LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 14–160.

Decision Date28 August 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–160.,14–160.
Parties James LeBLANC, Christine LeBlanc Fortin, David LeBlanc and Herman LeBlanc v. Robert E. SNELGROVE.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Brice Simon of Breton & Simon, PLC, Stowe, for PlaintiffsAppellants/Cross–Appellees.

Christopher D. Roy of Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, Burlington, for DefendantAppellee/Cross–Appellant.

Present: REIBER, C.J., DOOLEY, SKOGLUND, ROBINSON and EATON, JJ.

ROBINSON, J.

¶ 1. This case encompasses two main related sets of disputes. One dispute arises from a landowner's replacement of his boathouse and construction of ancillary retaining walls that encroach onto his neighbors' property. This dispute includes claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages on account of the landowner's alleged trespass. The neighbors challenge the trial court's conclusions that the landowner was entitled to build the encroaching structure by virtue of a deeded easement and that they cannot prevail in a claim for trespass on account of consent or estoppel. Because we conclude that the court's construction of the deeded easement was erroneous, and the court improperly addressed the other issues in derogation of the neighbors' request for a jury trial, we reverse in connection with this dispute.

¶ 2. The second dispute—which flows from and is intertwined with the first—involves acts of vandalism to the disputed boathouse by the occupant of the neighbors' property. The occupant appeals from the judgment against him, and the landowner cross-appeals, raising a host of issues in connection with that judgment. We affirm the judgment in connection with this second dispute.

¶ 3. The following general description of the facts is not disputed, except where noted. Plaintiffs James LeBlanc, Christine LeBlanc Fortin, and David LeBlanc own a property on the western shore of Lake Memphremagog in the Town of Newport. They acquired title to the property as tenants in common in 1993 and 1994 from their father and mother, Herman and Lucienne LeBlanc.1 Throughout the events giving rise to this appeal, plaintiff Herman LeBlanc lived on the LeBlanc property. Defendant Robert Snelgrove owns the property immediately to the north of the LeBlanc property.

¶ 4. This case arises from Snelgrove's replacement of a boathouse on his property. The "old boathouse" was located along the southerly boundary of Snelgrove's property, with its southerly wall bordering the LeBlanc property, and the lake to the east. The boundary between the properties wrapped to some extent along the western (inland) side of the old boathouse. Starting in the fall of 2006, Snelgrove took down the old boathouse and built the "new boathouse" approximately five feet to the north of the previous structure.2 The original boathouse had straddled a stream that emptied into the lake. When he erected the new boathouse, Snelgrove built a concrete retaining wall at his southerly property boundary in approximately the same location as the former southerly foundation wall of the original boathouse, although the retaining wall was longer than the former boathouse wall. This new retaining wall to the south, along with the southerly foundation wall of the new boathouse to the north, formed a sluice that channeled the stream that formerly ran beneath the old boathouse to the south of the new boathouse. Snelgrove built two retaining walls extending beyond the westerly edge of the southerly wall of the new boathouse, a northern wall and a southern wall. Together, these retaining walls funneled the stream into the channel between the new boathouse and the new retaining wall. Whether the back of the new boathouse extends onto the LeBlanc property, and the extent to which the retaining walls encroach onto the LeBlanc property, were subjects of dispute. Relying heavily on the undisputed fact that the new boathouse was longer than the old boathouse in the east-west dimension, the LeBlancs took the position that the new boathouse itself encroached onto their property. Arguing that the new boathouse was built several feet closer to the lake to the east, accounting for the relatively greater east-west dimension of the new boathouse, Snelgrove argued that the new boathouse was built within the boundary separating the parties' properties. There was no dispute that portions of the new retaining walls extended onto the LeBlanc property, although the significance of that fact was very much in dispute.

¶ 5. In December 2008, while their challenge to Snelgrove's zoning permit was pending in the environmental court, the LeBlancs sued Snelgrove in connection with the project, alleging, among other things, that both the westerly side of the new boathouse and the walls of the channel constructed by Snelgrove encroached onto their property. They also alleged that in 2004 and 2005, in connection with construction on his own property, Snelgrove cut off a water pipe leading from a spring to the LeBlanc property, thereby terminating the LeBlancs' one-third interest in certain spring and water rights. The LeBlancs also alleged that Snelgrove had altered the drainage on his property, causing unpermitted drainage to trespass onto their property. The LeBlancs sought a declaration of the boundary between the LeBlanc and Snelgrove properties; compensatory damages; injunctive relief, including removal of the encroaching structures and restoration of their land to its former condition; punitive damages; and attorney's fees. They requested a "trial by jury on all issues cognizable by a jury."

