Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tuition benefits provided by employer are an “other advantage” that constitute part of claimant’s wages for purposes of workers compensation award.

Haller v. Champlain College, 2017 VT 86 [filed 9/29/2017]

ROBINSON, J. The question in this workers’ compensation case is whether employer Champlain College is obligated to include in claimant Kimberly Haller’s average weekly wage calculation the value of tuition-free college credits she earned in accordance with employer’s graduate tuition policy. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor concluded that the tuition benefits provided by employer and used by claimant was an “other advantage” that constituted part of claimant’s wages. 21 V.S.A. § 601(13). We agree and affirm.

EATON, J., dissenting. The tuition benefit at issue in this case is not provided to claimant as part of her remuneration and should not be included in the calculation of claimant’s average weekly wage. The majority’s decision conflicts with the plain language of the Workers’ Compensation Act and with controlling case law, and represents a vast judicial expansion of the definition of wages. For these reasons, I dissent. I am authorized to state that Justice Skoglund joins this dissent

Pre-eviction notice is required under mobile home parks act.

Shires Housing, Inc. v. Brown,2017 VT 60 [filed 7/21/2017]

EATON, J. This interlocutory appeal arises out of a mobile home park eviction in which landlord, Shires Housing, Inc., failed to provide tenant, Carolyn Brown, with written notice of tenancy termination before filing for eviction under the Mobile Home Parks Act. The trial court denied defendant’s Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, ruling that 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a)(3) contains an exception to the notice requirement. Because we conclude that the relevant provision of the Mobile Home Parks Act is ambiguous and because the available tools of statutory interpretation all indicate that the Act requires pre-eviction notice, we reverse.

SKOGLUND, J., dissenting. A co-tenant engaged in drug activity in tenant’s mobile home; this illegal activity substantially violated the lease for the lot where tenant’s mobile home is located. Subsequently, and without providing tenant with written notice of the intent to initiate eviction proceedings, landlord commenced eviction proceedings by filing a complaint against tenant in superior court. Landlord’s action was supported by 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a), which  demonstrates a plain legislative intent to dispense with notice when a leaseholder commits a substantial violation of the lease terms. I dissent

SCOVT interprets zoning ordinance and permit conditions de novo, without deference to environmental court.

In re Confluence Behavioral Health, LLC. , .2017 VT 112 [filed 12/8/2017]

EATON, J. The Environmental Division approved the issuance of a conditional use permit for Confluence Behavioral Health, LLC’s proposed community therapeutic residence in Thetford. A group of neighbors appeal the decision. Neighbors contend that the Environmental Division improperly concluded that Confluence’s therapeutic community residence (the Project) was a health care facility, and thus was an allowed conditional use under the Thetford zoning ordinance. We affirm.

Applying our own statutory interpretation to the evidence, we affirm the Environmental Division’s determination that Confluence’s therapeutic community residence is a “health care facility” under the Thetford Zoning Bylaws and, as such, is an allowed conditional use in Thetford’s Rural Residential area.

We review zoning ordinances and municipal permit conditions according to the principles of statutory construction. Wagner & Guay, 2016 VT 96, ¶ 11. We approach the interpretation of such ordinances and permits as a legal question that we resolve without deference to the trial court. See In re Treetop Dev. Co. Act 250 Dev., 2016 VT 20, ¶ 9, ___ Vt. ___, 143 A.3d 1086 (stating that this Court proceeds “with a nondeferential, on-the-record review” of issues of law and statutory interpretation); see also In re Jenness & Berrie, 2008 VT 117, ¶ 26, 185 Vt. 16, 968 A.2d 316 (“To the extent that the setback issues raises questions of law, our review is de novo.”).

To the extent that we have suggested otherwise in prior decisions, we overrule those statements We now overrule prior cases which afforded deference to the Environmental Division’s interpretation of a permit condition or a local zoning ordinance. Henceforth, we will review the Environmental Division’s interpretation of permit conditions and local zoning ordinances without deference.

Landlord/ tenant. SCOVT affirms no-pet policy. Although tenant was entitled to an emotional assistance animal, reasonable accommodations did not extend to the specific animal .

