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Bruce Brayman Builders, Inc. v. Lamphere

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

February 13, 2015

Bruce Brayman Builders, Inc.
v.
James M. Lamphere, in his capacity as Town Planner for the Town of Hopkinton

Washington County Superior Court. (WC 10-291). Associate Justice Brian P. Stern.

For Plaintiff: Kelly M. Fracassa, Esq.

For Defendant: Scott D. Levesque, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION

Page 396

Robinson, Justice

The plaintiff, Bruce Brayman Builders, Inc. (Brayman), appeals from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the defendant, James M. Lamphere, the Town Planner for the Town of Hopkinton, denying Brayman's declaratory judgment action on the basis of Brayman's purported failure to exhaust its administrative remedies. On appeal, Brayman argues, inter alia, that the trial justice[1] erred in denying it declaratory relief because the parties did not have a meaningful opportunity to brief and/or argue whether the administrative exhaustion doctrine should apply to the present case. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel

In 2009, Brayman applied to the Town Planning Board for a preliminary plan approval of a minor subdivision. Pursuant to the Town of Hopkinton's Land Development & Subdivision Regulations, such an applicant is required to " submit to the Administrative Officer all plans and supporting materials as required by the Preliminary Plat Checklist for Minor Subdivisions" (the Checklist).[2] Town of Hopkinton's Land Development & Subdivision Regulations, Article IV, Section C.1 (1995, as amended August 16, 2000). The just-referenced Checklist requires submission of, inter alia, " [p]roof of paid up-to-date property taxes." In seeking to comply with that requirement, Brayman provided a " Municipal Lien Certificate," which indicated that, while all of the company's real property taxes were current, it nevertheless owed $45,162.97 in personal property taxes as of that time. In a letter dated July 14, 2009, the Town Planner stated that he would certify the subdivision application as complete once Brayman submitted proof of payment of all taxes due--including personal property taxes as well as real property taxes.

Instead of paying the outstanding personal property taxes, on May 3, 2010, Brayman filed a complaint in the Superior Court for Washington County, seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the Town Planner to certify Brayman's subdivision application as complete (Count One). Thereafter, on July 14, 2010, the Town Planner moved to dismiss Count One, alleging that, inter alia, Brayman had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies in view of the fact that it had not appealed the Town Planner's decision to the Platting Board of Review.[3] In further support of his motion to dismiss, the Town Planner also argued that his refusal to certify Brayman's subdivision application as complete did not involve a ministerial act such as might be amenable to a writ of mandamus. In due course, Brayman objected to the Town Planner's motion to dismiss and also moved to amend its complaint in order

Page 397

to add a count seeking declaratory judgment; it sought a declaration to the effect that the term " property taxes" in the Checklist refers only to real property taxes. On October 18, 2010, the Town Planner filed an objection to Brayman's motion to amend.

On March 21, 2011, the trial justice heard arguments relative to the above-referenced motions. The trial justice first granted Brayman's motion to amend its complaint to add a count seeking declaratory relief (Count Two). The Town Planner then argued that both counts should be dismissed because Brayman had not appealed the Town Planner's decision to the Platting Board of Review and, therefore, had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial justice, finding that the Town Planner's decision was " not ministerial but * * * within the sound exercise of his discretion," granted the Town Planner's motion to ...


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