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Chandler v. Town of Newfane

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 14, 2015

Charles Chandler
v.
Town of Newfane and Doris Knechtel, Individually and as employee of Town of Newfane

Editorial Note:

This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter.

Appeal from: Superior Court, Windham Civ. Division. DOCKET NO. 270-6-13 Wmcv. Trial Judge: Mary M. Teachout.

Reiber, C.J., Dooley and Skoglund, JJ.

OPINION

ENTRY ORDER

In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

Plaintiff Charles Chandler appeals pro se from the trial court's order granting summary judgment to defendants. We affirm.

Plaintiff filed a complaint against defendants in June 2013. He alleged that defendants " unfairly and unlawfully" denied him permits to repair buildings on his property and wrongly classified his property as " industrial." Plaintiff sought $1,000,000 in damages. In September 2013, plaintiff moved for summary judgment in his favor. The court denied the motion in January 2014, finding that plaintiff failed to comply with the requirements of Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The court also denied plaintiff's motion for sanctions, discussed in greater detail below. The parties subsequently filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

Following oral argument, the court issued an October 2014 decision on five pending motions, including the cross-motions for summary judgment. The court explained that plaintiff's claims arose primarily out of the land use permitting history of his real property and the way in which the town had assessed his property for tax purposes. Plaintiff sought money damages based on his claim that the town had engaged in unlawful acts and omissions, causing him damages. Plaintiff sought compensation for the loss of the use of and physical injury to his real and personal property, loss of income, and the effects of the allegedly incorrect assessment. Plaintiff raised no claims against Doris Knechtel, a town lister, in her individual capacity.

The court first addressed plaintiff's motion for sanctions. Plaintiff claimed that he had appeared on February 18, 2014 for a deposition scheduled by defendants' attorney, but the attorney was not present at the time and place scheduled. Plaintiff stated that he drove 255 miles to be at the deposition. He sought monetary compensation and the preclusion of further discovery as a sanction. The attorney asserted that he cancelled the deposition based on plaintiff's statement in a February 14th telephone call to the attorney's office manager that he, plaintiff, would not be attending the deposition because he was out of state and it was not possible for him to return. The court found that while plaintiff had notice by mail of the scheduled deposition, relayed to him by telephone through his son, he had not been served with a subpoena. Plaintiff agreed that he called the office manager, but claimed to have said that he would be attending the deposition.

The court recognized that sanctions could be appropriate when a party knowingly failed to comply with a discovery obligation. In this case, however, there was a disagreement about what was said in a telephone conversation and it directly affected whether the deposition would be held or cancelled. The court concluded that a misunderstanding resulting from a disputed but undocumented communication was an insufficient basis to find a knowing failure to comply with a discovery obligation. The court therefore denied the motion for sanctions.

The court next considered plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, which it found did not comply with Rule 56. The court explained that all of the factual allegations in plaintiff's statement of undisputed facts began with " [t]he defendants admit," but there was no evidence or citations to any such admissions in the record. Plaintiff's failure to comply with the rules made it impossible for the court to determine which facts were material and undisputed. Plaintiff also supported his motion with his own affidavit. The court found that this two-page affidavit, which largely consisted of conclusory facts and conclusions of law, was insufficient for summary judgment purposes. See In re Shenandoah LLC, 2011 VT 68, ¶ 17, 190 Vt. 149, 27 A.3d 1078 (finding it well-established that " ultimate or conclusory facts and conclusions of law ... cannot be utilized on a summary-judgment motion" (quotation omitted)). Thus, because plaintiff's motion was not supported in the manner contemplated by Rule 56, it did not provide support for a ruling in his favor as a matter of law.

The court thus turned to the Town's motion for summary judgment. At the outset, it found that plaintiff, in his complaint and elsewhere, had not articulated his legal claims with clarity. At oral argument, plaintiff indicated that he sought compensation from the Town on the basis of a legal claim for " unlawful acts and omissions." The general thrust of the allegations was that the Town manipulated the zoning permit process specifically to harm him, wrongfully obtained a cease-and-desist order from the Environmental Division of the Superior Court that caused physical damage to his real and personal property, incorrectly characterized his property as industrial for assessment purposes, and refused to allow him to record the deed in the Town's land records. The Town argued that none of these claims were cognizable in the Civil Division of the Superior Court or had any evidentiary support. The Town maintained that plaintiff's issues regarding permitting belonged in the Environmental Division, not in a case in the Civil Division, and that his claims about his taxes should have been addressed through statutory processes designed to address tax disputes.

The court reiterated that the murkiness of plaintiff's claims was exacerbated by his failure to comply with Rule 56, whether with regard to his own summary judgment motion or in opposition to the Town's motion. With respect to the latter, plaintiff generally asserted that the facts in the Town's statement of undisputed facts " are falsehoods at best and unlawful and criminal." He did not offer any further specificity. The court found that plaintiff's response did not comply with Rule 56(c)(1)(A), and it considered the Town's well-supported facts to be admitted for summary judgment purposes. The court further stated that plaintiff appeared to misunderstand that he had the burden of persuasion on his claims. He repeatedly objected that the Town had not presented evidence that refuted his claims. Under Rule 56, however, when the burden of persuasion is on the nonmoving party, the moving party could support its summary judgment motion (and satisfy its burden of production) by indicating an absence of record evidence in support of the claim. To survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party then must come ...


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