Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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
Haupt, et al. v. Triggs, et al.
This appeal stemmed from third-party claims in a legal-malpractice action. Plaintiffs Gail Haupt and Thomas Raftery filed suit against defendant, attorney Daniel Triggs, who represented plaintiffs in a property dispute. Triggs filed a third-party complaint for contribution and indemnification against third-party defendants, Liam Murphy, Elizabeth Filosa, and MSK Attorneys, who succeeded Triggs as counsel to plaintiffs in the property matter. Plaintiffs hired Triggs to represent them in a land-ownership dispute with their neighbors. Triggs took certain actions on behalf of plaintiffs, including sending a letter in 2016 to neighbors asserting that neighbors were encroaching on plaintiffs’ land and threatening litigation against neighbors, but never filed a lawsuit on plaintiffs’ behalf. In 2018, neighbors filed a lawsuit against plaintiffs asserting ownership over the disputed land by adverse possession, and plaintiffs hired third-party defendants to represent them. The adverse-possession lawsuit eventually settled. Plaintiffs then filed this malpractice action against Triggs, alleging that he was liable for legal malpractice by allowing 12 V.S.A. § 501’s statute of limitations for recovery of lands to run without filing an ejectment suit against neighbors, thereby enabling neighbors to bring an adverse-possession claim. Third-party defendants moved to dismiss Triggs’s complaint, and the civil division granted their motion. Triggs appealed this dismissal. The Vermont Supreme Court determined Triggs did not allege that any legal relationship—contractual or otherwise— existed between him and third-party defendants, and the civil division found that no legal relationship existed between the two parties. Instead, Triggs alleged that third-party defendants’ independent actions caused plaintiffs’ injury. The Court determined this is not a basis for implied indemnity. Accordingly, the judgment was affirmed. View "Haupt, et al. v. Triggs, et al." on Justia Law
Rodrigue v. Illuzzi
Plaintiff Roger Rodrigue claimed defendant Attorney Vincent Illuzzi negligently advised plaintiff to sign a Vermont workers’ compensation settlement that contained a general release barring recovery otherwise available from the third-party who injured him. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal of the entire original complaint for failure to state a claim, grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant on an amended legal-malpractice claim, and denial of plaintiff’s request for findings following summary judgment. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Rodrigue v. Illuzzi" on Justia Law
The Estate of Richard S. Daniels, by and through Julie Lyford in her capacity as Executor et al.
Plaintiff Richard Daniels appealed a trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Attorney James Goss, Attorney Matthew Hart, and law firm Facey Goss & McPhee P.C. (FGM), arguing the court erred when it concluded he could not prove defendants caused his injury as a matter of law. Defendants represented plaintiff in a state environmental enforcement action where he was found liable for a hazardous-waste contamination on his property. On appeal, plaintiff claimed defendants failed to properly raise two dispositive defenses: the statute of limitations and proportional liability. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiff would not have prevailed on either defense if raised and therefore affirmed the grant of judgment to defendants. View "The Estate of Richard S. Daniels, by and through Julie Lyford in her capacity as Executor et al." on Justia Law
Aguiar v. Williams
Plaintiff-client Stephen Aguiar claimed attorney David Williams failed to turn over files related to plaintiff’s 2009 criminal prosecution. The civil division of the superior court granted summary judgment in favor of attorney, and client appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court held client owned the entire contents of the file, subject to certain exceptions. The Court agreed with the trial court that attorney had substantial grounds to refuse to disclose certain materials to client, and that client failed to demonstrate an ownership interest in an iPod containing recordings of wiretap evidence However, the Court concluded summary judgment was premature regarding two issues: whether client was entitled to a paper copy of the discovery file that attorney allegedly created for use at trial, and whether client has been provided with certain trial exhibits. The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings on those issues. View "Aguiar v. Williams" on Justia Law
In re Grundstein
Robert Grundstein appealed the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners’ determination that he failed to establish his eligibility for admission to the Vermont bar in connection with his 2019 application for admission by examination. He argued that, for numerous reasons, the Board erred in evaluating his application pursuant to the Rules of Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court in effect at the time his application was submitted. After its review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the Board correctly applied the Rules and affirmed. View "In re Grundstein" on Justia Law
In re Lewis Y. Birt
Applicant Lewis Birt successfully completed Vermont’s Law Office Study (LOS) Program in April 2000. Thereafter, applicant sat for the Vermont bar exam four times between 2002 and 2004, failing each time. In July 2019, applicant filed an application with the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners (BBE) to sit for the February 2020 bar exam. Licensing Counsel reviewed the application and raised concerns about both the length of time between applicant’s completion of the LOS Program, the 2019 application, and the number of applicant’s prior unsuccessful examination attempts. In light of those concerns, Licensing Counsel asked applicant if he wished to go forward with the application. Applicant elected to do so, and, in November 2019, supplied additional information directed at the concerns Licensing Counsel raised. At its December 2019 meeting, the BBE decided to deny applicant’s request to sit for the 2020 bar examination. In doing so, it relied on Rule of Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court 9(b)(1), which requires an applicant to sit for the bar exam within five years of completing the LOS Program unless the time is extended for good cause, and Rule 9(b)(4), which limits an applicant to four attempts to pass the examination unless the BBE waives the limitation upon a proper showing. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with the BBE's finding that there was no cause to extend the five-year limit. Since his last exam in 2004, applicant worked as a musician, church residential real-estate manager, paralegal studies teacher for a for=profit school, and as a court reporter. Absent a waiver, applicant was deemed ineligible to sit for the 2020 bar examination because he did not meet the requirements of Rule 9(b)(1), and the Supreme Court concurred his application was properly denied. View "In re Lewis Y. Birt" on Justia Law
Palmer v. Furlan
Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law
In re Ahmed M. Hamid-Ahmed
Applicant Ahmed Hamid-Ahmed appealed a Vermont Board of Bar Examiners (Board) denying his application to take the Vermont bar exam. Applicant has a bachelor’s degree with a major in criminal justice and a Master of Laws degree (LLM) from Widener University School of Law. However, he does not have a Juris Doctor (JD) or a substantially equivalent law degree from a foreign or domestic non-approved law school, he has not enrolled in a law office study program, and he has not been admitted to any other bar, foreign or domestic. Despite this, applicant argues that he is eligible to take the bar exam under Vermont Rule of Admission to the Bar 8(c)(4)’s “curing provision” by virtue of his LLM. He further argues that the Board violated his due process rights when it denied his application but did not explicitly notify him of the process for appealing that decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. Because appellant did not meet the requirements outlined in the Vermont Rules of Admission to the Bar, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Ahmed M. Hamid-Ahmed" on Justia Law