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Wawenock, LLC v. Department of Transportation

Supreme Court of Maine

June 28, 2018

WAWENOCK, LLC, et al.
v.
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

          Argued: May 15, 2018

          Robert S. Hark, Esq. (orally), Portland, and Peggy L. McGehee, Esq., and Lauren B. Weliver, Esq., Perkins Thompson, Portland, for appellants Wawenock, LLC, Bermuda Isles, LLC, 48 Federal Street LLC, and 32 Middle Street LLC

          Nathaniel M. Rosenblatt, Esq. (orally), and Kate J. Grossman, Esq., Farrell, Rosenblatt & Russell, Bangor, and James A. Billings, Esq., Maine Department of Transportation, Augusta, for appellee Department of Transportation

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          GORMAN, J.

         [¶l] Wawenock, LLC; Bermuda Isles, LLC; 48 Federal Street LLC; and 32 Middle Street LLC (collectively, the LLCs) appeal from a judgment on the pleadings entered in the Business and Consumer Docket [Mulhern, j.) in favor of the Department of Transportation on the LLCs' complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the Department's plan to widen Route 1 in Wiscasset. The LLCs argue that the court erred by determining that the Sensible Transportation Policy Act (STPA), 23 M.R.S. § 73 (2017), affords them no private right of action. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On February 14, 2017, the LLCs-four entities that own property in Wiscasset-instituted the present litigation in the Superior Court (Lincoln County)[1] against the Department, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the "Wiscasset Downtown Improvement Project" (the Project) for the widening and alteration of Route 1/Main Street in Wiscasset.[2] By amended complaint, the LLCs advanced nine counts claiming that the Department violated various constitutional, statutory, regulatory, and municipal provisions in planning and designing the Project. In particular, in Count 1, the LLCs alleged that the Department violated the STPA by failing to allow public participation in the planning and design of the Project.[3]

         [¶3] The Department moved for a judgment on the pleadings pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 12(c), arguing that the complaint was nonjusticiable on a variety of grounds. By judgment dated September 11, 2017, the court granted the motion and entered a judgment on the pleadings in favor of the Department on all counts. As to Count 1, the court concluded that the STPA affords no private right of action and that the LLCs were therefore precluded from seeking relief on that basis. The LLCs appeal from the denial of their motion for reconsideration.[4] See M.R. Civ. P. 7(b)(5), 59(e).

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶4] The LLCs challenge only that portion of the court's judgment determining that the STPA affords them no private right of action and entering a judgment on the pleadings as to Count 1 on that basis. When, as here, a motion for a judgment on the pleadings is filed by the defendant pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 12(c), "only the legal sufficiency of the complaint is tested." Cunningham v. Haza, 538 A.2d 265, 267 (Me. 1988). In such circumstances, the "[defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is nothing more than a motion under M.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Cunningham, 538 A.2d at 267. We review the grant of a judgment on the pleadings de novo, Faith Temple v. DiPietro, 2015 ME 166, ¶ 26, 130 A.3d 368, by "assuming that the factual allegations are true, examining the complaint in the light most favorable to plaintiff, and ascertaining whether the complaint alleges the elements of a cause of action or facts entitling the plaintiff to relief on some legal theory," Cunningham, 538 A.2d at 267 (quotation marks omitted).

         [¶5] The sole issue before us is whether the STPA provides for a private right of action such that the LLCs may seek its enforcement through the court. A statute may provide for a private right of action by express language or by implication. Larrabee v. Penobscot Frozen Foods, Inc., 486 A.2d 97, 101 (Me. 1984).

         [¶6] When a private right of action exists, however, it is most often created by express language: "[I]f our Legislature had intended that a private party have a right of action ..., it would have either expressed its intent in the statutory language or legislative history or, more likely, expressly enacted one." Id.; see In re Wage Payment Litig., 2000 ME 162, ¶ 7, 759 A.2d 217 (stating that "when the Legislature deems it essential that a private party have a right of action, it has expressly created one" (quotation marks omitted)).

         [¶7] To determine whether the STPA provides for a private right of action, we interpret the statute de novo to effectuate the legislative intent. Foster v. State Tax Assessor, 1998 ME 205, ¶ 7, 716 A.2d 1012. The first and best indicator of legislative intent is the plain language of the statute itself. Id. If the statute is unambiguous, we interpret the statute according to its unambiguous language, "unless the result is illogical or absurd." MaineToday Media, Inc. v. State, 2013 ME 100, ¶ 6, 82 A.3d 104 (quotation marks omitted). If the language is ambiguous, we will "consider the statute's meaning in light of its legislative history and other indicia of legislative intent." Id. "[I]f a statute can reasonably be interpreted in more than one way and comport with the actual language of the statute, an ambiguity exists." Me. Ass'n of Health Plans v. Superintendent of Ins., 2007 ME 69, ¶ 35, 923 A.2d 918.

         A. Plain Language

         [¶8] The STPA was enacted by a citizens' initiative in 1991. LB. 1991, ch. 1, § 1 (effective Dec. 20, 1991); L.D. 719 (referred to the voters, 115th Legis. 1991); see Me. Const, art. IV, pt. 3, § 18. It provides, § 73. Transportation policy

1. Short title. This section may be known and cited as the "Sensible Transportation Policy Act."
2. Purposes and findings. The people of the State find that decisions regarding the State's transportation network are vital to the well-being of Maine citizens, to the economic health of the State and to the quality of life that the citizens treasure and seek to protect.
The people also find that these decisions have profound, long-lasting and sometimes detrimental impacts on the natural resources of the State, including its air quality, land and water.
The people further find that substantial portions of the state highway system are in disrepair and improvements to the State's roads and bridges are necessary to provide a safe, efficient, and adequate transportation network throughout the State.
The people further find that the State's transportation network is heavily dependent on foreign oil, that such reliance is detrimental to the health of the State's economy and that the health and long-term stability of the State's economy require increased reliance on more efficient forms of transportation.
The people further find that improvements to the transportation network are necessary to meet the diverse transportation needs of the people of the State including rural and urban populations and the unique mobility requirements of the elderly and disabled.
The people further find that the decisions of state agencies regarding transportation needs and facilities are often made in isolation, without sufficient comprehensive planning and ...

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