Monday, May 11, 2020

Muffoletto v. Towers (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Muffoletto v. Towers (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: January 30, 2020

Opinion by: James A. Kenney, III

Holdings: (1) An action seeking a declaration concerning the location of a common boundary line between adjacent boat slips was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. (2) Substantive and substantial discovery violations warranted the imposition of sanctions.

Facts: In the early 1980’s, a residential condominium was established in Dorchester County, Maryland.  Appurtenant to each condominium unit was a license to use a boat slip.  According to the 1982 site plan for the condominium, two adjacent boat slips were to be established as fourteen-feet-seven-inches wide each, separated by mooring piles.  However, according to an aerial photograph of the subject boat slips, taken in 1984, one slip was nineteen feet wide, and the adjacent slip was thirteen feet wide.

In 2004, the plaintiff purchased the condominium unit and corresponding slip license related to the thirteen-foot-wide boat slip.  Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff noticed the disparate sizes of the adjacent boat slips when he attempted to berth his boat.  In 2010, the plaintiff became a member of the condominium’s council of unit owners (the “council”), at which time he allegedly learned of a policy enacted by the council in 1999 requiring a unit owner who had made changes to the location of any mooring piles to return the piles to their original location when the appurtenant condominium unit is sold.  Title to each of the condominium units corresponding to the subject boat slips (and the related boat slip licenses) had been transferred multiple times before being transferred to the parties to this lawsuit.

In 2016, the plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County, seeking (i) a declaration that the adjacent boat slips were intended and initially constructed to be of equal width and (ii) specific performance and injunctive relief, requiring that the mooring piles be moved to establish the adjacent boat slips as being equal in width.  During discovery, the defendants served the plaintiff with interrogatories.  Despite multiple court orders directing the plaintiff to respond to the interrogatories, the plaintiff failed to properly respond.

The Circuit Court entered sanctions against the plaintiff for failing to provide discovery responses as ordered, finding that the defendants had been prejudiced as a result.  Thereafter, the Circuit Court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the possible movement of the mooring piles was not a disputed material fact because they were placed in their current location no later than 1984 (when the aerial photograph was taken), and any legal action related to their present location was thus barred by the applicable three-year limitations period.  The plaintiff timely appealed the rulings to the Court of Special Appeals.

Analysis:  The Court of Special Appeals first addressed the Circuit Court’s holding that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations.  The plaintiff argued that the statute of limitations had been tolled by virtue of the “continuing harm” doctrine, which provides that claims in the nature of a continuous tort may toll the running of limitations based on new occurrences over time.  The court discussed Maryland case law applying the doctrine, and found that “courts have consistently held that the continuing harm doctrine rests on a new affirmative act” and does not apply to a “continuing ill effect” of a prior act.  The court then concluded that the continuing harm doctrine did not apply under the circumstances of this case because the act causing the harm was the alleged moving of the mooring piles, which occurred sometime before the photograph taken in 1984, and that “leaving them in place is a continuing effect of that act.”  Ultimately, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, noting that the action was filed six years after the plaintiff allegedly became aware that the piles may have been moved, twelve years after the plaintiff attempted to berth his boat in the slip, and more than twelve years after he bought the condominium unit (and corresponding boat slip license).

The Court of Special Appeals next addressed the Circuit Court’s holding that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches.  The court noted that laches is an equitable doctrine intended to ensure fairness, and that it is “based upon grounds of sound public policy by discouraging fusty demands for the peace of society.”  The court also noted that, generally, “an action for declaratory judgment will be barred to the same extent that the applicable statute of limitations bars an underlying action in law or equity.”  The court concluded that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches because the mooring piles had been in place for thirty-five years and the only people who would have had definitive knowledge regarding when and if the piles had been moved (the developer and the person who initially bought the nineteen-foot-wide slip in 1983) had died before the suit was filed.

The Court of Special Appeals also addressed the Circuit Court’s holding that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the doctrine of adverse possession or prescription.  The court noted that whether or not the doctrine applies to riparian rights is unsettled in Maryland.  Ultimately, the court, without concluding that the doctrine applied to the boat slip licenses at issue, held that the requisite period of adverse possession (i.e., twenty years) had not run.

Finally, the Court of Special Appeals addressed the Circuit Court’s imposition of sanctions against the plaintiff for discovery violations.  The court first noted that circuit courts have very broad discretion to determine whether sanctions should be imposed.  The court then outlined the factors that circuit courts should consider when deciding whether to impose sanctions (noting that the factors need not be analyzed on a compartmentalized basis), which factors include (1) whether the sanctioned violations were “persistent and deliberate”; (2) whether the discovery violation was technical or substantial; (3) the timing of disclosures made; (4) any reason for the violation; (5) the degree of evidentiary prejudice resulting from the violation; and (6) whether the resulting prejudice might be cured by postponement and the desirability of a continuance.  Applying these factors, the court affirmed the Circuit Court’s imposition of sanctions.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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