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Rhode Island law dictates what responsibilities landlords and tenants each have to maintain the property in a livable condition. The state of Rhode Island has published a landlord-tenant handbook that notes the relevant laws pertaining to these responsibilities. Damage caused to a rental home and the contents thereof may be the responsibility of the landlord or the tenant, depending on the circumstances surrounding the damage. Rhode Island landlords are legally required to maintain all common areas of a rental property inside and outside the dwelling. These areas must be maintained in a continuous fit and habitable condition. Any damage to a home’s electrical, plumbing, heating, and sanitary systems is the responsibility of the landlord.

Minor structural repairs and any major repairs are also the responsibility of the landlord. Cleaning, as well as minor repairs of problems caused by a tenant’s own negligence, are the responsibility of the tenant. If a landlord and tenant so choose, they can enter into additional written agreements to divide maintenance and repair responsibilities further; however, state law sets a minimum responsibility level for landlords that cannot be contractually eliminated.

The home itself, the fixtures, certain appliances and other property belonging to the landlord may be covered under a property insurance policy in the event of a covered loss. Tenants’ personal property, including electronics, clothing, automobiles, recreational equipment, etc, is not covered by the homeowner’s insurance policy. Tenants seeking insurance coverage for their property located in the home should purchase a rental insurance policy to protect their property and assets.

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As divorces and custody claims have become more complicated and contentious in recent years, sometimes the laws of multiple states must be addressed in evaluating the parties’ claims. Generally, the law of the state where an action is properly filed will determine how a judge addresses each party’s claims. Sometimes, when a proceeding is ongoing, one state court may be required to apply the laws of another state in evaluating a claim. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently accepted a lower court’s application of Connecticut law when determining the propriety of an attorneys’ fees award issued during a divorce claim.

The parties in the recently decided case had been married for over 10 years when their relationship became unsustainable, and they separated. Although the parties’ primary residence was in Rhode Island, the wife took the children to Connecticut to live with family upon separation and had them enrolled in school there. In response to the move, the husband requested an emergency custody hearing in Connecticut. During that hearing, the pirates managed to reach a settlement agreement (known as a postnuptial agreement, or PNA), to effectuate their divorce, child custody, and financial matters. Part of the settlement agreement included a provision that requires anyone who unsuccessfully challenged the agreement to pay the other party’s attorney fees.

After the parties’ disputes worsened, the husband brought an action for divorce in Rhode Island court, where he had been living at the time. The husband challenged the enforcement of the postnuptial agreement. The husband’s challenge of the agreement failed, and the Rhode Island court applied the terms of the PNA, ordering him to pay his ex’s reasonable attorneys’ fees for his unsuccessful challenge of the PNA.

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Real estate purchase and sales agreements in Rhode Island are generally drafted and reviewed by several real estate law experts to ensure that each party’s rights and obligations are clear and unambiguous so that the contract can be easily enforced in the event of a breach or default. When contract terms are unclear or have more than one reasonable interpretation, this can lead to contract disputes that may ultimately cost more to the parties in legal fees than the disputed amount. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently addressed cross-motions filed by parties to a real estate contract, which disputed the amount that the plaintiff would be allowed to subtract from the purchase price of the property based on agreed-upon renovations to the dock which the plaintiff demanded as a condition of the sale.

According to a judicial opinion released by the court hearing the dispute, the plaintiff agreed to purchase a dock from the defendant in 2017 for use in their petroleum distribution business. Because the dock at issue was not allowed to service boats over 90 ft, and the plaintiff’s use of the dock would require permission for boats up to 105 ft, the parties agreed in the real estate contract that the cost of repairs would be deducted from the purchase price. The parties included a provision that would adjust this division of responsibility in the event that the actual renovation cost either exceeded or fell short of an estimated amount.

