MANON COTE et al.
ROGER VALLEE et al.
Argued: September 24, 2019
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
SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, [*] JABAR, HJELM, and
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.
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.
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.
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. The Vallees indicated that the District
Court hearing had not been recorded.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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 ...