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Disputes between a business or property owner and a contractor, or even between a general contractor and subcontractors, can derail construction projects and result in costs far exceeding estimations for construction or renovation projects. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled on an appeal to determine if an architect was entitled to contract damages for work that was never completed.

At the heart of this legal dispute lies a contractual agreement between an architectural firm and a restaurant. The restaurant hired an architectural firm to design a construction plan for renovating the restaurant property after a winter storm damaged the roof. The parties agreed that the plaintiff would prepare and deliver plans for the renovation, and the defendant made a partial payment toward the contract. According to the facts discussed in the opinion, the defendant stopped paying on the contract and abandoned their plan to use the plaintiff’s services to renovate the building. As a result, the plaintiff sued the defendant for the remaining balance due under the contract.

The court’s ruling centered on the existence of a binding contract, substantiated by a fixed lump-sum fee arrangement for architectural services. This arrangement mandated that the architect would receive predetermined compensation for his architectural work, disbursed in installments linked to specific project milestones. Regrettably, the defendant defaulted on their end of the deal, not only abandoning the contract but also discontinuing payments to the architect.

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In recent years, the development of green energy projects has expanded significantly, both in Rhode Island and nationwide. Wind and solar farms are the most common types of recently constructed renewable energy developments. As the use of fossil fuels for power generation subsides, renewables appear poised to take up the slack in our energy grids. While solar farms are a great way to generate green energy, their installation and use are often opposed by property owners and the municipal representatives who they serve. The Town of Exeter, Rhode Island recently modified its zoning ordinances to prohibit the construction of new solar farms in residential areas, a decision that was challenged at the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

According to a recently published appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is an energy development company that had applied in 2018 with the defendant town to develop three solar field projects. At the time the plaintiff submitted their application, which was submitted as a “pre-application,” the proposed solar farms were permitted under town zoning ordinances. A few months after the plaintiff submitted their application, the Exeter town council amended its zoning ordinances to issue a moratorium preventing the construction of any new utility-scale solar farms in residential areas. This zoning change essentially foreclosed the plaintiff from pursuing their proposed solar projects.

The plaintiff sued the town in state court as a result of the zoning change. The plaintiff argued that their right to be permitted for the construction project had vested before the town changed the ordinance. The plaintiff argued that the town did not have the power to reject their application under the new ordinances because the application was submitted before the laws were changed. The town disputed the plaintiff’s allegations, claiming that the moratorium on new construction was validly passed pursuant to the town’s emergency powers. The town argued that the number of pending applications for solar projects had overburdened the municipality and that they were unable to keep up with the permit requests.

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In a recent case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld a district court judge’s decision to terminate a mother’s parental rights, partially due to her mental health issues. The case began when the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) removed the mother’s newborn child after receiving a “hotline” call. The mother also had a pending case with DCYF involving the custody of her four older children. According to several DCYF caseworkers, the DCYF developed a case plan requiring the mother to accept mental health and domestic violence services, learn skills for meeting her child’s needs, and sign releases of information so DCYF could coordinate with her mental health providers. Several caseworkers observed that the mother’s behavior was erratic, inconsistent, and not acceptable in her child’s presence. She also refused to sign the releases, citing concerns over sharing her private health information. Finally, when DCYF removed her newborn, the mother suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a hospital for mental health treatment. At the hospital, she could not see her child because DCYF determined there was no way to supervise the visit. Ultimately, DCYF discharged the mother from her reunification program because of her erratic behavior and failure to comply with the mental health services plan.

The trial court granted DCYF’s petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights. Specifically, DCYF had sufficiently proven that it offered the mother services to correct the situation that led to the separation, and the mother was unfit based on her “seriously detrimental” mental health symptoms. On appeal, the mother argued that the district court erred in finding that the DCYF made reasonable efforts at reunification when she was hospitalized. She further alleged that DCYF failed to offer services reasonably designed to address her mental health needs. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court court rejected these claims.

The Reasonable Efforts Standard

As the court explained, DCYF must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it made “reasonable efforts to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship” before a court can terminate a parent’s rights. Rhode Island courts must determine the reasonableness of DCYF’s efforts based on the particular facts of each case.

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When a city or municipality assesses an unfairly high tax on your property, you may be unsure what to do next. Instead of ignoring the problem, it is important to act as soon as possible. In Rhode Island, a plaintiff must challenge tax assessment claims within the time specified under a statute of limitations. This term refers to a legally imposed time limit to file a claim. Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court determined whether the appropriate statute of limitations in a tax assessment challenge was three months or ten years, only one of which would allow the plaintiff’s claim to go forward.

The corporate plaintiff in the case, Newport and New Road, LLC (“Newport”) filed a petition in the Rhode Island Superior Court against the tax assessor of the City of East Providence. The petition alleged that the defendant conducted an illegal property-tax assessment in 2012 and an excessive tax assessment in 2013. The City argued that Newport’s claim fell beyond the required three-month statute of limitations. Conversely, Newport claimed it could sue within ten years of the defendant’s assessments based on a separate statute from the one that carried a three-month time limit. The Superior Court agreed with the City, holding that the three-month statute of limitations barred Newport from suit. On appeal, Newport argued that the lower court erred in applying the three-year statute of limitations. Instead, Newport asserted that the proper statute of limitations for its tax assessment claim is ten years, the time limit that generally applies to civil actions in Rhode Island. Additionally, Newport argued that the statute did not reference the three-month statute of limitations, meaning the court should have interpreted the “silent” statute as imposing the standard ten-year limit.