After the project was completed, each party demanded payment from the other based on the purchase contract. The parties disputed which figure should be used for the “estimated amount” of renovation costs. The plaintiff and defendant each proposed a different estimated cost of renovation, with vastly different outcomes for each figure being used. Using the plaintiff’s numbers, they would be entitled to an overpayment of over $400,000, while using the defendant’s numbers would require the plaintiff to pay nearly $15,000 for underpayment. The plaintiff sued the defendant in the Superior court seeking $400,000, and the defendant countersued for the underpaid amount.

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Over the last century, the Rhode Island coastline has evolved from large estates used for agricultural and industrial purposes into a vibrant, year-round beach destination. A necessary consequence of this development includes the subdivision of larger parcels into smaller lots for residential and commercial development. As larger beachfront parcels are divided into smaller lots, many properties that once included direct beach access have become landlocked from the coast.

The smaller lots that we see today often include rights of passage or other easements against beachfront properties to ensure that the owners and tenants of the now-landlocked properties maintain the right to access adjacent beaches. Present-day property owners who are fortunate enough to possess a property that directly abuts the coastline often oppose neighboring property owners and tenants using these rights of way to access the beach. The Rhode Island Superior Court recently issued a ruling in a case brought by a semi-oceanfront property owner against their oceanfront neighbor to determine if an easement existed for the plaintiff to cross through the defendant’s property when accessing the beach.

In 1986, the plaintiffs in the recently decided case purchased a lot in Narragansett that was across the street from the defendant’s lot, which directly abutted the beach. According to the purchase agreement and recorded deed for the plaintiff’s transaction, the plaintiffs’ property included an easement, established in 1929, for them to access the beach through the defendant’s property. The plaintiffs used the defendant’s property to access the adjacent beach without issue from 1986 until 2015. In 2015, the defendants constructed a barricade and refused the plaintiffs access to the beach, stating that no easement existed and that the plaintiffs were trespassing by using the defendants’ driveway for beach access.

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Developing a large real estate project in Rhode Island can be a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process. Securing financing and obtaining zoning and other permits can be tricky, and the success or failure of a proposed development often relies on the decisions of municipal councils, zoning boards, or other administrative bodies. A group of plaintiffs recently sued a Rhode Island town for its failure to timely and properly approve their plans to develop real estate within the town limits.

The plaintiffs in the recently decided case are a group of developers who sought to construct a nearly 1000-acre planned development in the town of Richmond, Rhode Island. The plaintiff’s development was to include a golf course, a clubhouse, outdoor recreation trails, a gun range, as well as a hotel. In 2011, the plaintiffs informally notified the Town that they were seeking to construct a gun range on the property, and discussed the plans at public hearings held by the town.

The plaintiffs discovered in 2014 that the town council had amended the municipal ordinances to prohibit gun ranges from being built on the type of property the plaintiff sought to develop. Two years later, the property was rezoned so that a gun range could be constructed on the property, and the plaintiffs resumed the pursuit of that goal. The plaintiffs secured conditional financing for the project and began selling memberships to the gun range before obtaining approval from the town. The town did not hold a public hearing on the plaintiff’s proposed construction until after the plaintiffs’ financing offer had expired, and the plaintiffs were not able to continue with the project.

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Golf courses and country clubs often incorporate residential housing developments within or adjacent to the club borders. Many Rhode Island residents may desire to live along a golf course, as the easy access and social benefits of such an arrangement are desirable for golf enthusiasts and socialites alike. Houses located along an active golf course may be in the line of fire of errant golf balls, as golfers are not known to hit every shot on target. A Massachusetts court recently reversed a $5 million verdict that was awarded to a couple who had sued a golf course for nuisance based on the damage and distress caused by errant golf balls that struck the plaintiffs’ home.

According to a local news report discussing the recent appellate decision, the plaintiffs purchased a home adjacent to a Massachusetts golf course in 2017. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the course in 2021, alleging that over 600 golf balls had struck their property since the purchase, causing property damage and emotional distress. The plaintiffs claimed that the nuisance caused by the errant balls restricted the use of their property, preventing their children from safely playing in the yard. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs had no claim, as they should have expected golf balls to hit their property based on their location. A trial was held on the plaintiffs’ claim in the spring of 2022, and the jury awarded them a total of $5 million from the defendant, most of which was awarded for the plaintiff’s claims of emotional distress.

