Justia Business Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
Kneebinding, Inc. v. Howell
In 2003, Richard Howell invented a binding that has a “special, patented heel release designed to mitigate knee injuries . . . that are common in downhill skiing.” Howell formed a business relationship with John Springer-Miller, and the two signed transaction documents, which included an employment agreement, a stock-purchase agreement, an investor-rights agreement, and an amended certificate of incorporation. Howell and Springer-Miller’s working relationship “began to deteriorate almost immediately,” and the KneeBinding board voted to terminate Howell as president in September 2008. In prior proceedings, the Vermont Supreme Court in large part affirmed an August 2016 trial court decision, but reversed a decision to dissolve a March 2009 permanent injunction, and remanded the court’s award of attorney’s fees to KneeBinding, Inc. with directions to consider additional evidence of legal fees. On remand in August 2019, the trial court: (1) awarded additional attorney’s fees to KneeBinding; (2) issued a sanction for a May 23, 2018 finding that Richard Howell violated an August 10, 2017 injunction that was in place while "KneeBinding II" was pending; and (3) found Howell in contempt for violating the March 2009 permanent injunction that the Supreme Court restored in KneeBinding II. On appeal, Howell challenged the May 23, 2018, finding that he violated the August 2017 injunction and the August 2019 finding that he violated the March 2009 permanent injunction. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Kneebinding, Inc. v. Howell" on Justia Law
Green Mountain Fireworks, LLC, et al. v. Town of Colchester et al.
In May 2018, appellants Green Mountain Fireworks, LLC and its owner Matthew Lavigne, began selling fireworks from a retail store in Colchester, Vermont. As described in their complaint, the “intended purpose” for the store was “to sell retail fireworks to consumers.” In relation to the retail store, appellants obtained a license from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as a “Type 53 - Dealer of Explosives.” They also got a building permit and a certificate of occupancy from the Town Zoning Administrator. These zoning permits were the only two permit applications appellants submitted to the Town. The issue this appeal presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review centered on whether 20 V.S.A. 3132(a)(1) authorized municipalities to grant permits for the general retail sale of fireworks to consumers who do not hold valid permits to display those fireworks. Appellants appealed the superior court's dismissal of two actions: (1) their appeal of the Town of Colchester selectboard’s denial of their application for a permit to sell fireworks pursuant to 20 V.S.A. 3132(a)(1); and (2) their request for a declaratory judgment that, even without that distinct permit, they had “all possible and applicable permits” and were permitted under section 3132 to sell fireworks in the manner described in their complaint. The Supreme Court concluded that section 3132(a)(1) required a distinct permit for the sale of fireworks, but did not authorize a permit for the general retail sale of fireworks along the lines proposed by appellants. The only fireworks sales authorized by statute were sales to the holder of a display permit for the purpose of the permitted display. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgments. View "Green Mountain Fireworks, LLC, et al. v. Town of Colchester et al." on Justia Law
Sutton et al. v. Vermont Regional Center et al.
Plaintiff-investors appealed the dismissal of their claims against the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and current and former state employees arising from the operation of a federally licensed regional center in the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) EB-5 program. USCIS designated ACCD as a regional center in 1997, and ACCD began operating the Vermont Regional Center (VRC). It was not the only state-affiliated regional center, but it was the only one that represented itself as a “state-run agency.” The VRC billed itself as an attractive option for development and foreign investment due to its superlative “oversight powers,” the overwhelming investor confidence that came from its “stamp of approval,” and the State of Vermont’s backing that would result in a “faster path to approval.” ACCD employees represented to prospective investors, including plaintiffs, that the added protections of state approval and oversight made the "Jay Peak Projects" a particularly sound investment. They told prospective investors that the VRC conducted quarterly reviews to ensure that projects complied with all applicable laws and regulations and “engag[ed] in the financial monitoring and auditing of projects to ensure legitimacy,” and they represented that MOUs imposed “strict covenants and obligations on the project to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.” Unbeknownst to the investors, but known to the VRC officials, no such state oversight by the VRC existed. The VRC never issued any of the quarterly reports contemplated in the MOUs. In April 2016, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit alleging securities fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud against the Jay Peak Projects developers. On the basis of these and other allegations, plaintiffs, all foreign nationals who invested in the Jay Peak Projects, filed a multi-count claim against ACCD and several individual defendants. The trial court granted plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint for a third time to a Fourth Amended Complaint, and then dismissed all thirteen counts on various grounds. Plaintiffs appealed. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims of negligence against ACCD, gross negligence against defendants Brent Raymond and James Candido, and breach of contract and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against ACCD. The Court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs' remaining claims. View "Sutton et al. v. Vermont Regional Center et al." on Justia Law
Construction Drilling, Inc. v. Engineers Construction, Inc.
