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Cote v. Vallee

Supreme Court of Maine

October 31, 2019

MANON COTE et al.
v.
ROGER VALLEE et al.

          Argued: September 24, 2019

          Neal L. Weinstein, Esq. (orally), Old Orchard Beach, for appellants Roger Vallee and Melody Vallee

          Michael J. O'Toole, Esq. (orally), Woodman Edmands Danylik Austin Smith & Jacques, PA, Biddeford, for appellees Manon Cote and Sylvain Theriault

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

          ALEXANDER, J.

         [¶1] Roger and Melody Vallee appealed to the Superior Court (York County, O'Neil, J.) from a small claims judgment entered in the District Court (Biddeford, Foster, J.) in favor of Manon Cote and Sylvain Theriault. On that appeal, the parties invited and consented to the Superior Court deviating from the practice for small claims appeals as specified in our rules. See M.R.S.C.P. 11; M.R. Civ. P. 76D, 76F, 80L. The Superior Court affirmed the judgment against the Vallees subject to a modest reduction in the amount of damages that the District Court had awarded to Cote and Theriault.

         [¶2] The Vallees now appeal to us from the Superior Court judgment because the process they specifically requested in that court led to a result that is not to their liking. Because parties to a proceeding may not, as a matter of strategy, invite changes in the process required by our rules and then, on appeal, claim that they were prejudiced by the process they requested, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I. CASE HISTORY

         [¶3] In December 2015, Manon Cote and Sylvain Theriault filed a statement of claim in the District Court seeking a small claims judgment against Roger and Melody Vallee for $6, 000. Cote and Theriault alleged that the Vallees had violated the terms of a "license agreement" to provide Cote and Theriault's adjacent property with running water and that, as a result of this breach, Cote and Theriault were forced to install a new well. The District Court held a hearing on the claim in May 2016, after which it entered a judgment in favor of Cote and Theriault for $6, 000 plus $92.17 in costs.[1]

         [¶4] The Vallees filed a timely notice of appeal with an embedded request for a jury trial in the Superior Court. See 4 M.R.S. § 105(3)(B)(2) (2018); M.R.S.C.P. 11; M.R. Civ. P. 80L. In their request for a jury trial, the Vallees asserted that there were "genuine issues of material fact" as to which they had the right to a trial by jury.[2] The Vallees indicated that the District Court hearing had not been recorded.

         [¶5] After holding a hearing on the Vallees' request for a jury trial de novo, the Superior Court entered an order granting the request based on its determination that there were "adequate facts in dispute to justify a jury trial." In the same order, however, the Superior Court authorized the parties to file motions for summary judgment.[3] The Vallees filed a motion for summary judgment in December 2016. Contrary to the statement they had made in their request for a jury trial, the Vallees asserted in their motion that there were "NO issues of material fact" and that there was "simply no basis to have a trial." Cote and Theriault opposed the motion. After another hearing, the Superior Court denied the summary judgment motion, determining-once again-that there were genuine issues of material fact to be tried.

         [¶6] A jury trial was eventually scheduled for October 2018, but, on the day of jury selection, the Vallees waived their jury trial request, and the parties informed the court that they were instead requesting a bench trial, which the court then scheduled. On the day of the bench trial, the court realized that the case had originated as a small claims matter and told the parties, correctly, "[Y]ou have a right to a jury trial de novo. I don't think you have a right to a bench trial de novo." The Vallees disagreed, saying, "[W]e can waive the jury because there's no law or rule that says you can't waive it... I think you can certainly waive it as we did here in this case." The Superior Court disputed that assessment, but agreed to proceed with the bench trial anyway if all parties consented, although allowing them to reserve the issue for appeal.

         [¶7] The parties indicated that they wished to proceed with the bench trial, which the court then conducted. The day after the trial, having further reviewed the legal question of a party's right to a bench trial in this situation, the court concluded that it lacked the authority to conduct a bench trial de novo on a small claims appeal. After discussing the matter in a chambers conference, the parties agreed that the court should proceed only with an appellate review of the District Court judgment. Additionally, because no record had been made of the small claims hearing, the parties stipulated that the evidence admitted at the Superior Court bench trial was the same as the evidence that had been admitted at the hearing in the District Court. The parties also agreed to rest on the legal arguments stated in their previously-filed memoranda regarding summary judgment.

         [¶8] On October 25, 2018, the Superior Court entered a judgment affirming in part and vacating in part the District Court's small claims judgment. The Superior Court affirmed the District Court's determination that the Vallees were liable to Cote and Theriault, but found "inadequate evidence to support a judgment in the amount of $6, 000." It therefore remanded the matter to the District Court for the entry of a judgment in favor of Cote and Theriault in the reduced ...


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