Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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In this case, the plaintiffs, Stowe Aviation, LLC and Stowe Airport Investment, LP, appealed from a denial of their motion to reopen a breach-of-contract case with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The plaintiffs had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Agency in 2014, outlining their intention to develop and expand the Morrisville-Stowe State Airport using funds secured through the EB-5 program. However, the Agency later transferred its obligations under the MOU to the Department of Financial Regulation (DFR) without informing the plaintiffs, leading to the failure of the airport project.The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Agency, alleging that the Agency breached its contract by failing to perform under the MOU and by transferring its obligations to the DFR without notice. The trial court dismissed the claims, and the case was closed. The plaintiffs then moved to reopen the case and amend their complaint, but the trial court denied their motion. The plaintiffs appealed this order.The Supreme Court of Vermont reversed the order and remanded the case, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying the plaintiffs' motion to reopen the case. The Supreme Court reasoned that plaintiffs could potentially obtain relief to cure a pleading deficiency under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), and it was inappropriate for the trial court to deny relief simply because plaintiffs did not request leave to amend in their opposition papers before the court entered judgment. On remand, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a valid basis to vacate the previously entered judgment to prevent manifest injustice before they can file their amended complaint. View "Stowe Aviation, LLC et al. v. Agency of Commerce & Community Development" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Vermont Public Utility Commission approving a contract under 30 V.S.A. § 248(i) for the purchase of out-of-state renewable natural gas by Vermont Gas Systems, Inc. (VGS). The contract, which was proposed to last for fourteen-and-a-half years, required VGS to purchase a minimum volume of renewable natural gas that would be produced and transported from a landfill in New York. The contract was part of VGS's efforts to invest in nonfossil gas and incorporate renewable natural gas into its gas supply to meet regulatory requirements and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.The appellant, Catherine Bock, a ratepaying customer of VGS, challenged the Commission's findings with respect to the contract’s contribution towards satisfying emissions reductions under the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. Bock also disputed the Commission’s finding that the contract, with a condition imposed by the Commission, would comply with least-cost planning principles.The court rejected Bock's arguments, finding that the Commission's conclusions were supported by the evidence in the record and were not clearly erroneous. The court noted that the contract was only one of VGS's strategies to reduce emissions pursuant to the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. It also pointed out that there was sufficient evidence to support the Commission's determination that the contract was cost-effective and consistent with least-cost planning principles. View "In re Petition of Vermont Gas Systems, Inc." on Justia Law

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In the case, Maple Run Unified School District (the District) appealed a trial court order which granted the Vermont Human Rights Commission (the Commission) a motion to dismiss the District’s complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The dispute arose from a complaint of sexual harassment filed by a student in the District. The student's mother later filed a complaint with the Commission alleging that the District failed to comply with the Vermont Public Accommodations Act (VPAA), the anti-harassment provisions in Title 16, and the school’s own policy. The Commission decided to investigate the matter. The District filed a motion with the Commission to dismiss the investigation, arguing that federal regulations preempted Title 16 and the complaint failed to state a prima facie case of discrimination under the VPAA. The Commission denied the District’s motion and decided to continue the investigation. The District then filed a Rule 75 petition in the civil division against the Commission, which the Commission moved to dismiss arguing that there was no cognizable avenue for relief under Rule 75 and the superior court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to review the petition. The court dismissed the District’s complaint. The District appealed claiming that subject-matter jurisdiction had been established under Rule 75 via either mandamus or prohibition. The Supreme Court of Vermont held that the Commission’s determination that the complaint states a prima facie case of discrimination under the VPAA is not reviewable under Rule 75 via either mandamus or prohibition, and therefore, the superior court did not err in dismissing the District’s petition. View "Maple Run Unified School District v. Vermont Human Rights Commission" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Allco Renewable Energy Limited appealed a Vermont Public Utility Commission denial of its request for a certificate of public good (CPG) to construct a solar energy project in Bennington, Vermont. Under Vermont law, a company desiring to build an in-state electric generation facility may not begin site preparation or construction unless the Commission “first finds that the [project] will promote the general good of the State and issues a certificate to that effect.” Under the test used by the Commission, an adverse impact on aesthetics is undue if it “violate[s] a clear, written community standard intended to preserve the aesthetics or scenic, natural beauty of the area.” In 2015, petitioner applied for a CPG to construct a 2.0-megawatt solar electric generation facility. The project site was in a Rural Conservation District as defined in the Bennington Town Plan. The plan stated that development in Rural Conservation Districts “cannot be sited in prominently visible locations on hillsides or ridgelines.” Appellee Apple Hill Homeowners Association (AHHA) intervened in the CPG proceeding, as did the Town of Bennington. The Town initially argued that petitioner should not be granted a CPG because the project would violate clear, written community standards in the Town Plan, and would therefore interfere with the orderly development of the region and have an undue adverse impact on aesthetics. The Town later changed its position, voting not to oppose the project, and withdrew from the proceeding. Based in part on the Town’s decision not to oppose the project, the hearing officer issued a proposal for decision recommending the Commission conclude the project would not violate any written community standard, and would therefore not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region or have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics. The Commission adopted the hearing officer’s findings and issued petitioner a CPG. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, finding the Commission's conclusion was only based on the Town's decision not to oppose the project. The case was remanded to the Commission, who assigned it to a new hearing officer, who then reversed the prior decision, finding the project would therefore unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region and have an undue adverse impact on aesthetics. Ultimately the Commission concurred with this decision. Petitioner moved for reconsideration, which the Commission denied. The Supreme Court affirmed the Commission's last decision on this matter, upholding the denial of a CPG. View "In re Petition of Apple Hill Solar LLC" on Justia Law

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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

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Claimant Semir Mahmutovic appealed a Vermont Department of Labor decision concluding that claimant’s prior employer was not obligated to reimburse claimant for lost wages under 21 V.S.A. § 640(c), and that the statute was not unconstitutional as applied to claimant. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that claimant conceded that the Commissioner properly interpreted § 640(c), and further concluded that claimant did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of § 640(c). View "Mahmutovic v. Washington County Mental Health Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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J.N. was born in August 2013. On the eve of J.N.’s eighth birthday in August 2021, the State filed a petition alleging that J.N. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) due to lack of proper parental care (CHINS- B) after an incident during which mother had dragged J.N. by her arms, causing bruises. The court transferred temporary custody to the Department for Children and Families (DCF). After a series of subsequent incidents at school and home, a trial court issued a disposition order that continued custody of J.N. with DCF, with a goal of reunification with her mother by June 2023. Mother appealed the CHINS disposition, Mother argued the State essentially used a CHINS petition to advance a claim of abuse, and that by accepting that framing, the trial court deprived her of notice and interpreted the statute in a manner that was unconstitutionally over broad. The Vermont Supreme Court determine the trial court’s findings did not fit the theory charged by the State. To the extent the State asked the Supreme Court to affirm the CHINS determination based on a theory of abuse, the Court agreed with Mother that this would create a problem of notice. Accordingly, the disposition was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "In re J.N." on Justia Law

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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

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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

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Mother appealed a trial court’s determination that C.C. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). She argued that the court erred in admitting certain hearsay statements by C.C. concerning alleged sexual abuse by mother’s boyfriend. The Vermont Supreme Court did not reach mother’s arguments because, even excluding this evidence, the court’s decision was amply supported by its remaining findings. Therefore, judgment was affirmed. View "In re C.C." on Justia Law