Friday, November 27, 2015

Boathouse Blowback

LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112

By Andrew Delaney

I’ve always thought that lakefront property is really nice. But from what I can gather from this case, it can be a giant pain in the arse.

Here’s the skinny on this little slice of heaven on Lake Memphremagog. Mr. LeBlanc (Dad or occupant) and his three kids are the neighbors and the plaintiffs. Mr. Snelgrove is the landowner and the defendant. At least that’s how the SCOV sets it up. I’m too lazy to reinvent the wheel here.

At any rate, there are these two closely related disputes. First, there’s Mr. Snelgrove’s replacement of his boathouse and construction of retaining walls that encroached on the neighbors’ property. There’re injunctions and trespass damages going on there. Second, there’s Dad’s vandalism of the disputed boathouse. 

So the kids own a lakeshore property (deeded to them from mom and dad) and Dad lives there. Mr. Snelgrove’s property is immediately to the north.

Starting in 2006, Mr. Snelgrove took down the “old boathouse” and built a “new boathouse” and some new retaining walls. I’ve read the description of what was constructed. It confuses me, and I conclude that there aren’t enough pictures used in judicial opinions. It seems that the new retaining walls diverted a stream that went under the old boathouse previously and the new boathouse may have gone onto the LeBlancs’ property. “Whether the back of the new boathouse extends onto the LeBlanc property, and the extent to which the retaining walls encroach onto the LeBlanc property, were subjects of dispute.” The LeBlancs said there was encroachment and Mr. Snelgrove claimed that any expansion was within the border of the properties. Everyone agreed that portions of the new retaining walls encroached on the LeBlancs’ property, but “the significance of that fact was very much in dispute.”

So the LeBlancs sued Mr. Snelgrove (while their challenge to Mr. Snelgrove’s zoning permit was pending in environmental court) alleging that: (1) the new construction (boathouse and walls) encroached on their property; (2) Mr. Snelgrove had cut off a spring screwing with their spring and water rights; and (3) Mr. Snelgrove’s alteration of drainage was causing unpermitted drainage on their property. They went for a declaration of the boundary between the two properties. They asked for damages, injunctive relief, removal of the encroaching structures and restoration of the land, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.

Mr. Snelgrove shot back with a counterclaim. He claimed that almost all the construction was on his property, and that any encroaching construction was necessary for lateral support for both properties. He also sought a declaration of the boundary between the two properties. In addition, he claimed various acts of vandalism by Dad LeBlanc, and sought injunctive relief for trespass and to prevent the LeBlancs from messing with the retaining walls. Both sides requested a jury trial.

After a bunch of pretrial discovery, the trial court determined that Dad didn’t have standing for the property claims and removed him as a plaintiff. That didn’t affect Mr. Snelgrove’s third-party claims against Dad, though. The LeBlancs moved to sever the Dad-trespassing claims from the other claims. The trial court initially denied that motion.

But there was various maneuvering and in the end, the trial court kinda bifurcated things—as far as I can tell, the plan was to have a bench trial on the boundary issue, then send the rest of it to the jury. There was halfhearted agreement from counsel, though neither waived jury trial.

Testimony started sneaking in (over objections) about the trespass claims and defenses, including the LeBlancs’ apparent acquiescence during the construction phase. Eventually, right before the scheduled jury trial, the trial court ended up ruling that almost all the construction was on Mr. Snelgrove’s property and that the encroaching wall was all good because dad had acted as the LeBlancs’ agent during construction and there was an easement that the court read as allowing it all. Also, the LeBlancs were equitably estopped from challenging the construction.

The LeBlancs were all like, “Hey, hey, hey . . . just hold on a second, here!” They filed a motion for reconsideration arguing that the trial court was just supposed to decide where the boundary was, not all this stuff that they hadn’t tried. The court denied the motion, reasoning that the request for injunctive relief required mixed findings of fact and law, so that the court was within its power to make the findings it did.

The case went to jury trial but only on Mr. Snelgrove’s trespass and related claims against dad. “The most significant of the trespass claims was that Herman LeBlanc had used a chain saw to carve into the walls and roof of Snelgrove’s newly built boathouse along what Herman LeBlanc asserted was the boundary line between the parties’ properties.” The court wouldn’t allow a vicarious liability claim against the kids (on the basis that dad was acting as an agent) and also didn’t let Mr. Snelgrove make dad testify because dad was facing criminal charges for the same behavior.

