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Williams v. Town of North Hero

Supreme Court of Vermont

October 19, 2018

Sidmond C. Williams & Barbara B. Williams, Co-Trustees
Town of North Hero

          On Appeal from Property Valuation and Review Division Merle Van Gieson, Hearing Officer.

          Sidmond C. Williams and Barbara B. Williams, Pro Se, Venice, Florida, Plaintiffs-Appellees.

          Paul S. Gillies and Michael J. Tarrant, II of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, LLP, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1.The Town of North Hero appeals the Property Valuation and Review (PVR) Division hearing officer's decision to impose a $2000 discovery sanction against the Town in a property-tax-reappraisal appeal brought by the Williams Living Trust. The hearing officer imposed the sanction as a result of a claimed discovery violation by the Town concerning disclosure of an electronic Excel spreadsheet file requested by the Trust. We reverse.

         ¶ 2. The background of this controversy is as follows. In 2013, the Town performed a reappraisal of property within the Town. The Trust disagreed with the reappraisal of its property and challenged it through the statutory appeals process, eventually leading to an appeal to the PVR Division. The Trust's appeal from the decision of the Town's board of civil authority was received by the PVR Division on September 6, 2016. In the notice of appeal, the Trust requested that the Town's listers provide the Trust with a specific Excel spreadsheet file in "native format" and "unprotected." It is unclear when the Town first received notice of the request for the Excel file in that format, but a letter requesting the file's production was made directly to the Town on September 19, 2016. The Town had provided the Excel spreadsheet in PDF format, not in the electronic format later requested, to the Trust in 2014. The Trust sent additional email requests to the Town asking for the Excel file on October 3, 4, and 5, 2016. The reason the Trust requested the Excel file three times in a seventy-two-hour period is also unclear.

         ¶ 3. On October 4, 2016, the Town responded to the Trust's letter request and the first email request indicating that neither the Town, nor the appraisal company that assisted the Town in the reappraisal, had the spreadsheet file in the format requested. The letter explained how the spreadsheet that had been produced worked. The Trust then filed a motion to compel with the hearing officer on October 17, to which the Town responded on October 18 that it did not have the requested file and could not "produce what does not exist."

         ¶ 4. On January 3, 2017, the PVR Division hearing officer issued a decision on the Trust's motion to compel ordering the Town to make one last effort to obtain a copy of the file requested and giving the Town ten days to comply. In compliance with the hearing officer's order, the Town conducted another search and located the file. On January 17, 2017, the Town produced a copy of the Excel spreadsheet file in the format requested to the Trust. The Trust filed a motion on January 25, 2017, describing the Town's conduct concerning the file request as "blatant misconduct during discovery" and seeking monetary sanctions of $2500 and other sanctions as the hearing officer deemed proper for the Town's failure to produce the file earlier.

         ¶ 5. A hearing on the motion for sanctions took place on June 22, 2017. At the hearing, the Town's listers described their confusion over the Trust's request and their actions in attempting to satisfy the Trust's discovery request. During the hearing, the Trust's representative accused the Town of making false statements and material misrepresentations concerning the electronic file and stated that the Town's listers had lied "in an attempt to cover up even more egregious misconduct." The Trust made these accusations based upon metadata analysis, which it had conducted on the produced file, ostensibly demonstrating the time of creation of the file and its time when last opened. The Town did not contest that the file, in the format requested, was in the possession of the Town all along but asserted it had not been produced earlier due to confusion over what had been produced previously and what was being sought presently.

         ¶ 6. At the time of the hearing, the Trust had moved to withdraw its appeal concerning the reappraisal. However, the Director of the PVR Division did not honor the request, and the appeal remained pending. The merits hearing of the Trust's reappraisal appeal was scheduled to take place one year later, in June 2018. No evidence was produced demonstrating any prejudice to the Trust as a result of the timing of the production of the file in native format and unprotected.

         ¶ 7. The hearing officer issued a decision on the motion for sanctions on December 26, 2017, approximately six months after the hearing on the motion. The hearing officer did not find any prejudice to the Trust concerning the timing of the disclosure of the requested file. The hearing officer found the listers' responses from October 4 and 18 to the Trust's discovery request to be "false," whether intentionally made or not, and to constitute "unacceptable action by elected Town officials." He further found "[i]t would be a gross miscarriage of justice not to impose appropriate sanctions on the Town for proven wrongdoing of the Town['s] elected officials making false statements, intentional or not."

         ¶ 8. The hearing officer imposed a monetary sanction against the Town of $2000 for false statements made by Town officials and the "expenses, effort, and time" the Trust spent as a result of the Town's failure to produce the file until ordered to do so. No evidence was provided concerning how much time, effort, and expense was incurred by the Trust, and there is no way to determine how the hearing officer determined $2000 to be the appropriate sanction amount. In his conclusions, the hearing officer indicated both that the monetary sanction was a penalty and that it was to compensate the Trust for the discovery delay. The hearing officer ordered that the payment be made to the Trust. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 9. The Town challenges the hearing officer's authority to issue a monetary sanction for discovery enforcement. Further, the Town asserts that, even if the hearing officer had the authority to impose such a sanction, ...

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