Based on its own statutory interpretation, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the City. While the specific section of the statute at issue did not specify a time limit, it unambiguously referenced other sections that imposed three-month filing deadlines. The court explained that Newport’s interpretation would ignore the general requirement to interpret a statute in its entirety rather than reading each section in isolation. Additionally, the three-month statute of limitations reflected legislative intent to resolve tax assessment disputes as quickly as possible. Based on the entire statute and the clear language of the section at issue, the court found that Newport’s challenges to its tax assessments were untimely due to the three-month statute of limitations that applied. This case illustrates that people or businesses that believe they have received an unfair tax assessment should file their case as soon as possible. An experienced Rhode Island real estate and tax lawyer can help you understand the applicable statute of limitations and file your case far ahead of the time limit.

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When parties undergo divorce proceedings, they must fully disclose their assets. The trial court will then determine which assets are separate property and which are marital property subject to equitable division between the parties. However, issues arise when a party is dishonest about the existence or value of their assets. Some people may attempt to conceal their assets to prevent the court from dividing them up. However, if a party fails to disclose a marital asset, the court may impose monetary sanctions against them. A recent Rhode Island Supreme Court case demonstrates the consequences of hiding assets from an ex-spouse and from the court.

According to the opinion’s account of the divorce proceedings below, the husband failed to respond to the wife’s requests to identify marital property and concealed several assets including his pension, workers’ compensation, Certificates of Deposit (CDs), undisclosed accounts, and ownership of the marital home. After several warnings, the trial judge sanctioned the defendant $1,000 per day that the husband failed to provide the requested documents showing proof of his assets, totaling $50,000. The husband argued that the assets were his separate property, though the wife paid what she believed to be her share of the mortgage every month. The trial judge awarded the wife 50% of the value of the husband’s pension, CDs, and the marital home’s appreciation in value. The trial judge also found that the appreciation of the wife’s second home was her separate property, as the husband’s remodeling projects did not contribute to the increased value.

On appeal, the husband argued that the trial judge erred in assigning marital assets to the wife, classifying the wife’s home as separate property, and imposing sanctions against him. He also claimed that the judge abused her discretion and disfavored him in the proceedings below. The high court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling. First, it reasoned that the husband’s decision to delay retirement should not deprive his wife of the pension. Second, the court found that the trial judge acted within her discretion in awarding 50% of the husband’s CDs to his wife. The husband provided no evidence that the CDs were his separate property, and he was not a credible witness on this point because he concealed his assets.

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Long after two parties have reached a divorce settlement, one party may discover marital assets that other party failed to disclose during the settlement process. When a person actively conceals a marital asset, their ex-spouse may seek a new settlement equitably dividing the asset between the parties. Those seeking to re-open a final divorce settlement in Rhode Island should know that the state may bar actions filed beyond a certain time period after the settlement. This time limit is known as the statute of limitations.

When Can a Party Re-Open a Rhode Island Divorce Case?

Rhode Island requires parties to bring an action challenging a judgment or contract under seal, including final divorce settlements, within 20 years of the final judgment or contract. Courts have recognized a few exceptions to statutes of limitations, primarily when extending the time limit would be the most fair and equitable action to take. However, a defendant can also ask courts to bar a legal claim under the doctrine of laches. If the defendant succeeds, the court may prohibit a plaintiff from bringing a claim if the (1) plaintiff could have acted earlier and fails to justify the delay, and (2) the defendant has suffered damage from the delay.

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The Rhode Island Division of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) is tasked with the unenviable job of addressing abusive or neglectful parents whose conduct may put their children at serious risk. The DCYF often is involved in cases where one or both parents are suffering from mental health issues and addictions or engaging in chronic criminal activity. Before seeking to take someone’s children away and terminate their parental rights, the DCYF usually prepares a case plan to give the parent(s) the ability to improve their lifestyle, learn parenting skills, and ultimately regain permanent custody of their children. Wide discretion is given to individual DCYF employees to determine the requirements of a successful case plan. A father recently appealed the termination of his parental rights after he allegedly failed to properly follow through on his case plan.

The appellant in the recently decided appeal is the father of a young child born in 2018. Based upon existing neglect and termination proceedings concerning the mother’s other children, the DCYF immediately opened a neglect case in regard to the child once they learned of the birth. As part of the neglect case, a case plan was developed to allow the father to demonstrate his fitness as a parent. The father and mother were no longer a couple when the neglect case was initiated, so the DCYF assigned individual case plans to each of the parents. The father, who allegedly admitted to selling drugs in the past to a DCYF-referred therapist, was instructed to abstain from drugs and alcohol and enter into substance abuse treatment with random drug screenings as part of the case plan.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the father attempted to comply with many portions of the case plan, attending parenting classes and supervised visits with the child. The father did not, however, submit proof that he attended a substance abuse evaluation or provide drug screening results as expected. While the case plan was in effect, the father was arrested for possession of heroin and incarcerated. In response to his arrest and incarceration, the DCYF chose to pursue termination proceedings against the father. A trial was held on the matter, where the family court determined that the father was unfit to parent the child, that he was unlikely to become a fit parent in a reasonable amount of time, and that the child’s current placement in a foster home was healthy and likely to result in an adoption. Based on those findings, the family court entered an order terminating the father’s parental rights.

