Justia Civil Procedure Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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
Margolis v. Daily Direct LLC
Plaintiff Gary Margolis appealed a trial court’s grant of defendant Daily Direct LLC’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint. Plaintiff, a resident of Vermont, entered into two contracts with defendant, whose principal place of business was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Under the contracts, defendant agreed to transport two motorcycles from Vermont to Las Vegas, Nevada, and then from Salt Lake City, Utah back to Vermont on scheduled dates in July 2021 in exchange for plaintiff’s prepayment. The contracts each contained identical forum-selection clauses, which identified Milwaukee, Wisconsin as the exclusive forum for any litigation under the contract. On May 12, defendant informed plaintiff that it had made a clerical error and would not fulfill its obligations under the contracts. Defendant did not revoke its repudiation and did not perform under the contracts. Plaintiff hired someone else to transport the motorcycles for the dates and locations described in the contracts with defendant for a total cost of $11,512.62. In June 2022, plaintiff sued defendant in Vermont for breach of contract, violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, and unjust enrichment. Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3) for improper venue, arguing that the forum-selection clauses in the contracts were valid and therefore the complaint should be dismissed for plaintiff to refile in an appropriate court in Milwaukee. Plaintiff countered that defendant anticipatorily repudiated the contracts thereby discharging plaintiff of his duty to comply with the forum-selection clauses. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss without specify the legal basis for the dismissal, concluding merely that dismissal was appropriate because “[p]laintiff, having sued on a contract, [could not] avoid the contract’s forum[-]selection clause.” Finding no reversible error in the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Margolis v. Daily Direct LLC" on Justia Law
Davis v. Davis
Mother appealed a family division’s order denying her motion to permanently suspend father’s parent-child contact with the parties’ minor son. Mother argued the court erred in denying her motion to admit into evidence out-of-court statements made to her and other adults by son when he was four years old that allegedly demonstrated sexual abuse by father. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family court did not abuse its discretion in excluding son’s hearsay statements from the parent-child contact hearing, and therefore affirmed. View "Davis v. Davis" on Justia Law
In re Z.P.
Mother appealed the family division’s order transferring custody of thirteen-year-old Z.P. to father, who was previously the noncustodial parent. In 2020, Z.P. was adjudicated a child in need of care or supervision, for which a case plan was approved with the goal of reunification with mother, who had been the sole custodial parent. Department for Children and Families (DCF) placed Z.P. with his maternal grandmother. In November 2021, DCF determined that it could not fully license grandmother as a foster parent and indicated that it planned to move Z.P. to a different placement. Z.P. and mother moved jointly for a conditional custody order (CCO) transferring custody to grandmother. The State opposed the request. After a hearing, the family division granted the motion in December 2021, but stated that this was a “close call” and indicated that it would reconsider its decision if grandmother failed to work with DCF to exercise protective supervision of Z.P. After a hearing, however, the court found that mother had failed to engage in any aspect of the case plan and lacked insight into the reasons Z.P. was in DCF custody. Further, the Court found that over the course of the case, father had shown that he was committed to caring for Z.P. and was able to do so. Z.P. was accepted in father’s home and had become active and engaged with father’s family. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family division did not err in its findings that it was in Z.P.'s best interests to be placed with his father. View "In re Z.P." 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
Vitale et al. v. Bellows Falls Union High School et al.
Plaintiffs were three sets of parents of schoolchildren who resided in school districts which maintained a public school for at least some grades and did not provide the opportunity for children to attend the public or independent school of their parents’ choice for all grades at the state’s expense. They raised a facial constitutional challenge to Vermont statutes that allowed school districts to choose whether to maintain a public school, permit children to attend an out-of-district public school or an independent school at the state’s expense, or some combination of both. The civil division dismissed parents’ complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vitale et al. v. Bellows Falls Union High School et al." on Justia Law