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Ucci v. Town of Coventry

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 21, 2018

Peter E. Ucci et al.
v.
Town of Coventry.

          Superior Court Kent County No. KC 13-1090 Allen P. Rubine Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs: Thomas J. Cronin, Esq., Peter D. Nolan, Esq.

          For Defendant: Nicholas Gorham, Esq., Sarah F. Malley, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          William P. Robinson, Associate Justice

         This case arises out of a dispute concerning a very small piece of real property in the Town of Coventry (the Town), which property the Town contended had been dedicated to the Town (as a public street) in 1946. The Town appeals from a February 4, 2016 declaratory judgment of the Superior Court entered following the grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, Peter E. Ucci and John S. Ucci. The hearing justice's grant of the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment was predicated on his determination that, even if he assumed for the sake of deciding that there had been a dedication, "[t]here [was still] nothing to support the position [of the Town] that this dedication was accepted either by public use or by official action." On appeal, the Town contends that the hearing justice erred in so ruling. The Town further contends that the hearing justice erred by not dismissing plaintiffs' action due to their alleged failure to join indispensable parties.

         This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After reviewing the record and considering the written and oral submissions of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that this appeal may be decided at this time.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The small piece of property at issue is roughly sketched on a recorded plat entitled "PLAN SHOWING LOTS 1, 2, 3 4 ON THE UCCI PLAT, OWNED BY ELVIRO and FILOMENA UCCI, Ray C. Matteson Eng'r, September 1946" (the 1946 Plat); it is a strip of land thirty-feet wide, one hundred ninety-three feet long on one side, and two hundred ten feet long on the other side. The strip is bordered on its southern side by plaintiffs' property (designated as Lot 3 on the 1946 Plat), on its eastern side by Benoit Street, on its western side by a body of water called "Middle Pond, " and on its northern side by a parcel of land designated as Lot 4. It is undisputed that the 1946 Plat does not, on its face, indicate the purpose of the disputed strip of land. It is further undisputed that the owner of Lot 4 is not a party to this case.

         On October 9, 2013, plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Town in Superior Court, seeking a declaratory judgment[1] to the effect that they were the owners in fee simple of the disputed strip of land. (The plaintiffs alleged in their Complaint that the Town had "designated the area in question as Tax Assessor's Map 62 Lot 85.4 and [had] taxed the same to the Plaintiff[s], " which allegation the Town denied in its answer.) On November 24, 2015, the Town moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs did not own the disputed strip of land because, according to the Town, said strip of land was dedicated as a public way because it appears on the 1946 Plat, which had been recorded, and because lots were sold with reference to that plat.

         The plaintiffs filed an objection to the Town's motion for summary judgment as well as a cross-motion for summary judgment. In their memorandum of law, plaintiffs argued that, in order for private property to become a public street by way of dedication, there must be "a manifest intent by the land owner to dedicate the land in question called an incipient dedication or offer to dedicate" as well as "an acceptance by the public either by public use or by official action to accept the same on behalf of the municipality." The plaintiffs argued that, even if the original owners of the 1946 Plat had offered to dedicate the strip of land at issue, the Town had never accepted that purported offer of dedication, either by public use or by official action and that, therefore, one of the mandatory requirements for there to be a dedication had not been satisfied.

         On January 11, 2016, a justice of the Superior Court conducted a hearing on the cross-motions for summary judgment. At that hearing, the Town expressly conceded on the record that there had been no acceptance of the purported offer of dedication, either by public use or by official action. In light of that concession and after observing that "the standard for dedication requires both dedication and acceptance, " the hearing justice concluded that there was no genuine issue of material fact with respect to the Town's not having accepted the purported offer of dedication. Accordingly, on January 19, 2016, he granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs. Judgment entered on February 4, 2016. The Town timely appealed from that judgment.

         II

         Standard of Review

         "This Court will review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo, employing the same standards and rules used by the hearing justice." Newstone Development, LLC v. East Pacific, LLC, 140 A.3d 100, 103 (R.I. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). We will affirm a trial court's decision granting summary judgment "only if, after reviewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we conclude that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). We have further stated that "the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed issue of material fact and cannot rest upon mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, mere conclusions or mere legal opinions." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). And it is a basic principle that ...


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