Gill Terrace Retirement Apartments, Inc. v. Johnson, 2017 VT 88 [filed 10/6/2017] 

SKOGLUND, J. Tenant Marie Johnson appeals the trial court’s conclusion that she violated two material terms of her residential rental agreement: a “no-smoking” policy and a “no pets” policy. We affirm based on the no-pets violation. The court did not err in concluding that tenant was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a specific emotional support animal. Given our holding, we find it unnecessary to address whether the court erred in finding that tenant violated the no-smoking policy

We acknowledge tenant’s attachment to Dutchess and her need for an emotional support animal, but the court properly weighed the evidence regarding Dutchess’s aggressive behavior against landlord’s concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the other residents. As a result, we conclude that the court did not err in affirming landlord’s denial of tenant’s reasonable accommodation request because the evidence established that Dutchess posed a threat to others and that Dutchess would cause substantial physical damages to the property.. We affirm the court's conclusion that, although tenant was entitled to an emotional assistance animal, reasonable accommodations did not extend to the specific animal Dutchess.


Civil procedure. Sanctions. SCOVT reverses sanction against mortgagee for repeatedly filing foreclosure actions and failing to prosecute them to completion.

Provident Funding Associates, LP v. Campney, 2017 VT 120  [filed 12/22/2017]

REIBER, C.J. Senior mortgagee appeals the trial court’s order dismissing junior mortgagee as a defendant from senior mortgagee’s fourth foreclosure action against mortgagors. The trial court determined that junior mortgagee was entitled to dismissal as an equitable remedy because senior mortgagee had imposed unnecessary costs on junior mortgagee by repeatedly filing foreclosure actions against defendants and failing to prosecute them to completion. The court’s order had the effect of reordering the priority of mortgages, making senior mortgagee’s interest second in priority to that of junior mortgagee. We reverse and remand for the court to consider monetary sanctions, such as attorney’s fees, as an alternative sanction.

The central question posed by this appeal is whether the court appropriately invoked equitable authority to dismiss junior mortgagee as a defendant as a penalty for senior mortgagee’s conduct in the prior foreclosure actions. The power to impose dismissal as a sanction must be exercised sparingly. This is because “the law favors disposition of cases on their merits.”. Furthermore, “sanctions against litigants should be proportionate to their offenses.” For this reason, we have held that “[t]he use of a dismissal sanction is proper only if the court finds that the defendant would be prejudiced by anything less than dismissal.”

We conclude that the litigation approach employed by senior mortgagee warranted sanction, but the court’s dismissal of senior mortgagee’s claim against junior mortgagee was erroneous. The court should have considered imposing monetary or other less drastic sanctions before proceeding to the extreme sanction of dismissal.

Because mortgagors did not cross-appeal, we do not reach their argument raised in their brief that the trial court should revise its judgment decree for foreclosure and recompute any sums due.. See See Huddleston v. Univ. of Vt., 168 Vt. 249, 255, 719 A.2d 415, 419 (1998) (“An appellee seeking to challenge aspects of a trial court’s decision must file a timely cross-appeal …”).

The trial court was within its discretion in deciding to impose some form of sanction. However, the trial court’s dismissal of senior mortgagee’s action against junior mortgagee was an unsustainable exercise of its inherent authority to discipline litigants and attorneys for their conduct. We therefore reverse the trial court’s order dismissing junior mortgagee as a defendant and remand the action for the trial court to consider monetary sanctions against senior mortgagee

Town is equitably estopped from enforcing its zoning regulations, even though third party rights at stake.

In re Langlois, 2017 VT 76 [filed 8/25/2017]

EATON, J. This appeal involves a dispute between two neighbors—Gary Langlois and Michael Heller—over the construction of an open structure called a pergola on the shore of Lake Champlain in Swanton. The Environmental Division consolidated three related proceedings concerning this dispute and concluded that the Town of Swanton was equitably estopped from enforcing its zoning regulations and that the pergola, which did not comply with those regulations, could remain. We affirm.

The equitable estoppel doctrine has four elements: (1) the party being estopped must know the relevant facts; (2) the party being estopped must intend that his or her conduct be acted upon; (3) the party asserting estoppel must be ignorant of the true facts; and (4) the party asserting estoppel must rely to his or her detriment on the estopped party's representations.

Additionally, where, as here, the party against whom estoppel is sought is the government, the party asserting estoppel must also demonstrate that "the injustice that would result from denying the estoppel outweighs the negative impact on public policy that would result from applying estoppel." The doctrine must be applied with great caution when the party against whom estoppel is sought is the government, but when a government agent acts within that agent's authority, it is a defense that must be available. Vt. N. Props., 2014 VT 73, ¶ 26.

The court below reasoned that although estoppel against the government is rarely an appropriate remedy, it was justified in this case because the zoning administrator knew sufficient facts to make an informed and correct decision about whether a permit was needed, the zoning administrator intended his opinion to be acted upon, Langlois did not know a zoning permit was required, and Langlois acted to his detriment on the information he received.

