Posted by: Archipelago Law in Maine Court Decisions on June 23, 2022

Keith Richard, Principal

In 2021, there were a few notable trends in decisions handed down by Maine Supreme Court, sitting as the Law Court.  Each involved administrative appeals from state or local government adjudications that bear important lessons for parties that appear before municipal boards.  The Court’s decisions vacated (reversed or overturned) the decisions at issue on similar grounds.  

The Law Court has a high rate of affirming (upholding) decisions, so a string of decisions that vacate judgments on similar grounds is notable.  Trends in recent decisions can help an attorney craft successful arguments on behalf of clients and anticipate issues that concern the court, developing an appropriate strategy at a very early stage and at each step during the litigation.

Fair Elections Portland, Inc. v. City of Portland concerned whether a petition to implement a public campaign financing in City elections constituted a charter “amendment” that could be put to directly voters or a charter “revision” requiring election and input of a charter commission.

The Law Court, drawing on the relevant statutes and case law from other jurisdictions, held that the determination of whether a proposal was a “revision” or “amendment” required factual determinations by the City.  Because the record did not contain findings sufficient for appellate review, the Court vacated and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Attorney efforts on appeal to extrapolate findings and reasoning from City Councilor statements during deliberations and inferred from the Council’s votes were held inadequate. Only upon development of a factual record, with a statement of factual and legal basis for a decision, could the Court review the decision.

In LaMarre v. Town of China, the Court considered an appeal from a decision of the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer (CEO) regarding whether a trailer constituted a “recreational vehicle” permitted under the applicable ordinances.  Despite the fact that the CEO’s decision was reviewed by the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), the Court reviewed the CEO’s decision directly (which decision is the “operative” decision for appellate review is confusing and worthy of a law review article in itself). The Court concluded that the record did not contain adequate factual findings, including the basis for the CEO’s conclusion and the particular evidence relied upon, to review the decision.  The Court remanded for further proceedings and for further findings to be issued.  The Court included guidance as to the legal standards the Court believed should guide the CEO on remand, which hinted at a likely result, but unfortunately for the parties, a result that would not be final until an undetermined date in the future.

Nerowitz v. Board of Dental Practice concerned a Board complaint and discipline imposed on a dentist for allegedly failing to appropriately respond to a patient records request.  The Court observed that the basic facts as well as the ultimate facts and conclusions by a decision maker are an “indispensable prerequisite to effective judicial review.”  The findings issued by the Board, which summarized all the evidence but made no firm conclusions, left the Court questioning what evidence and testimony was credited and what was not, and further what the factual basis was for the Board’s conclusion—particularly the discipline imposed.  These defects hampered the Court’s ability to conduct appellate review.

A key takeaway from these cases is that if an appeal from an agency or local government decision is possible, then the parties should ensure that there are adequate factual findings and conclusions.  Otherwise, the case may well travel all the way to highest court only to be sent back for further proceedings without any resolution—a costly and inefficient result that will lengthen the already long timeline of litigation.  

Although any attorney can file an appeal, an attorney specializing in administrative law and appellate advocacy brings a specialized skill set (writing ability, institutional knowledge) to maximize your chances of crafting the best case and winning an appeal. The attorneys at Archipelago Law have demonstrated success in both administrative appeals at the municipal level and appeals to the Maine Supreme Court.