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Divorces and custody cases in Rhode Island can be some of the most contentious and protracted proceedings that are heard by state courts. The intense emotion and resentment between parties in family law disputes often lead cases down a dark road where the best interests of any children at issue seem distant from the actual arguments taking place in court. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled on an appeal of a custody order that gave a father joint custody of his child, while finding the mother in contempt for interfering with his visitation.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is the father of a six-year-old boy who sought partial custody and visitation with the child from the defendant, the mother of the child. According to the facts discussed in the judicial opinion, the mother claimed throughout the proceedings that the father suffered from psychological issues and was not able to safely be with the child one-on-one. After a trial that lasted nearly two years, the family court ultimately awarded the parties joint custody of the child, with the mother as the primary caretaker, and the father having reasonable visitation. In spite of the court order, the mother continued to refuse the father meaningful parent time with the child alone, ultimately leading to the family court holding her in contempt.

The mother appealed both the family court’s judgment and the contempt order to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that the court’s judgment was erroneous. The Supreme Court upheld the lower courts rulings, noting and applying the factors that Rhode Island law considers when determining child custody: (1) the wishes of the child’s parents; (2) the reasonable preference of the child; (3) the interaction and relationship of the child to the parents; (4) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community; (5) the mental and physical health of the individuals involved; (6) the stability of the child’s home life; (7) the moral fitness of the parents; and (8) the willingness of each parent to facilitate a close relationship between the child and the other parent. Finding that the decision to give the father joint custody and reasonable parent time considered and properly applied the relevant factors, the high court affirmed the family court’s ruling.

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Rhode Island family courts are often placed in the difficult position of determining whether it is in the child’s best interests to place them in foster care or an adoptive home when the natural parent still desires a parent-child relationship with the child. At-risk children are usually first discovered by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which takes custody of the children and offers services to the parents to correct whatever situation led to the children being placed in the custody of the state. If a parent fails to correct their situation, DCYF may go to the courts and seek to terminate the parent’s parental rights. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently addressed a natural father’s appeal from a family court ruling that terminated his rights to his daughter.

In the recently decided case, the Respondent is the natural father to a child born in October 2016. According to the court’s opinion, the child was taken into DCYF custody shortly after birth because of issues with both parents’ ability to care for her. Evidently, one of the mother’s previous children had died in an accident related to child neglect, and the father had apparent drug and alcohol problems, as well as a history of domestic violence.

After the DCYF took custody of the child, a reunification plan was put into place to allow the father to regain custody of the child. As part of the reunification plan, the father needed to attend several parenting and substance abuse classes and attend supervised visits with the daughter to introduce him to the child and help him with parenting skills.

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Residential subdivisions in Rhode Island often contain multiple lots that can only be reasonably accessed through a shared private driveway system, portions of which multiple residents or property owners are entitled to use for accessing their property. Disputes over which parts of a shared driveway are shared and which are private are common, and property owners sometimes obstruct or impede their neighbors from using a part of a shared driveway that the owner believes is entirely private. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently upheld a superior court decision that enjoined a property owner from impeding their neighbor’s use of a portion of such a shared driveway.

The plaintiffs in the recently decided case are a family who purchased a home adjacent to the defendants in an eight lot subdivision that was accessed by a shared driveway system. The plaintiff’s property was situated closer to the public road than the defendant’s property and had two entrances to the shared driveway, a paved one closer to the road, and an unpaved entrance adjacent to the defendant’s property. Because the plaintiffs had a son with disabilities, a large school bus would come directly to the plaintiff’s home early in the morning on weekdays to pick him up in accordance with federal law. Because the shared driveway was narrow and situated on a steep grade, the school bus (as well as other utility or delivery vehicles servicing the plaintiffs) would use a part of the defendant’s driveway to back into the plaintiff’s driveway or turn around to descend the hill safely.

The defendants were bothered by the traffic of large vehicles with bright lights using part of their driveway to turn around and claimed that the plaintiffs had no right to allow the school bus to do so. The defendants erected a fence and a chain to impede any vehicles from using that portion of the driveway to help them access the plaintiff’s property safely. As a result of the defendant’s actions, the school bus driver was required to back directly down the long steep part of the hill, which was extremely difficult and resulted in the bus occasionally slipping off the road. The plaintiffs ultimately brought a case in Superior Court, alleging that there was an implied easement for their use of the portion of the defendant’s driveway that was necessary to safely turn around a large vehicle such as a school bus.

