68 A.3d 603 (R.I. 2013), 2011-30-Appeal, Sisto v. America Condominium Ass'n, Inc.

Docket Nº:2011-30-Appeal, 2011-31-Appeal, 2011-32-Appeal.
Citation:68 A.3d 603
Opinion Judge:INDEGLIA, Justice.
Party Name:Bennie SISTO, as the Trustee of Goat Island Realty Trust v. AMERICA CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATION, INC., et al. Bennie Sisto, as the Trustee of Goat Island Realty Trust v. Capella South Condominium Association, Inc., et al.
Attorney:Robert D. Wieck, Esq., Providence, for Plaintiff. Edmund A. Allcock, Esq., Timothy J. Groves, Esq., Providence, Justin T. Shay, Esq., Providence, for Defendants.
Judge Panel:Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ. GOLDBERG, Justice concurring in part and dissenting in part.
Case Date:June 26, 2013
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island
 
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Page 603

68 A.3d 603 (R.I. 2013)

Bennie SISTO, as the Trustee of Goat Island Realty Trust

v.

AMERICA CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATION, INC., et al.

Bennie Sisto, as the Trustee of Goat Island Realty Trust

v.

Capella South Condominium Association, Inc., et al.

Nos. 2011-30-Appeal, 2011-31-Appeal, 2011-32-Appeal.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

June 26, 2013

Page 604

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 605

Robert D. Wieck, Esq., Providence, for Plaintiff.

Edmund A. Allcock, Esq., Timothy J. Groves, Esq., Providence, Justin T. Shay, Esq., Providence, for Defendants.

Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ.

OPINION

INDEGLIA, Justice.

In this property dispute, Bennie Sisto (Sisto or plaintiff) appeals from two judgments of the Superior Court: (1) the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, America Condominium Association, Inc. (America); and (2) the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Capella South Condominium Association, Inc. (Capella), Harbor Houses Condominium Association, Inc. (Harbor Houses), and Goat Island South Condominium Association, Inc. (GIS). Additionally, Harbor Houses (a nominal defendant in the second action) appeals from the Superior Court's grant of summary judgment in that action, arguing that judgment should have been granted in Sisto's favor. All three of these appeals have been consolidated by this Court. After reviewing the record and considering the parties' written submissions and oral arguments, we vacate in part and affirm in part the judgments of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel

Sisto is the owner of a condominium unit located on Goat Island in Newport, within the approximately twenty-three-acre waterfront

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Goat Island South Condominium community. That community was created in 1988 by a master declaration of condominium; this declaration has since been amended from time to time, and was adopted in its current form in August 2007. Goat Island South Condominium is comprised of three sub-condominium residential areas— Harbor Houses Condominium, America Condominium, and Capella South Condominium. Of the 154 total units, there are nineteen stand-alone townhouse residence units located in Harbor Houses Condominium, forty-six residence units in America Condominium, and eighty-nine residence units in Capella South Condominium. Each of these sub-condominiums is governed by a separate association and declaration and must also adhere to the provisions of the master declaration. Likewise, these declarations must comply with Rhode Island's Condominium Act, G.L.1956 chapter 36.1 of title 34 (the Condominium Act or Act).1

Sisto owns Unit No. 1 in Harbor Houses Condominium, which is a stand-alone townhouse unit surrounded by a yard. According to §§ 1.16 and 2.3(a) of the Harbor Houses declaration, the yard surrounding Sisto's unit is designated as a limited common element— meaning that it is " reserved for the use by one or more but fewer than all [u]nits, and intended for the exclusive use of such [u]nits."

In October 2006, Sisto filed an application with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) for approval to demolish his existing unit and rebuild a larger dwelling thereon.2 Subsequently, on January 16, 2007, America submitted a letter to the CRMC, objecting to that application. In this correspondence, America stated that Sisto " does not own the land on which he wants to expand" ; as such, it continued, his proposed expansion would " deprive * * * the other unit owners [in the Goat Island South Condominium community] of [their] property." In that letter, America also stated that Sisto's planned expansion did not conform to the CRMC's setback requirements. Later that year, after Sisto amended his application, America and Capella wrote another letter to the CRMC, on November 26, 2007, objecting on the same grounds.