Subcontractor Construction Drilling, Inc. (CDI) appealed a trial court’s judgment on the merits in its breach-of-contract claim against Engineers Construction, Inc. (ECI). CDI contended the trial court erred in: (1) holding that the terms of the parties’ subcontract required CDI to request a change order before it billed ECI for “drilling in obstructions” in excess of CDI’s bid price; (2) denying CDI’s motions to reopen the evidence and for a new trial; and (3) awarding ECI $234,320 in attorneys’ fees under the Prompt Payment Act. ECI cross-appealed, arguing the trial court improperly allowed CDI’s owner to offer opinion testimony absent a finding of reliability under Vermont Rule of Evidence 702 and maintaining that his testimony could not have met this standard in any event. Therefore, should the Vermont Supreme Court reverse the trial court’s denial of CDI’s breach-of-contract claim, ECI asserted the matter had to be remanded for a new trial without such testimony. The Court affirmed the trial court, and therefore did not reach the issue raised in ECI’s cross-appeal. View "Construction Drilling, Inc. v. Engineers Construction, Inc." on Justia Law
Bourdeau Bros., Inc. v. Boissonneault Family Farm, Inc. et al.
Plaintiff Bourdeau Bros., Inc. was a Vermont company that sold agricultural supplies, feed, and chemicals. Defendants operated a dairy farm in Georgia, Vermont. In July 2016, plaintiff sued defendant Boissonneault Family Farm, Inc. (BBF) for amounts owed for grain delivered by plaintiff to the farm. Plaintiff subsequently amended its complaint to add Jay and Cathy Boissonneault as co-defendants. In their answer, defendants denied that Cathy Boissonneault or BBF had done business with Bourdeau Bros., Inc. Defendants moved to dismiss Cathy Boissonneault and BBF as defendants. The court denied the motion. In February 2018, defendants filed a counterclaim alleging that plaintiff owed defendants $16,000 for water plaintiff took from defendants’ pond. A two-day bench trial took place in March 2019. At the conclusion of the trial, the court dismissed plaintiff’s claims against Cathy Boissonneault. The court found that beginning in 2012, defendants Jay Boissonneault and BBF had an oral agreement with plaintiff to purchase grain. Each time plaintiff delivered grain, it presented an invoice to defendants. Defendants consistently paid the amounts indicated in the invoices until 2015, when defendants stopped paying. The court found that defendants owed plaintiff $27,564.97 for grain delivered in 2015, including interest of eighteen percent per year. The court denied plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees despite language in the invoices stating that plaintiff would be entitled to such fees in the event of a collection action. As the prevailing party at trial, plaintiff appealed the trial court’s denial of its request for attorney’s fees, arguing that it was entitled to recover attorney’s fees based on a term contained in invoices that it provided to defendants each time it delivered grain. Plaintiff argued that under 9A V.S.A. 2-207, the term became part of the parties’ contract when defendants failed to object to it within a reasonable time. Defendants cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly calculated damages and erred by dismissing their counterclaim and finding defendant Jay Boissonneault personally liable. The Vermont Supreme Court remanded for the trial court to reconsider whether plaintiff is entitled to attorney’s fees, but otherwise affirmed judgment. View "Bourdeau Bros., Inc. v. Boissonneault Family Farm, Inc. et al." on Justia Law
Commercial Construction Endeavors, Inc. v. Ohio Security Insurance Company
On a winter night in 2014, strong winds blew through the town of Georgia, Vermont, causing a partially constructed livestock barn to collapse. Commercial Construction Endeavors, Inc. (CCE), the contractor building the barn, sought recompense for the resulting losses from its insurer, Ohio Security Insurance Company. However, insurer and insured disagreed as to policy coverage for costs incurred by CCE in removing the remains of the collapsed barn and rebuilding it to its pre-collapse state. Ultimately, CCE sued Ohio Security for breach of contract. In successive summary-judgment rulings, the trial court held that the contractor’s rebuilding expenses were covered under the policy, but the cost of debris removal was not. Ohio Security cross-appealed the first ruling and CCE appealed the second; the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the first ruling and affirmed the second. The Court determined the additional collapse coverage applied only to “Covered Property,” which was business personal property; CCE did not dispute that the barn was not business personal property and thus was not “Covered Property.” Therefore, the court’s first summary-judgment ruling was reversed. The debris removal was not a loss involving business personal property. As a result, it was not a loss to “Covered Property” at that term was defined by the policy at issue. View "Commercial Construction Endeavors, Inc. v. Ohio Security Insurance Company" on Justia Law
The Lofts Essex, LLC v. Strategis Floor Decor Inc.