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As state and municipal zoning and land use laws change and evolve, property owners can be placed in a difficult position if the intended use of their property becomes disallowed at some point because of the passage of a new law or regulation. To protect property owner’s rights, Rhode Island law permits owners to seek special use permits or other zoning variances which allow them to proceed with construction or other property uses which may not be permitted under current laws. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reversed a zoning board’s denial of a property owner’s application for a special use permit to construct a septic system and house on a parcel of real estate.

In the recently decided case, the plaintiff owned a parcel of land in the town of Charlestown, Rhode Island. The parcel, which was slightly larger than one acre, was originally created as part of a subdivision project in the 1970s. Since the plaintiff purchased the parcel, the town increased the required lot size for home construction to three acres, making the parcel nonconforming for development under the new regulations. In order to proceed with construction on the property, the plaintiff applied for a special use permit and dimensional variance to allow them to construct a septic system and place a house on the parcel. The plaintiff first obtained a permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for the construction plans and later sought the permit and variance from the town zoning board.

Although the Department of Environmental Management had approved the plaintiff’s plans, the zoning board disagreed with their conclusion and refused to grant the plaintiff the requested permits, effectively stopping the construction plans. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court, where the zoning board’s decision was upheld. The plaintiff appealed the Superior Court ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the zoning board was required to accept the Department of Environmental Management’s decision to approve the construction of the septic system.

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The real estate market across the United States has been on fire lately. According to a recent CNBC article, the median home price increased over 17 percent year-over-year to over $329,000. Rhode Island is no exception. According to a recent analysis from the online real estate company, Redfin, the median list price for a Rhode Island is $389,000. And while historically, on average, houses sold for slightly less than the list price due to buyer negotiating, that isn’t necessarily the case in today’s hot market.

To be sure, high home prices add to the challenges buyers face when seeking to purchase a home. However, the increasing sales prices are actually a function of another factor: a decrease in supply. As fewer homes are put on the market—and those that are put up for sale are quickly sold—the existing inventory of homes dwindles. Basic economics tells us that as supply decreases, prices will increase.

All this to say, the Rhode Island real estate market is competitive and buyers who want to end up with the house or property of their dreams need to be prepared to make a deal. Sellers are less likely to haggle over price or make the type of concessions they did decades ago. That said, buyers shouldn’t compromise on the important things, but shouldn’t insist on every aspect of the deal going their way, either.

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Rhode Island state law allows for the formation of various trusts and similar instruments in order for a person or organization (the settlor) to place their assets under the protection or control of another (a trustee) for the benefit of some person or organization (the beneficiary). Trusts are often designed to benefit one party until their death, upon which the trust assets are distributed to other beneficiaries and the trust is ultimately dissolved. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently resolved a dispute concerning the management and distribution of a trust between a beneficiary of a trust and a trustee who had been managing the assets.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case was a beneficiary of a trust that was created by a woman who named the defendant as a trustee. Upon the death of the settlor, the defendant complied with the terms of the trust, paying out certain bequests to the beneficiaries of the trust (including the plaintiff), and then dividing the remaining assets among the other trustees as required by the trust agreement.

The plaintiff, who was also the administrator of the settlor’s estate, believed that the trust may have been mismanaged or improperly distributed, and requested a detailed accounting of the trust, as well as a detailed and onerous accounting of the defendant’s personal finances. The defendant refused the plaintiff’s request, maintaining that they had managed and distributed the trust properly and that they had no obligation to provide the plaintiff with the requested information. The plaintiff then took the defendant to court.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Rhode Island real estate dispute, the facts of which were heavily in dispute. According to the plaintiff, he paid the defendant $150,000 over the course of ten years under the impression that all the money he paid to the defendant would be put towards the purchase of a certain piece of real estate. The defendant, however, maintained a vastly different story. According to the defendant, the money he received from the plaintiff was for his service as the plaintiff’s agent in the automotive business.

In 2015, the plaintiff filed an eight-count complaint against the defendant. Among the claims raised in the complaint were those of promissory estoppel, fraud, misrepresentation, and unjust enrichment.