Subsequently, on December 7, 2007, GIS sent a letter to the CRMC, stating that America's letter to the CRMC (in which it stated that Sisto did not own the land over which he wanted to expand) was " deceptive" because Sisto, as " one of the owners-in-common of the land underlying his proposed expansion," had the " affirmative right" to expand his unit so long as he met the requirements set forth in both the master and Harbor Houses declarations. In a letter dated January 17, 2008, the CRMC then advised Sisto that it " lack[ed] the jurisdiction to resolve the ownership issue * * *, and [that] resolution [would] be required prior to * * * processing [Sisto's] requested application [for expansion]." Two months after its initial letter to the CRMC, America sent a follow-up letter, on February 7, 2008, acknowledging that its statement pertaining to Sisto's land ownership was not " technically correct" because that land was actually owned in common by all 154 unit owners. Ultimately, questioning Sisto's ownership of the land at issue, the CRMC refused to process Sisto's application.

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On March 4, 2008, Sisto filed a complaint (the America action) against America and the members of its executive board in the Newport County Superior Court. In that action he sought a declaratory judgment that he had " sufficient right, title and interest in the [l]and and airspace [surrounding his unit] * * * to confer standing to file the [a]pplication [for the expansion of his unit] with the CRMC" (count 1). He also sought relief for slander of title, alleging that America's correspondence with the CRMC, in which it stated that Sisto " does not own the land on which he wants to expand," was " maliciously published with the intent to deceive the CRMC" (count 2). Lastly, Sisto claimed that America " breached its contractual duties" to Sisto under the master declaration by virtue of that correspondence with the CRMC (count 3).

America answered the complaint on April 17, 2008, denying all three counts and asserting myriad affirmative defenses.3 Five days later, on April 22, 2008, America moved for partial summary judgment on counts 2 and 3, pursuant to Rule 56(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. In an accompanying memorandum, America argued that its correspondence with the CRMC was protected speech under Rhode Island's Limits on Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Act, G.L.1956 chapter 33 of title 9 (the anti-SLAPP statute), because Sisto's purported ownership of the land at issue was a matter of " public concern" directed to a governmental body.4 Accordingly, America averred that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on counts 2 and 3. Pursuant to § 9-33-2(b), America also moved to stay discovery on those counts, which motion was granted on June 3, 2008.

On May 22, 2008, Sisto moved for partial summary judgment on count 1, as well as for sanctions against America under Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. In support of that motion, Sisto maintained that both the Harbor Houses declaration and the master declaration permitted him to make improvements, alterations, and changes to his unit, and authorized him to expand his unit on adjoining land. As to sanctions, Sisto claimed that a host of the denials and affirmative defenses outlined in America's answer to Sisto's complaint were made in contravention of Rule 11. Both parties filed objections to the other's respective motion for summary judgment, and America also filed a cross-motion for Rule 11 sanctions against Sisto's counsel for, in its view, Sisto's above-referenced meritless motion for sanctions against it.

Approximately two months after moving for summary judgment, on June 23, 2008, America also moved to dismiss count 1 of Sisto's complaint based on his failure to join indispensable parties— the other 153 unit owners in the Goat Island South Condominium community— pursuant to Rule 12(b)(7) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

Subsequently, on July 23, 2008, Sisto brought an action in Superior Court (the GIS action) against GIS and the two other sub-condominium associations in the Goat Island South Condominium community, Capella and Harbor Houses. This complaint named those three defendants as " parties in interest vis-a-vis the assertions made and positions advanced in [the America action], including those asserted in the

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[m]otions." The complaint essentially parroted the allegations set forth in count 1 in the America action— that Sisto, as a Harbor Houses Condominium unit owner, was permitted and authorized to make improvements, alterations, and changes to his unit and that he had sufficient title and interest to file an application with the CRMC regarding the expansion of his unit onto adjoining land. That same day, Sisto also moved for summary judgment in that action.

In GIS's answer, it neither admitted nor denied the substantive allegations. Additionally, GIS brought a counterclaim for a declaratory judgment, asking the Superior Court to decide whether (1) Sisto had standing to pursue his application with the CRMC on his own; or (2) approval of the other 153 unit owners would be necessary prior to the submission of such application; or (3) approval under § 2.3 of the master declaration was required; or (4) approval under both (2) and (3) above would be required; or (5) other statutes, rules, regulations, or documents would be applicable to the issues raised. On November 7, 2008, GIS filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. Capella answered Sisto's complaint, denying the allegations and asserting affirmative defenses. Harbor Houses also answered Sisto's complaint; unlike GIS, Capella, and America, it admitted all of the complaint's allegations and asked the Superior Court to enter judgment in Sisto's favor. Further, Harbor Houses requested the Superior Court to...

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