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Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that can be used in Rhode Island to allow a trespasser or squatter to take legal title to a piece of real property after openly possessing and using the land for a certain period of time. Claims of adverse possession are often used to resolve disputes between neighboring property owners who may not have been complying with the officially surveyed property boundaries. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a man who owned property adjacent to a cemetery and had been using portions of the cemetery’s land for his own purposes for several decades.

The appellant in the recently decided appeal is a man who owned property adjacent to the plaintiff’s land since inheriting it from his father. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the appellant had witnessed and been involved in the use of two parcels of land adjacent to his family’s plot, which was technically owned by the cemetery. Since the appellant could remember, his family used and maintained the two plots of land as if they were the rightful owners. Specifically, one of the land plots had been used for storing scrap metal and vehicles for nearly 30 years. The other portion of land had been maintained and landscaped by the appellant and his family for over ten years.

The owners of the cemetery filed an action in Rhode Island state court against the appellant in 2018, alleging that his use of the two plots of land was an unlawful trespass and requesting that the Court order the appellant to cease use of the property and remove the trespassing structures and other items. The appellant responded to the lawsuit, alleging that he and his family are entitled to ownership of the disputed parcels under the doctrine of adverse possession.

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The unique and evolving needs of a robust industrial economy may lead to disputes over land use between neighboring property owners. Rhode Island zoning laws, and their application by state administrative and judicial bodies, are designed to fairly and effectively balance these competing interests to support local economies while preserving property owners’ rights to the enjoyment and use of their property. The Rhode Island Superior court recently affirmed a local zoning board’s decision to permit the expansion of a building within a shipyard and enable the owners to more efficiently construct large vessels needed to service offshore wind farms.

The defendants in the recently decided case include a shipyard owner, as well as the members of the local zoning board of the town of Warren, Rhode Island. According to the facts discussed in the court’s written ruling, the shipyard owner had applied to the town zoning board for a dimensional use variance, which would permit the shipyard to expand an existing building to increase the yard’s ability to fulfill new contracts for large industrial vessels. The town zoning board held public hearings on the shipyard owner’s request, where a neighboring property owner objected to the proposal. The neighboring property owner argued that the expansion was unnecessary, and would lead to increased traffic and noise around their own property.

The town council unanimously approved the shipyard owner’s application, finding that the requested permits were necessary for the owner’s business and that the objecting property owner’s contentions lacked merit. The adjacent property owner appealed the administrative ruling to the Superior Court, arguing that the zoning board’s decision was not made in accordance with the law. On appeal, the court described the factors that are used to justify the type of variance requested by the shipyard owner and found that the factors were properly considered by the zoning board. Based on the ruling by the Superior Court, the proposed building expansion will be allowed to proceed.

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If a Rhode Island property owner fails to pay their bills (mortgage, tax, utility, etc.), they may be subject to the foreclosure of the property, and they may lose title and ownership permanently. In the event of a foreclosure, the original owner does have a right to redeem their nonpayment by asking the court to set a fair price for the redemption to occur and the foreclosure to be vacated. Although it is generally cheaper for a property owner to simply pay their bills rather than wait for an opportunity to redeem a property, the right of redemption exists to protect owners who may have been negligent in the past from losing their property entirely. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently reversed a trial court decision that permitted the owner to redeem ownership of the property.

The Respondent in the recently decided case purchased a property in Providence in 2009. As a result of unpaid taxes, the city of Providence took possession of the property and sold it at auction to the Petitioner. Acting within the standard procedure, the Petitioner filed an action to foreclose on the Respondent’s property rights in the Superior Court. Under state law, the Respondent had 20 days to answer the petition and make an offer to redeem the property. The Respondent filed an answer to the petition within the 20-day period, however, the answer contained no offer or request to redeem the property. Because the Respondent’s answer contained no offer to redeem the property, the Petitioner requested that the court enter a final order foreclosing on the Respondent’s right to redeem the property.

The state court rejected the petitioner’s request, instead allowing the Respondent to amend their answer to include a redemption offer. As a result of the ruling, a redemption figure was set, the Respondent began to take action to redeem the property, and the Petitioner appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. On Appeal, the Petitioner argued that the statute setting the 20 day deadline for making an offer to redeem a property establishes a mandatory deadline, which cannot be extended by allowing a party to amend their court pleadings. The Supreme Court agreed with the Petitioner, ruling that the redemption statute must be strictly construed, and absolutely requires any person seeking to redeem the property to make an offer to redeem the property within the statutory timeframe. Because the Respondent failed to timely make an offer to redeem the property, the law must be applied as written, and the Respondent will not be able to regain ownership of the property.

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