The jury came back with a $12.6K-compensatory-damages-and-$25K-punitive-damages verdict.

While the jury was deliberating, the trial court did a mini bench trial on the spring-rights and drainage-trespass-damages claims. Because the latter required a yet-to-be-completed survey in conjunction with the boundary ruling, the “court granted the LeBlancs’ request to reserve taking further evidence on this issue until after the survey and more precise ruling as to the boundary line.” The further-evidence thing never happened, though, and the court issued its final ruling with the survey attached.

So the LeBlancs moved for a new trial, renewing their rulings-exceeded-the-scope-and-deprived-them-of-a-jury-trial argument. Mr. Snelgrove filed a request for fees and costs, a motion to clarify the boundary ruling, and “proposed findings and conclusions with respect to the spring issue.” The court denied the LeBlancs’ motion and Mr. Snelgrove’s request for fees (but allowed costs); granted Mr. Snelgrove’s motion to clarify and ordered him, to submit a proposed order, and apparently just ignored the spring issue.

The LeBlancs appealed and Mr. Snelgrove filed a provisional appeal pending final ruling. Several months later, the trial court issued a final order as prepared by Mr. Snelgrove. The order offered a lot of reasoning why the retaining walls weren’t a trespass and ultimately concluded that the easement’s “broad wording encompasses all retaining walls and associated structures reasonably necessary to repair or replace the boathouse.” The order didn’t deal with the spring-rights issue.

The SCOV notes at the outset that the LeBlancs don’t challenge the trial court’s setting of the boundary. I read the discussion there as a why-the-hell-didn’t-you-challenge-THAT message from the SCOV. Boundary litigators take note.

The LeBlancs raise three issues on appeal: (1) the trial court’s the-easment-language-is-broad-enough-to-cover-premantent-concrete-structures-on-their-property conclusion was wrong; (2) the trial court’s deprivation of their right to a jury trial on several claims wrong; and (3) Mr. Snelgrove shouldn’t have been able to use equitable estoppel as a defense because he had unclean hands. That last sentence is way too lawyerly for my liking. Dad LeBlanc also argues that in relation to the trespass claims, he can’t be bound by the trial court’s boundary determination when he wasn’t a party to that proceeding.

For his part, Mr. Snelgrove cross-appeals and: (1) challenges the denial of his fees requests; (2) “raises two issues to be addressed only in the event of a remand and retrial of his claims against Herman LeBlanc”; (3) asks where in Sam Hill is my costs order; (4) requests a spring-rights order like the proposed order he filed.

The SCOV first deals with the easement issue. Mr. Snelgrove’s deed references the land where the boathouse sits (or rather sat) and “the right to use the surrounding land to repair the same.” The trial court figured that language was broad enough to cover all the construction.

The proper construction of a deed is a question of law, which means the SCOV can pooh-pooh the trial court’s findings to its heart’s desire. The SCOV runs through the case law and notes that in interpreting a deed, one starts with plain language and goes to limited extrinsic evidence when a deed term is ambiguous.

No ambiguity here, says the SCOV. While Mr. Snelgrove could’ve done a lot of stuff under the deed language, demolishing and rebuilding a new boathouse in a different spot with all kinds of whistles and bells doesn’t fall under that “repair” language. So as far as the conclusion that the retaining wall wasn’t a trespass was based on the easement interpretation, that can’t stand.

The SCOV next turns to the trial court’s Dad LeBlanc-acted-as-agent-and-consented-to the construction determination. The LeBlancs argue that this was inappropriate and denied them their right to trial by jury on this issue. The trial judge basically said, “These were equitable claims so no jury trial for you!

“The Vermont Constitution describes the right to trial by jury as ‘sacred.’”

You’re damn right it does.

When claims are solely equitable, however, a jury isn’t needed; when claims are “at law” there’s a right to a jury trial. If that’s not confusing, I don’t know what is. Essentially, the distinction stems from the English legal system (on which our system is based). Traditionally, legal claims are tried to a jury. The jury finds the facts and applies the law—whether the law is right or wrong. In equitable proceedings, there’s more discretion and the judge is allowed to fashion a remedy based on the respective merits of the parties. That’s grossly oversimplified and under-nuanced, so if you still need some clarification, you can read this. Then everything should be about as clear as mud.

