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Palmer v. Furlan

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 21, 2019

Stephan Palmer, Sr.
v.
Mark Furlan and State of Vermont

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division Mary Miles Teachout, J.

          David J. Williams of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Robert G. Cain of Paul Frank Collins P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee Furlan.

          Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and David R. Groff, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee State.

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

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. In this matter, the trial court entered summary judgment on behalf of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. Appellant, Stephan Palmer, Sr., appeals this order, arguing that the trial court erred when it determined that appellant's claim failed as a matter of law on causation grounds. We conclude that summary judgment was appropriate and affirm.

         ¶ 2. Appellant, while incarcerated, 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. The stipulation did not address the merits of the PCR claim. Attorney Furlan filed the stipulation motion with the PCR court on November 16, 2015. Two days later, the PCR court entered an order stating that it "will hold a status conference with counsel for the parties before entering a decision and order." The next day, the court clerk issued a notice of hearing at the PCR court's direction, scheduling the status conference for December 17. The status conference was held as scheduled. Six days later, on December 23, 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.

         ¶ 3. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, [1] alleging legal malpractice. As framed by appellant, the negligence alleged in this case is as follows. Attorney Furlan filed the stipulation with the PCR court in a timely manner. However, the stipulation on its face did not make clear that the sentence modification would result in appellant's immediate release from prison upon approval by the PCR court and amendment of the mittimus by the criminal division. 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. Although the PCR court ultimately did approve the stipulation which led to appellant's release, appellant characterizes the length of incarceration between when he posits 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.

         ¶ 4. After discovery, Attorney Furlan moved for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Attorney Furlan was statutorily immune from appellant's claims under 13 V.S.A. § 5241; (2) Attorney Furlan lacked the authority to require the PCR court to expedite the stipulation motion; (3) Attorney Furlan had no legally cognizable duty to require the PCR court to expedite the stipulation motion; (4) appellant could not establish a causal link between the alleged breach of duty and appellant's claimed damages; and (5) appellant could not establish that he was "wrongfully incarcerated and unlawfully deprived of his liberty," and, as such, could not prove damages.

         ¶ 5. The trial court granted Attorney Furlan's motion for summary judgment.[2] Accepting for the sake of argument that appellant satisfied both the duty and breach elements of his negligence claim-that Attorney Furlan had some obligation to attempt to speed up the PCR court's actions and that he failed to do so-the trial court concluded that appellant's negligence "claim nevertheless fails as a matter of law on causation grounds." It reasoned that appellant's "prediction, and his expert's supposition, that any reasonable trial judge would have advanced the case on the docket in these circumstances (much less approve the stipulation) is simply speculation about how judges make decisions and what decisions they reasonably would have made in these circumstances."

         ¶ 6. On appeal, appellant argues that this Court should recognize a presumption that Vermont judges will comply with Vermont's Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 3(B)(8)'s requirement that they "dispose of all judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly." A.O. 10 § 3. And, by recognizing this presumption and applying it to this case, appellant argues that the record supports reversal because: (1) the PCR court ultimately approved the stipulation motion; and (2) "any reasonably competent and conscientious Vermont judge would have done so as soon as [they were] aware of its implications, i.e., that [a]ppellant would have been eligible for immediate release."

         ¶ 7. "In reviewing [appellant's] appeal of this summary judgment ruling, we apply the same standard as the trial court; we will uphold the court's ruling if no genuine issue of material fact exists and [Attorney Furlan] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Ziniti v. New Eng. Cent. R.R., 2019 VT 9, ¶ 14, ___ Vt. ___, ___ A.3d ___. This Court "must view the pleadings and affidavits in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, [but] the nonmovant bears the burden of submitting credible documentary evidence or affidavits sufficient to rebut the evidence of the moving party." Ainsworth v. Chandler, 2014 VT 107, ¶ 8, 197 Vt. 541, 107 A.3d 905 (quotation omitted). Furthermore, "a party may not rest on the allegations in its pleading[s]" but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Creaser v. Bixby, 138 Vt. 582, 583, 420 A.2d 102, 103 (1980); see also V.R.C.P. 56(a).

         ¶ 8. To succeed in a negligence claim, a plaintiff must establish all four required elements: "a legal duty owed by defendant to plaintiff, a breach of that duty, actual injury to the plaintiff, and a causal link between the breach and the injury." Montague v. Hundred Acre Homestead, LLC, 2019 VT 16, ¶ 14, ___ Vt. ___, ___ A.3d ___ (quotation omitted). "[C]ausation requires both 'but-for' and proximate causation." Collins v. Thomas, 2007 VT 92');">2007 VT 92, ¶ 8, 182 Vt. 250, 938 A.2d 1208. "But-for" causation "requires a showing that the harm would not have occurred 'but for' the defendant's conduct such that the tortious conduct was a necessary condition for the occurrence of the plaintiff's harm." Ziniti, 2019 VT 9, ¶ 15 (quotation omitted). Proximate cause, on the other hand, "requires a showing that the defendant's negligence was legally sufficient to result in liability in that the injurious consequences flowed from the defendant's conduct and were not interrupted by some intervening cause." Id. (quotation omitted). And, "[a]lthough proximate cause 'ordinarily' is characterized as 'a jury issue,' it may be decided as a matter of law where 'the proof is so clear that reasonable ...


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