The defendant appealed the verdict to the state supreme court, arguing that the trial judge allowed the jury to be improperly instructed on the issue of an easement that the golf course owned on the plaintiffs’ property. According to the high court decision, the easement required the plaintiffs’ allowance of “the reasonable and efficient operation of a golf course” adjacent to the property. Because the jury was not instructed to determine whether the amount of intrusion into the plaintiffs’ property was “reasonable,” the court ruled that the verdict must be reversed, and the case was remanded to the lower court for a new trial. The plaintiff’s claim still may succeed eventually, but the case must go back for a new trial before another jury if it is not settled beforehand.

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The Rhode Island Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern the practice of law in the state, set standards defining when it is inappropriate for an attorney to represent a client based on conflicts of interests. Generally, an attorney cannot represent a client in an action against a former client of theirs if the issues addressed are substantially similar to those of the previous case. The application of these rules can be difficult in divorce cases, as one party often tries to retain an attorney who may have represented the couple in other matters during the marriage. The Providence division of the Rhode Island Superior Court recently addressed a motion to disqualify one party’s attorneys in a divorce and subsequent cases based on alleged conflicts of interests.

According to the facts discussed in the judicial ruling, the parties to the present case were married in 2006 and began discussing divorce in 2017. The husband retained an attorney to represent him in the divorce proceeding. The parties attempted to negotiate a settlement through the husband’s attorney, but it ultimately fell through and the husband filed for divorce in 2020. The plaintiff attempted to have the husband’s attorney disqualified from the case, as she claimed that he represented her at earlier stages of the negotiation, and there was a conflict of interests in the attorney’s representation of the husband. The plaintiff’s attempts to have the defendant’s attorney disqualified and disciplined for representing the husband in the divorce ultimately failed, and the divorce was finalized in January 2022.

In March 2022, the plaintiff filed a separate case against her ex-husband. This case alleged that the husband assaulted her during the marriage, and she sought financial damages from him as compensation for his alleged conduct. The husband retained his same divorce attorney to represent him in this claim. The plaintiff then filed a motion to disqualify the husband’s attorney, arguing that there was a conflict of interest based on their previous interactions. The Superior court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, finding that the defendant’s attorney never represented the plaintiff in any issue that was substantially related to her claims against her ex-husband. The plaintiff’s motion was denied. As a result of this ruling, the defendant’s attorney will be permitted to represent him in the assault case.

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The purchase, sale, and transfer of real estate assets in Rhode Island are governed by specific regulations and statutes that are designed to protect the rights of all parties to a sales agreement. Many things can happen between an agreement being reached and the closing that can derail a real estate transaction. For various reasons, buyers and sellers may wish to delay or cancel a purchase agreement after the contract has been signed. The Rhode Island Superior Court recently addressed a claim by the prospective buyers of a residential home against the seller, who had allegedly refused to continue with the transaction on the scheduled closing date.

The reasons that a party may wish to back out of a real estate transaction can vary. Sometimes, quick fluctuations in the market can discourage a party from following through with the transaction. If a buyer has trouble securing financing, it can also prevent a deal from going through. In the recently decided case, it is not clear why the defendant chose not to follow through on the sale of the property the plaintiffs were purchasing, but on the date of the closing, he backed out of the agreement. According to the facts discussed by the superior court, the plaintiffs were ready, willing, and able to follow through with the sale. The plaintiffs even had the full purchase price (over $600,000) waiting in escrow to complete the transaction.

Because the defendant refused to proceed with closing on the agreed-upon date, the plaintiffs pursued a breach of contract action in Rhode Island state court. State courts are allowed to grant equitable relief in real estate contract cases. Rather than awarding monetary damages as is usually done in response to a legal claim, a court grants equitable relief by forcing a party to perform a certain action. In this real estate contract case, the plaintiff was seeking an equitable remedy for the court to force the defendant to sell the property as agreed to in the real estate purchase contract.