Making the case more interesting is the fact that the defendant was a former state representative. The defendant filed a pretrial motion to preclude the plaintiff from mentioning this fact at trial; however, the court denied the motion.

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The United States Constitution protects Rhode Island property owners from government intrusion or possession of their property under the Fifth Amendment. Also, it protects property owners from the unlawful seizure of property without just compensation under the Fourth Amendment. While these protections originally were created to protect against obvious and straightforward intrusions of the public’s property rights by the government, jurisprudence over the last 230 years has developed in a way to expand the protections offered by these constitution provisions, allowing property owners to challenge many government actions and regulations on constitutional grounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case from California that could expand the public’s right to challenge government regulations affecting business and property owners on these constitutional grounds. In the recently argued case, the plaintiff owns and operates an orchard for the production of fruit in California. The plaintiff has sued a quasi-government labor board, challenging regulations that permit union organizers to enter into the company property at certain times and solicit support for union membership and labor organization. The plaintiff sued the labor board, alleging that the permission granted by the regulations disrupted their business practices and amounted to a government-sanctioned trespass on their property without any compensation.

In the federal district court, the Plaintiff’s claim was dismissed because they did not allege facts that would show that the regulation had a meaningful effect on their possessory interests as a whole. The plaintiff appealed the district court ruling to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, who ultimately upheld the district court decision, holding that the Defendant’s regulation only allowed controlled, nondisruptive visits that were limited in time, place and scope, and that the visits did not meaningfully affect the Plaintiff’s property interests.

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Pursuing a Rhode Island homeowners or property insurance claim can be much more difficult than it should be. Although insurance companies are paid by their clients for the express purpose of providing coverage against a covered loss, once a claim is filed, an insurance company often treats their client as a hostile party. Claims adjusters and the legal teams behind them have a duty to their employers to weed out fraudulent claims; however, incentive programs used by insurance companies often result in all claims initially being treated as if they are unreasonable or fraudulent.

As an insured person who has recently suffered a devastating loss that would result in a property insurance claim, the client is often in an extremely vulnerable and unfavorable position to express their rights under the insurance policy and demand what they are entitled to. Insurance companies know this and will often deny coverage unjustly or make extremely reduced offers to vulnerable clients who need a payout immediately. While the ethics of this practice is certainly questionable, when taken to its extreme, insurance company tactics can have legal implications that all their clients should be aware of.

When the insurance company game of hardball goes from unkind to unethical or illegal, is when a Rhode Island bad faith insurance claim can come into play. Insurance companies have a fiduciary duty to act in the insured’s best interests, which includes a duty to seriously consider a plaintiff’s reasonable settlement demand. An insurance company that wrongfully denies a claim can be sued by their client for acting in bad faith. Insurers can be held accountable for declining to settle a valid claim or for otherwise failing to adequately perform their duties under the insurance contract. A plaintiff who successfully pursues a bad faith claim against their insurance company may be entitled to the original damages under the claim, as well as punitive damages against the insurance company as well as attorney’s fees.

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The requirement that a court has jurisdiction–over both the parties and the issue of a legal dispute–is one of the first questions that a court asks when addressing a legal claim. Without valid jurisdiction over a party or the issue at hand, a court cannot grant the relief requested by the plaintiff. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently affirmed a Superior court’s dismissal of a landlord-tenant dispute based on lack of jurisdiction. As a result of the ruling, the parties may not be able to obtain relief for their claims.

In the recently decided case, the plaintiff is a woman who owned a piece of property and leased it to the defendants for a period of two and a half years. After the defendants moved out of the property, the plaintiff withheld their security deposit and sought additional monetary damages from the defendants for damage allegedly caused to the property in violation of the lease agreement. The plaintiff filed a breach of contract claim with the Superior Court, making these allegations.

Although the defendants alleged counterclaims against the plaintiff’s lawsuit, they also challenged the plaintiff’s claim on jurisdictional grounds. The defendants argued that under Rhode Island law, landlord-tenant disputes fall under the jurisdiction of a housing court, or a District court in jurisdictions where a housing court is not available, and that a claim filed in Superior Court must fail as a matter of law. The Superior Court agreed, holding that the legislature specifically designated housing courts with authority to handle landlord-tenant disputes, and that the claim must be filed in the proper court for either party to obtain relief.

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