¶ 6. Snelgrove counterclaimed. He alleged that the new boathouse in its entirety, and portions of the retaining walls identified in the LeBlancs' complaint, were on his property, and sought a declaratory judgment to quiet title and establish the boundary line between his property and the LeBlancs' property. Snelgrove also alleged various acts of vandalism against his property and trespass by Herman LeBlanc and sought damages and injunctive relief for trespass. With respect to the retaining walls that encroached onto the LeBlancs' property, Snelgrove alleged that they were necessary for lateral support to both the Snelgrove and LeBlanc properties. Snelgrove sought injunctive relief to protect the retaining walls by prohibiting the LeBlancs from taking any action to undermine or erode either party's property. Like the LeBlancs, Snelgrove included a jury demand in his complaint.

¶ 7. In March 2013, after several years of discovery, mediation, and motion practice, the trial court ruled that Herman LeBlanc lacked standing to sue Snelgrove for trespass because LeBlanc had no ownership interest in the property. The court's order dismissing Herman LeBlanc as a plaintiff did not affect his status as a third-party defendant with respect to Snelgrove's counterclaims against him.

¶ 8. After the September 2013 jury draw, the court initially denied James LeBlanc's motion to sever Snelgrove's third-party trespass claim against Herman LeBlanc. However, two days before the trial was scheduled to begin on October 9, upon reconsideration, the court granted the motion, separating for trial purposes those claims from the parties' respective requests for a declaration setting forth the boundary between the two properties, the LeBlancs'3 claims that the new boathouse and retaining walls unlawfully encroached onto their property, and Snelgrove's claims that the walls were necessary to provide lateral support to the respective properties.

¶ 9. At a pretrial conference the day before the jury trial was to begin, the court indicated that it was considering a bifurcated trial, whereby the jury would first address the claims concerning the boundary and alleged encroachments and then separately consider Snelgrove's trespass claims against Herman LeBlanc. As that discussion unfolded, the court suggested that it could have a bench trial on the issues that the court was required to decide and then "see what's left and see whether or not there's some ability to resolve the remaining issues without a trial. And if not, then we submit the remaining issues to a jury." Both parties expressly declined to waive a jury trial with respect to the entire matter.

¶ 10. Snelgrove's counsel endorsed the court's proposal with respect to the boundary issues, saying:

[O]ne benefit of that approach is that the plaintiffs' damage claim relates to encroachment of retaining walls and the like on their property. It's undisputed that a portion of the retaining walls are located on the property—on their property. However, plaintiffs' claim is also that a portion of the boathouse and almost the entirety of the retaining wall is, in fact, encroaching.
So to some extent the jury cannot assess damages claimed by a plaintiff until the court resolves the question of the extent of the encroachment. That is, is it just ... the western end of the retaining wall upstream along the brook that's undisputed or is it the entire retaining wall, a portion of the boathouse, and a portion of the boathouse foundation, as plaintiffs claim? Because that obviously is going to impact the potential damages of plaintiff. So one possibility would be to hear the bench issues at court.

¶ 11. The LeBlancs' counsel did not object to the notion of the court trying the boundary issues as a bench trial, but argued that he could try the trespass issues without establishing the precise location of the boundary, given Snelgrove's concession that about thirty feet of the retaining wall was constructed on the LeBlanc property.4

¶ 12. The court concluded, "[I]f I can't establish where the boundary line is, the jury can't even start to consider whether there's damages for encroachment." The court indicated that it would first try the boundary issues as a bench trial before having the parties present their other claims to the jury.

¶ 13. Accordingly, on October 9, the first day of the bench trial, the LeBlancs called Snelgrove to testify and presented...

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4 cases
  • Epsom v. Crandall
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • October 4, 2019
    ...trespass claims do not automatically make Crandall liable for unlawful mischief. See LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112, ¶ 58, 200 Vt. 570, 133 A.3d 361 (explaining that jury's finding in connection with trespass claim that neighbor intentionally entered land was not equivalent to finding th......
  • Mansfield Heliflight, Inc. v. Freestream Aircraft USA, Ltd.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Vermont
    • October 10, 2019
    ...findings on the equitable claims that must be consistent with the jury verdict." LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112, ¶ 39, 200 Vt. 570, 588, 133 A.3d 361, 373. "In an action not triable of right by a jury, the court, on motion or on its own[,] . . . may try any issue with an advisory jury[.]......
  • In re Wagner & Guay Permit
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • September 2, 2016
    ...fact that the writing in question was an unsigned document created during negotiation, see LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112, ¶ 44, 200 Vt. 570, 133 A.3d 361 (outlining elements of equitable estoppel), a passing reference to a legal theory during trial is not "sufficient proof" for that the......
  • In re Bourassa
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • September 2, 2016
    ...fact that the writing in question was an unsigned document created during negotiation, see LeBlanc v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112, ¶ 44, ___ Vt. ___, 133 A.3d 361 (outlining elements of equitable estoppel), a passing reference to a legal theory during trial is not "sufficient proof" for that the......

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