HCC attorney Melissa M. Horne recently won a precedent-setting homestead exemption case against the City of Woonsocket. In the process, the court awarded her clients their attorney’s fees as a result of the city’s violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Attorney Horne’s clients own a parcel of property that contains a primary residence as well as a barn that had been converted to a one-bedroom residence occupied by the client’s grandparents. They sought a special use permit from the city’s zoning board to use the secondary structure as an accessory family dwelling unit.
The tax accessor had initially applied a thirty percent, single family homestead exemption to the total value of the plaintiffs’ property. Thereafter, a new city tax accessor applied a lower two-family exemption to the property. That decision subsequently was appealed to the Woonsocket Tax Board of Assessment Review, which affirmed the Assessor’s decision.
On appeal to the Superior Court, Attorney Horne argued that the property should be classified as a single family residence and, therefore, is entitled to the higher single family exemption. The city countered that the additional dwelling made the property a two-family property and deserved a higher property tax.
The judge agreed with Ms. Horne’s argument, noting that the terms “single family” and “two-family” are not specifically defined within state law authorizing the homestead exemption or the city ordinance discussing the homestead exemption.
The judge found that the physical characteristics of both the primary and accessory residences fit the plain meaning of a single family dwelling. “The fact that there are multiple single-family dwellings on the same plot of land is of no significance to the issue posed by this litigation,” the judge said. He declared that the single family homestead exemption should apply to the assessed value of the primary residence and the land on which the two buildings sit, but decided the accessory dwelling unit was not entitled to any homestead exemption because it is not owner occupied.
Concurrently, Attorney Horne argued that the Board of Assessment Review violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by not deliberating on the appeal in public and failing to maintain minutes and record the votes of the Board’s members. The Court agreed and awarded Attorney Horne’s clients their attorney’s fees incurred in successfully proving a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Melissa M. Horne is Of Counsel to Higgins, Cavanagh & Cooney, LLP. The litigation was heard before Superior Court Judge Bennett R. Gallo. The 13-page decision is Roberts v. Pare, et al., C.A. No. PC-2017-2410.
This case has garnered significant attention and was a cover story in Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly. Attorney Horne told that publication: “My takeaway is that improved statutory and ordinance language would perhaps have alleviated the need for this case. The case offered a good example of what can happen when statutes and ordinances do not get updated to reflect changes in housing uses,” she said. In the absence of such statutory updates, this case is precedent-setting relative to the homestead exemption applicable to accessory family dwelling units.
If you have any matter involving land use law or the Open Meetings Act that you would like to discuss with Attorney Horne, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-272-3500.
First-year students at Roger Williams University School of Law recently toured the offices of Higgins, Cavanagh & Cooney and heard from the firm’s associates who also graduated from the same institution. The visit was intended to provide an early introduction to law and practice as the students were about to embark on their legal studies.
The students received a great deal of helpful advice from Kristina I. Hultman, J. David Freel, Larissa B. DeLisi, Kurt A. Rocha, and Kelsey Peck, a Roger Williams University School of Law student and HCC law clerk. HCC partner James A. Ruggieri, who serves on the Board of Directors for Roger Williams University School of Law, directed the lively discussion.
Students were advised as to the excellent foundation that their education would provide for a career in the law. The importance of taking full advantage of writing and research opportunities either though law Review or moot court competitions was emphasized. The value of judicial internships and law firm clerkships was stressed. Registering for courses that would ultimately be covered on the bar exam was also mentioned as was attending classes taught by the law school’s suburb adjunct faculty, which is comprised of well-respected practitioners and judges.
A tour of the firm’s offices followed. The law students were accompanied by Professor Colleen Brown, who teaches legal practice at Roger Williams University School of Law.
HCC partner Stephen P. Cooney recently secured a dismissal for the defense in a product liability subrogation action in the Federal District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The case involved product liability and insurance law and was recognized by Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly as among the most important court decisions for 2018.
After the plaintiff insurance company had paid a homeowner under the terms of her homeowner policy for water damage at her residence in West Warwick, Rhode Island, it filed its claim. Pre-suit negotiations were unsuccessful. The plaintiff insurance company alleged that the defendant manufacturer of a water connector fitting was defective and caused the damages sought. The defendant disputed any defect in its product.
Prior to filing suit, plaintiff was in possession of the allegedly defective product. Plaintiff’s expert’s reviewed the product and rendered an opinion favorable to the plaintiff. Though not alleged to be in bad faith, the product was then lost or otherwise discarded before examination by the defendant manufacturer. This left the manufacturer with no ability to properly defend against the allegations of defect. The product manufacturer thus moved to dismiss under the doctrine of spoliation. The plaintiff argued that other remedies were available if needed.
Judge McConnell of the Federal District Court for the District of Rhode Island granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Court importantly noted that a drastic remedy was warranted given the unique positioning of the plaintiff insurance company in the subrogation context in a product liability matter. Therefore, citing the doctrine of spoliation, the defense prevailed and the matter was dismissed.
The case is Amica Insurance Company v. BrassCraft Manufacturing Company.
The Defense Counsel of Rhode Island (DCRI) sponsored a continuing legal education program on August 1, 2018 titled, “Mindfulness for Lawyers.” The program focused on improving personal and professional development within the stresses and demands of everyday life including time constraints, work volume, competition, family obligations, and personal health.
HCC partner Stephen P. Cooney developed and moderated the program and was one of the featured speakers along with The Honorable Alice B. Gibney, Presiding Justice of the Superior Court. The seminar also concentrated on understanding basic techniques for work-life balance and building more ethical lawyering, civil communications, emotional intelligence, equanimity, and best practices. The evening program was held at the Harbor Lights Marina and followed the organization’s annual golf outing.
DCRI is the state association of attorneys defending the interests of business and individuals in civil litigation. Members of DCRI include lawyers engaged in private practice, corporate counsel and insurance company counsel. DCRI serves as a forum for exchanging ideas on current issues of importance to defense lawyers, corporations and insurance companies.
Stephen Cooney’s practice focuses primarily on civil litigation, including defense of products liability, toxic tort, premises liability, transportation litigation and insurance claims. He recently and successfully defended a leading manufacturer in a product liability lawsuit in federal court that Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly called one of the most important cases of 2018.
(In the photograph above, Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney addresses the audience as Judith Hoffman, Executive Director of Coastline EAP, and HCC partner Stephen P. Cooney listen. Ryan McGowan, founder of Laid Back Fitness, also served on the panel.)
Paul S. Callaghan was recently featured in social media publications produced by ALFA International, the premier global network of independent law firms.
In a wide ranging interview, Paul was asked to address one of the highlights of his successful career as an attorney. He said prevailing in a highly contested jury trial where the plaintiff was seeking a multi-million dollar verdict after he had been forced to cancel a family vacation due to the trial date selected by the presiding justice.
His client was a major national construction company, and the case arose out of an unwitnessed construction site accident with no evidence to the contrary. He found this win particularly appealing because he had been forced to cancel that family vacation, and the plaintiff’s attorney, a senior member of the plaintiffs’ bar, was especially overconfident throughout the proceedings.
The jury deliberated for more than two days and then came back with a question. The question led the plaintiff’s attorney and his partner to believe that they had won the case, to the point where they were literally boasting to colleagues that they had done so even before the jury returned a verdict. Afterwards, Paul was delighted to receive a personal, handwritten letter from the company’s chairman and CEO thanking and congratulating me on the victory.