should be excused for failing to file her motion to reopen within thirty days because she did not receive timely notice of the occurrence from defense counsel. Finally, she argued that her claim against Emergency Services should never have been dismissed because Emergency Services was not part of the bankruptcy proceeding. In March 2022, the civil division granted plaintiff’s motion, stating that it was “persuaded that there was no legal or equitable basis to dismiss the action simply because one of the two defendants filed a bankruptcy petition.” The court stated that it had intended to simply stay the action and that dismissal would be unjust. "The record is clear that plaintiff’s own lack of diligence, not the 2019 dismissal order or defendants’ conduct, is the reason for her situation." The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendants that there was no legal basis for the court to grant such relief, and therefore reversed. View "Hill v. Springfield Hospital, et al." on Justia Law