Anyway, the SCOV notes, “Actions for recovery of possession of real property and for damage to property were historically actions at law.” This means that their claims for ejectment, unlawful mischief, and trespass should’ve gotten a jury trial.

The SCOV acknowledges the trial court’s reasoning that the injunctive relief sought by both parties was equitable in nature, but points out that there’s a rule of civil procedure (39 for you citation buffs) that covers this situation, and that if there’s going to be a bifurcated trial, the jury needs to go first so that the jury-trial right is preserved. The SCOV says, “In other words, where a case involves both legal and equitable claims, the jury verdict must come first, after which the court may issue findings on the equitable claims that must be consistent with the jury verdict.”

There’s a discussion about how the trial court ought not to have flipped that process. The SCOV acknowledges that the court would’ve had to make some factual findings either way, but reasons that the trial court “erred in failing to recognize that those same facts were integral to the claims for legal relief with respect to which the LeBlancs were clearly entitled to trial by jury, as they had requested.”

Mr. Snelgrove attempts to argue that the LeBalncs waived their right to a jury trial, but the SCOV is not swayed in the least. On his the-trial-court’s-decision-was-a-product-of-the-LeBlancs’-bifurcation-request argument, the SCOV opines, “Snelgrove is mixing apples and oranges.” The LeBlancs wanted to “try one set of jury issues separate from the other” not give the trial judge the keys to the family car.

The SCOV concludes that the trial court screwed up when it denied the LeBlancs their right to a jury trial on their legal claims.

The SCOV next turns to the equitable-estoppel issue and the LeBlancs’ unclean-hands argument. Equitable estoppel basically acts as a bar to a claim that’s at odds with prior action or conduct. If I asked you to come over to my house, then accused you of trespassing, that’d be pretty funny, but I’d also most likely be equitably estopped from making that trespass claim.

The SCOV doesn’t get to the merits of the claim and defense because there were jury questions here too and the trial court screwed up by finding facts that it was the jury’s job to find.

Having disposed of the last rationale for the trial court’s ruling, the SCOV reverses and sends it back, noting that the “ejectment, trespass, and unlawful-mischief claims and associated defenses” must be tried to a jury, with the trial court making its rulings on the equitable issues after and consistently with the jury’s verdict.

Dad LeBlanc tries to argue that because he wasn’t a party in the boundary-issue part of the trial, and the verdict rests in part on that determination, the verdict against him can’t stand. The SCOV starts going through all the times Dad LeBlanc didn’t object and it’s pretty clear where we’re headed. The SCOV concludes that this is a first-time-on-appeal argument and therefore doesn’t get into it. The verdict against Dad stands.

Mr. Snelgrove appeals the denial of his fees request. The basis is that he made a claim for unlawful mischief, which includes a provision for attorney’s fees. The problem with the rationale—and we’re just going to cut to the chase here—is that the unlawful-mischief claim never went to the jury. There was no instruction on the claim (just trespass) and there was no objection by Mr. Snelgrove below regarding the lack of an unlawful-mischief instruction. So, the SCOV reasons that the denial was within the trial court’s jurisdiction and affirms.

Two issues raised in the event of a reversal and remand (whether Mr. Snelgrove can have Dad LeBlanc testify and whether the kids are vicariously liable for Dad’s actions) don’t go anywhere because the SCOV isn’t reversing the jury verdict and award. On the request for costs, the SCOV tells the trial court to issue the order.

Finally, the SCOV deals with the spring-rights issue. Mr. Snelgrove wants the SCOV to tell the trial court to issue the order he prepared. The SCOV reasons that the issue was raised and tried and the court needs to make a decision on the point, but the court isn’t bound by Mr. Snelgrove’s proposal. The SCOV pretty much says, “Go make your arguments, kids.”

So, to recap: (1) the boundary stands; (2) the trespass, ejectment, and unlawful mischief claims go back for jury trial (and court follow-up); (3) Dad LeBlanc is on the hook for trespass; and (4) the fee-petition denial is affirmed. On remand, the court needs to deal with the award of costs and the claims that were pled and tried but never decided.

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