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Coccoli v. Town of Scituate Town Council

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 8, 2018

Vincent R. Coccoli, Sr.
Town of Scituate Town Council et al.

          Providence County Superior Court No. PC 15-3539 Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Vincent Coccoli, Pro Se

          For Defendants: Patrick K. Cunningham, Esq. Michael DeSisto, Esq. David M. D'Agostino, Esq.

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


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on March 6, 2018, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The pro se plaintiff, Vincent R. Coccoli, Sr. (plaintiff or Coccoli), [1] appeals from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants (the town or defendants).[2] On appeal, the plaintiff argues that issues of material fact remain which preclude summary judgment and that he is entitled to a trial on the merits of his claims. After hearing the arguments of the parties, examining the memoranda submitted by the parties, and reviewing the record, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that this case should be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate in part and affirm in part the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         The genesis of this case is plaintiff's persistent yet failed attempts to develop the Hope Mill Property located in Scituate, Rhode Island (the property). The plaintiff was a member of Hope Mill Village Associates, LLC (HMVA). In December 2006, the Scituate Zoning Board of Review granted HMVA conditional approval for dimensional relief and special-use permits to allow for the redevelopment of the property. One of the conditions required HMVA to obtain approval from the Scituate Town Council, the West Warwick Sewer Authority, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for a municipal sewer connection from the property to the West Warwick Regional Sewer System. At a regular meeting of the town council held on April 12, 2007, the town council voted to approve the sewer connection, pending receipt of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from HMVA. The minutes of that meeting reflect the vote as follows:

"After lengthy discussion between the Council, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Geremia, and members of the audience * * * motion was made by Councilman Salisbury, seconded by Councilman Collins, and voted by consent agreement to grant approval of the 40, 000 gallon capacity per day, contingent upon receiving a document in writing from Hope Mill Village Associates within 10 days, outlining the specifics previously discussed:
"Extend the sewer connections to Hope Sanitary Associates, Hope Elementary School, Hope Jackson Fire Dept., the Police Station, and to upfront the cost of the Town's portion of the interceptor.
"Any representation made by the Developer regarding the Town of Scituate, should be accurate and reflect what was discussed at this meeting.
"Motion made by Councilman Salisbury, seconded by Councilman Collins and voted by consent agreement to confer with Coventry and West Warwick to ascertain what their intentions are regarding this upgrade, and to pursue an agreement that would share the costs. The contact should be done by David Provonsil and Legal Counsel."

         In July 2007, an MOU was executed between plaintiff and the town. The MOU was signed by the town council president, contained an official town seal, and was recorded in the land evidence records. Under the MOU, plaintiff agreed to "design, procure approvals for, and cause to construct a new sewer line * * *."

         By 2010, the property became part of a bankruptcy proceeding; and, in January 2010, the bankruptcy trustee sold the property to New England Development R.I., LLC, which filed receivership proceedings in August 2010. The plaintiff and two other individuals executed a purchase and sale agreement with the receiver with respect to the property, but they defaulted and the receiver terminated the agreement. Subsequently, plaintiff individually executed a purchase and sale agreement for the property, but he defaulted again and the agreement was terminated. In 2014, plaintiff individually executed a third purchase and sale agreement for the property; that agreement was also terminated. In January 2016, the Superior Court approved the receiver's petition to sell the property to BMP, LLC.

         On August 13, 2015, plaintiff filed a pro se complaint against defendants, alleging promissory estoppel and breach of oral contract, breach of confidentiality pertaining to proprietary information, tortious interference with a contract, and fraudulent misrepresentation. The defendants moved for summary judgment on April 20, 2016, arguing that (1) defendants did not breach the MOU because the town never approved the MOU and, further, that there was no evidence that plaintiff suffered financial harm; (2) plaintiff's claim under § 552a(b) of the Privacy Act of 1974 had no merit because federal law was not applicable to defendants and there was no evidence that defendants disclosed plaintiff's personal information; (3) there was no evidence that the town council had intentionally interfered with the purchase and sale agreement plaintiff had executed; and (4) plaintiff's fraudulent misrepresentation claim was improper because it was based on the conduct of a nonmunicipal fire chief, who was not a town employee. The plaintiff objected to defendants' motion, and for the first time raised the argument that defendants violated the Rhode Island Uniform Trade Secrets Act, [3] G.L. 1956 chapter 41 of title 6. The defendants' motion for summary judgment was heard on July 11, 2016. At the outset, the trial justice noted what he characterized as plaintiff's "checkered" history:

"All of the claims evolve out of the plaintiff's efforts over many years to develop, redevelop, the so-called Hope Mill. The history, recent history of the Hope Mill, insofar as judicial proceedings are concerned, is checkered. It has been the subject of receivership proceedings, bankruptcy proceedings, and receivership proceedings again.
"A somewhat common factor running through it has been the pro se plaintiff here. In other circumstances, this [c]ourt has suggested or held that Mr. Coccoli's life is intertwined, to a very great extent, with his desire and his efforts to rehab the mill for multifamily residential purposes primarily, a somewhat monumental task at this point."

         The trial justice granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on all four counts of plaintiff's complaint. He first addressed the MOU and found that it was not a binding agreement:

"The [c]ourt cannot find that that agreement is binding on the defendants. It was not specifically approved by the council, it contained no terms; and as a matter of fact, to this day ...

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