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Some of the most common types of cases currently coming through Rhode Island administrative boards and courts involve the request for a dimensional variance to expand or modify an existing home structure. As demonstrated in previous posts on our blog, the opinion of the municipal zoning board is given great deference by later courts when these decisions are appealed. Zoning boards consider a variety of factors when deciding whether to approve or deny a dimensional variance request. A recent zoning board decision that has been upheld by the Rhode Island Superior Court can demonstrate the best ways to make these points to the zoning board.

A dimensional variance is essentially a permit that is issued by a municipal zoning board in order to allow a property owner to build a structure on their property that would be forbidden under the existing zoning regulations of the municipality. Generally, variances are issued to allow construction that would violate the setback, height, area, or location requirements of the zoning ordinances. The plaintiff in the recently decided case was requesting a variance to allow him to add an addition to his home that would transform the structure from an “L” shape into a rectangular structure. The plaintiff requested the change because he was cohabitating with a new partner, as well as to support his desire to move his laundry facilities from the basement to the main floor as he got older and struggles with using the stars on a regular basis.

A neighbor of the plaintiff objected to his proposal at a public hearing, noting that the current regulations would not permit such a structure on the existing lot size. It is unclear why the neighbor opposed the petitioner’s proposal, but the zoning board considered several factors when unanimously approving the petitioner’s proposal in the face of the neighbors’ opposition. First, the zoning board noted that the petitioner’s proposal to “fill in the L” shape would not encroach any further on any neighbor’s property, so the prejudice to the neighbors was minimal by granting the request. Additionally, the zoning board noted that the petitioner’s growing family and issues related to aging were reasonable considerations in allowing the constriction to proceed. Finally, the board agreed with the petitioner, that the character of the neighborhood would not be negatively affected by granting the variance. As a result of these findings, the board issued the variance. The neighbor appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the state court upon review.

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Rhode Island coastal communities often contain lots and structures of various sizes and shapes that have been developed inconsistently over time. As zoning, safety, and environmental regulations change, existing buildings may become noncompliant with current regulations. Although new regulations cannot generally be used to make a preexisting property illegal, owners who seek to renovate or change their existing non-compliant property must seek the approval of a municipal zoning board by applying for a dimensional variance or special use permit to proceed with construction. A Rhode Island state court recently addressed a Rhode Island property owner’s request to demolish their one-story home in Charlestown and construct a three-story home upon the same foundation.

The petitioner in the recently decided case purchased a single-story home as a vacation home in the coastal community of Charlestown in 2000. The petitioner sought to enlarge the house by demolishing the existing structure and building a multi-story dwelling in its place, for use as a primary residence. To comply with coastal and FEMA regulations that were issued since the construction of the original property, the petitioners would be required to fill in the basement of the existing home and could not have any habitations on the first floor of the structure. The petitioners sought approval from the Charlestown zoning board for a three-story structure that would be built upon the original foundation. One of the adjacent property owners objected to the petitioner’s request, in part because the proposed three-story structure would impede the neighbor’s view of the waterway.

A hearing was held on the petitioner’s proposal, where the parties each argued for and against the issuance of a dimensional variance to allow the construction to continue. The petitioner called witnesses who testified that the proposed construction was reasonable, and was the “least relief necessary” to meet the petitioner’s needs. The objector’s witnesses disputed the supporting testimony, arguing that the larger building was not within the character of the neighborhood and that the issuing of the request was not justified. After several hearings, the Charlestown zoning board decided to issue the petitioner’s request, finding that issuing the variance was necessary and reasonable for the petitioner and that the objectors’ arguments were more related to the view being blocked, and not relevant to the actual dimensional variance that was requested by the appellant. The Objectors appealed the zoning board’s decision to the Superior Court, where the lower decision was determined to be supported by the evidence on the record, and was ultimately upheld.

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