In LeBlac v. Snelgrove, 2015 VT 112 (August 28, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court considered many issues in an appeal of a boundary dispute, involving trespass, unlawful mischief, ejectment, conversion, agency, equitable estoppel, and right to a jury trial, with mixed results.
Issue: Defendant replaced his boathouse and added retaining walls that encroached on his neighbor’s property. The neighbor sued for declaratory and injunctive relief with claims of ejectment, trespass, and unlawful-mischief. Defendant counterclaimed to quiet title and for damages for acts of vandalism involving the use of chainsaws to mark the boundary in his new boathouse. The parties agreed that to a trial by judge regarding the location of the boundary, with the remainder of the claims to be decided by the jury. The judge ruled that the boathouse encroached on the neighbors’ property. However, it also ruled that an easement allowed the encroachment, resulting in a judgment for Defendant. It also ruled that the neighbors’ father was the neighbor’s agent, that the father consented to the encroachment, and that equitable estoppel prevented the neighbor from objecting. The trial court did not issue an order for costs to the prevailing party on one of the claims or issue a decision on an ancillary claim regarding spring rights. Both parties appealed on multiple grounds.
Holding: First, the Court held that the easement, which allowed use of the neighbor’s land to “repair” the boathouse, did not allow the Defendant to build a permanent concrete structure several feet high, extending 25 feet onto the neighbor’s property in order to provide support necessary to relocate the building. Second, the Court held that the neighbors had a right to a jury trial on the claims of ejectment, unlawful mischief, and trespass since actions for recovery of possession of real property and damage to property were historically actions at law. It rejected the trial court’s reasoning that the court could decide these issues since there were both equitable and legal claims raised. It held, where there are legal and equitable claims, the jury verdict must come first, after which the court may issue rulings on the equitable claims that must be consistent with the jury verdict. Therefore, the jury should have decided the questions of agency and consent and the factual issues underlying the equitable estoppel defense first. The Court ordered a remand for a trial by jury on the ejectment, trespass, and unlawful mischief claims and associated defenses, and for the trial court to conform its ruling on injunctive relief to the jury’s verdict. Third, the Court upheld a decision not to award fees on Defendant’s unlawful mischief counterclaim since a separate claim of unlawful mischief was omitted from the jury instructions without objection. Fourth, the Court ordered the trial court to rule on the bill of costs and associated claim regarding spring rights.