Plaintiffs, Lofts Essex, LLC and the Wilson Inn, Inc. (collectively, the Lofts), appeal the trial court’s pretrial denial of summary judgment and the court’s final decision ruling in favor of defendant, Strategis Floor and Décor, Inc. The dispute between the parties arose from a warranty claim made on laminate flooring in a 54-apartment unit complex. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the trial court’s pretrial denial of summary judgment was not reviewable and affirmed the final decision granting judgment to Strategis. View "The Lofts Essex, LLC v. Strategis Floor Decor Inc." on Justia Law
J & K Tile Company
After a bench trial, a trial court issued a judgment and order which held, among other things, that Wright & Morrissey owed J & K Tile Co. $42,000 plus interest under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the parties, and that Wright & Morrissey unlawfully withheld J & K Tile Co.’s retainage check in violation of the Vermont Prompt Pay Act. Following this decision a few months later, the court further held that each party was the prevailing party in a portion of the litigation and should be awarded attorney’s fees regarding that portion. Wright & Morrissey appealed, and J & K Tile Co. cross-appealed. With regard to the retainage, the Vermont Supreme Court determined the trial court did not err. However, with respect to the prevailing party issue, the Supreme Court determined “a fee award should not be apportioned among claims that arise from a common core of facts.” Although not all of the evidence was relevant to all the claims, all the evidence, and all the theories of liability, related to the same common core of facts. J & K Tile Co. itself treated the claims as arising from a common core of facts, as evidenced by their combining the failure-to-mediate and breach-of-contract allegations into a single count. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court should have determined who was the substantially prevailing party as a whole, considering all the claims together. Accordingly, it reversed the order regarding attorney’s fees and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. View "J & K Tile Company" on Justia Law
Rainforest Chocolate, LLC v. Sentinel Insurance Company, Ltd.
Appellant Rainforest Chocolate, LLC appealed the grant of summary judgment motion in favor of appellee Sentinel Insurance Company, Ltd. Rainforest was insured under a business-owner policy offered by Sentinel. In May 2016, Rainforest’s employee received an email purporting to be from his manager. The email directed the employee to transfer $19,875 to a specified outside bank account through an electronic-funds transfer. Unbeknownst to the employee, an unknown individual had gained control of the manager’s email account and sent the email. The employee electronically transferred the money. Shortly thereafter when Rainforest learned that the manager had not sent the email, it contacted its bank, which froze its account and limited the loss to $10,261.36. Rainforest reported the loss to Sentinel. In a series of letters exchanged concerning coverage for the loss, Rainforest claimed the loss should be covered under provisions of the policy covering losses due to Forgery, for Forged or Altered Instruments, and for losses resulting from Computer Fraud. Sentinel denied coverage. In a continuing attempt to obtain coverage for the loss, Rainforest also claimed coverage under a provision of the policy for the loss of Money or Securities by theft. Sentinel again denied coverage, primarily relying on an exclusion for physical loss or physical damage caused by or resulting from False Pretense that concerned “voluntary parting” of the property—the False Pretense Exclusion. Finding certain terms in the policy at issue were ambiguous, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed summary judgment and remanded for the trial court to consider in the first instance whether other provisions in the policy could provide coverage for Rainforest's loss. View "Rainforest Chocolate, LLC v. Sentinel Insurance Company, Ltd." on Justia Law
Kneebinding, Inc. v. Howell
This case was presented to the Vermont Supreme Court after a lengthy bench trial between appellants/cross-appellees Kneebinding, Inc. (Kneebinding) and Kneebinding company directors John and Tina Springer-Miller (the Springer-Millers), and appellee/cross-appellant Richard Howell that resulted in a series of interlocutory decisions before final judgment. Kneebinding and the Springer-Millers appealed the trial court’s decisions regarding: (1) a stipulated fine for Howell’s alleged violations of an injunction prohibiting him from speaking in certain settings about Kneebinding or the Springer-Millers; (2) termination of the injunction; (3) other contempt sanctions for Howell’s alleged violations of the injunction; (4) defamation damages; (5) Kneebinding’s claim of tortious interference with contract; and (6) attorney’s fees. With respect to their appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings. Howell appealed the trial court’s denial of his third-party shareholder derivative and direct claims against the Springer-Millers for fraud in the inducement and various alleged breaches of fiduciary duties. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment on these claims. View "Kneebinding, Inc. v. Howell" on Justia Law