The court further concluded that to not estop the government would result in an injustice.

We agree with the trial court that the zoning administrator had knowledge of the facts sufficient to know that a zoning permit was required for the pergola and that he gave his opinion knowing that Mr. Langlois would act upon it, that Langlois did not know the true facts and that Langlois relied to his detriment on the zoning administrator's advice

Where the elements are shown we have permitted estoppel against the government in a variety of circumstances See Vt. N. Props., 2014 VT 73, ¶ 34 (holding that injustice would result if government were not estopped from revoking permit where village made representations to property development that village was holding necessary water in reserve for development); Lyon, 2005 VT 63, ¶ 23 (holding that permit applicant made sufficient showing to estop ANR from revoking wastewater permit); Stevens v. Dept. of Soc. Welfare, 159 Vt. 408, 421-23, 620 A.2d 737, 744 (1992) (government estopped from denying retroactive application of benefits where agent provided patients inaccurate information about healthcare billing); My Sister's Place, 139 Vt. at 609, 433 A.2d at 279-80 (city estopped from enforcing building code regulations where City Fire Marshall acting within his authority invited citizen to rely on an inaccurate interpretation of regulations).

We agree with the Environmental Division that the equities weigh in favor of estopping the Town's enforcement of the zoning regulations., Langlois reasonably relied on information Kilburn provided to him and he spent over $33,000 based upon that information. Kilburn was the proper person to whom Langlois should have directed his questions. The inquiry itself was reasonable. Were we to not estop the government in this instance, we would be hard-pressed to tell Langlois, or any other citizen in the Town, what Langlois was required to do differently than what he did here.

SKOGLUND, J., dissenting. I cannot agree that Langlois’s monetary damages outweigh Heller’s reliance on the proper administration of the Town of Swanton’s zoning laws, which were enacted to prevent the harm. If the harm to Heller’s property and, by extension, the Town’s citizens’ faith in their zoning laws does not outweigh or, at the least, equal the cost of removing a pergola, this Court should remove the fifth factor from the test for asserting equitable estoppel against the government, for that factor is all bark and no bite. I dissent. I do not believe that the application of equitable estoppel should injure an innocent third party, particularly where the third party relies on proper municipal governance of the laws. I am authorized to state that Justice Robinson joins this dissent.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Statute of limitations bars claim for roof defects as a matter of law, even if claimant did not yet understand the full extent of the problem, where undisputed facts show claimant had notice that something was wrong with the roof more than six years prior to suit.

Abajian v.TruexCullins, Inc., 2017 VT 74 [filed 8/25/2017]

EATON, J. Plaintiffs had a new roof installed on their home in 2001. In 2014, after the roof turned out to be defective, plaintiffs sued the architecture and construction firms that designed and installed the roof for negligence and breach of contract. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on the ground that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. The court ruled no reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs “were not on inquiry notice of some roof defect by 2005.” We now affirm.

A civil action must “be commenced within six years after the cause of action accrues.” 12 V.S.A. § 511. A cause of action accrues upon discovery of facts constituting the basis of the cause of action or the existence of facts sufficient to put a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence on inquiry which, if pursued, would lead to the discovery.

Plaintiffs contend that the issue of when their claims accrued was a question of fact that was for the jury rather than the trial court to decide, and that a jury could find there was nothing to put them on inquiry notice regarding the condition of the roof until they experienced major leaks during the winter of 2012-13.

However, the question here is not when plaintiffs discovered the true nature of the roof defect, but when sufficient facts existed that would have led a reasonable person to begin the investigation that would lead to the discovery. Courts have not hesitated to grant summary judgment where the undisputed facts show that plaintiffs were aware of sufficient facts to put them on inquiry notice of a roof defect, even if they did not yet understand the full extent of the problem.

We agree with the trial court that, by 2005, plaintiffs were aware of facts sufficient to lead any reasonable homeowner to investigate the condition of the roof. At that point, they had already experienced a major, unprecedented leak that was severe enough for them to file an insurance claim. Rust spots had begun to appear. The ice damming problem, which the metal roof was supposed to mitigate, was worse than ever. Plaintiffs themselves stated that by 2005, the roof was not living up to their expectations and was “failing”.

There is no genuine dispute regarding these facts, which were sufficient to place a reasonable person on notice that something was wrong with the roof. These facts were sufficient as a matter of law for plaintiffs’ claims against defendants to accrue at that time.