When is a deadline not a deadline? Law Court Deadline Decision

 

Erik M. Stumpfel, Esq.

            You might think that determining the deadline for a court appeal is one of the easier parts of a lawyer’s job. However, a recent 4 to 3 decision of the Maine Supreme Court shows that it isn’t necessarily so.

            The decision concerned is Peter Beckford et al. v. Town of Clifton et al., 2014 ME 156, decided by the Supreme Judicial Court (Law Court) on December 31, 2014.

            In 2010, members of three Maine families who had organized as Pisgah Mountain, LLC, sought to develop a nine megawatt commercial wind energy project in the Town of Clifton Maine, under Maine’s statutory “pilot program” for Maine-owned commercial wind projects. Pisgah Mountain applied for and obtained all required State permits under Maine’s Wind Energy Act and Site Location of Development Law, plus required Army Corps of Engineers permits. No appeals were filed from those permits.

            Pisgah Mountain also applied to the Town of Clifton for approval of the project under the Town’s local wind energy ordinance. When that permit was granted in October 2011, two abutting property owners, Peter and Julie Beckford, appealed the Planning Board’s decision to the Town’s Board of Appeals. After a remand to the Planning Board and other proceedings, the Board of Appeals ultimately voted to deny the appeal, on January 25, 2012. The Board of Appeals then met again, on January 30th, to approve the Board’s written decision denying the appeal. The Beckfords appealed the Board of Appeals’ decision to the Penobscot County Superior Court, filing their complaint on March 15, 2012 – the 45th day following the Board of Appeals’ January 30th meeting and vote on the written decision.

            Maine has several statutes that govern the deadline for filing court appeals from municipal government actions. Depending on the nature of the municipal action, the appeals period can be 30, 45 or 60 days. For decisions by municipal boards of appeal, Title 30-A of the Maine Revised Statutes, section 2691(3)(G), provides that “any party may take an appeal, within 45 days of the vote on the original decision, to Superior Court . . .” Several prior Law Court decisions had held that the appeals deadline of section 2691(3)(G) is jurisdictional – if the appeal is filed late, the Superior Court has no jurisdiction to decide the case.

            Based on the statute and prior Law Court decisions, Pisgah Mountain moved to dismiss the Beckfords’ Superior Court appeal as untimely, asserting that the “vote on the original decision” occurred at the Board of Appeals’ January 25th meeting and not on January 30th. The Beckfords opposed that motion, and the Superior Court found that the Board of Appeals’ January 30th vote was, in fact, the operative vote.

            Following denial of Pisgah Mountain’s motion to dismiss, court proceedings continued. The case was transferred to the Superior Court’s Business and Consumer Docket for consideration of the Beckfords’ appeal. Following a remand to the Board of Appeals for additional findings of fact, the Business Court ultimately found in favor of Pisgah Mountain on 10 of the 11 grounds for appeal asserted by the Beckfords, but found in favor of the Beckfords on the Beckfords’ eleventh issue, relating to compliance with the Clifton ordinance’s noise study requirements and noise standards. The Business Court’s decision in favor of the Beckfords was entered on December 11, 2013.

            Pisgah Mountain appealed to the Law Court. A year later, the Law Court, by a 4-3 vote, held that the Board of Appeals’ January 25, 2012 vote was in fact the operative decision for purposes of starting the appeals clock, and the Beckfords’ original appeal therefore was untimely. The case was remanded to Superior Court with instructions to dismiss the appeal. The Pisgah Mountain project, in which three Maine families have invested more than five years effort and much of their personal savings, is now (finally!) free to go forward.  

            Justices Silver, Jabar and Alexander all dissented from the majority’s decision. Justices Silver and Jabar disagreed with the majority’s finding that the January 25, 2012 vote addressed all issues in the appeal and was therefore final, while Justice Alexander pointed to the “written decision” requirement of Maine’s Freedom of Access law, writing that in light of that requirement, the Board of Appeals’ vote could not be deemed “final” until a written decision was approved and issued. Moreover, Chief Justice Saufley, who voted with the majority, wrote separately to urge the Legislature to enact uniform legislation concerning the time limits for appeals from municipal actions, citing multiple time limits and ambiguous language in the existing statutes. In the words of the Chief Justice:

            “It would greatly benefit the people of the State of Maine if the Legislature undertook a thorough review of the events that trigger the running of the time for appellate review for both state and municipal appeals to establish a single, consistent and understandable triggering event and time frame for seeking appellate review.” 2014 ME 156, para. 29.

            What is the take-away lesson from this decision? There are at least two:

            (1) Counting the Superior Court, eight Maine justices, each with ample legal experience, split four to four over whether the Beckfords’ appeal was timely filed in accordance with the applicable statute. If the justices can be evenly divided on a simple deadline issue, imagine the nature of the task for ordinary lawyers. So, read the statute at least twice, and watch those too-easy assumptions.    

            (2) File your appeals early, to avoid any timeliness issues.

[Editor’s Note:  Attorney Stumpfel drafted and argued the original motion to dismiss in the Pisgah Mountain case, at the Superior Court level, in 2012.]