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Longley v. Knapp & Town
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Decision: 1998 ME 142
Docket: Som-97-582
Argued: May 5, 1998
Decided: June 8, 1998 


[¶1] Richard H. Longley, Dorothy R. Fleming, Gloria P. Hendsbee, and
Patricia A. LeBlanc (the Longleys) appeal from the summary judgment
entered in the Superior Court (Somerset County, Alexander, J.) in favor of
Amanda Knapp. The Longleys claim that the court erred by: (i) granting
Knapp's motion for discovery sanctions that precluded the Longleys' use of
certain testimony and exhibits in this case; (ii) granting Knapp's motion for
a summary judgment; (iii) determining that they lacked standing to seek
reformation of the deed from the Town to Knapp; and (iv) denying their
motion to amend their complaint. The trial court's imposition of discovery
sanctions against the Longleys did not exceed the bounds of the court's
discretion and the trial court's determination that the Longleys lack
standing to seek reformation of the deed from the Town to Knapp is
correct. The court, however, erred in barring, on the theories of laches and
estoppel, the Longleys' claim of the establishment of a public way. 
Additionally, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether a
public way was created by prescriptive use -- an issue reached by the trial
court despite its determinations concerning Knapp's equitable defenses. 
Accordingly, we affirm the judgment in part and vacate the judgment in
[¶2] This dispute involves whether a gravel road in the Town of Anson
is a public way or a private drive. Amanda Knapp contends that the disputed
way is her private drive. The Longleys, her neighbors, contend that the way
in question is a public road, created either by the statutory method of layout
and acceptance in 1905, or alternatively, by public prescriptive use.
[¶3] In March, 1996, the Longleys petitioned the Selectmen of the
Town of Anson seeking a determination that the disputed way was the
northern most portion of Frederick Street, a town road. The Selectmen
voted to take no action on this petition, and the Town has continued to take
no position on whether the disputed parcel is part of Frederick Street or
otherwise a public way. The Longleys then filed a complaint for declaratory
relief requesting a judicial determination that the disputed drive had been
established as a town way by (i) layout and acceptance, or (ii) by prescriptive
use.{2} Knapp counterclaimed for declaratory relief requesting a finding that a
town way had never been established over her property and requesting that
the Longleys be ordered to remove a utility line within her claimed property.
[¶4] Following the close of discovery, both parties filed for a summary
judgment. In their motion for a summary judgment the Longleys referenced
attached affidavits and materials not produced during discovery. Knapp
moved for discovery sanctions based on the Longleys' delay in producing
such material and, following a hearing, the court granted Knapp's motion for
sanctions and barred the use of these materials "for any purpose."
[¶5] The trial court then granted a summary judgment for Knapp and
shortly thereafter the Longleys filed a motion to amend their complaint to
include two new counts seeking either a prescriptive easement by private
use or an implied easement. Following a hearing on this motion, the court
denied the Longleys' motion to amend, issued a final judgment specifying
that Knapp was the owner of the entire disputed parcel "free and clear of
any claim to a town or public way," and ordered the Longleys to remove
their utility lines from her property. This appeal followed. 
[¶6] The Longleys filed their motion for a summary judgment 28 days
after the discovery period had ended. Supporting this motion was evidence
-- photographs and an engineering plan of the disputed area as well as the
affidavits of six individuals -- not revealed during the discovery period
although the evidence fell squarely within Knapp's discovery requests. The
trial court determined that the Longleys did not comply with their discovery
obligations in good faith "and that said failure to comply prejudiced Amanda
Knapp's ability to defend this case." As a result, the court ordered this
evidence "to be excluded from use for any purpose" in the present action.
[¶7] "It is the purpose of both the discovery rules and the pretrial
conference to eliminate the sporting theory of justice and to enforce full
disclosure." Reeves v. Travelers Ins. Cos., 421 A.2d 47, 50 (Me. 1980)
(internal citations omitted). In determining the scope of a sanction for a
party's violation of our rules of discovery, "[t]he trial court should analyze the
effect pretrial violations have on the adverse party and also evaluate the
purpose the sanctions are to serve." Employee Staffing of America, Inc. v.
Travelers Ins. Co., 674 A.2d 506, 508 (Me. 1996). Sanctions may serve to
"penalize non-compliance, remedy the effects of non-compliance, and to
serve as a deterrent." Pelletier v. Pathiraja, 519 A.2d 187, 190 (Me. 1986). 
We review the trial court's decision as to the sanction imposed for a
discovery violation for an abuse of discretion. See Shaw v. Bolduc, 658 A.2d
229, 234-35 (Me. 1995). 
[¶8] The Longleys' failure to provide Knapp with materials responsive
to her discovery requests during the discovery period prejudiced Knapp's
ability to examine, to utilize, and to challenge relevant evidence prior to the
filing of each party's summary judgment motion. The trial court acted
within the bounds of its discretion in excluding such evidence from this
case -- the sanction reflected the finding of bad faith on the part of the
Longleys as well as the prejudice suffered by Knapp. Cf. Maietta v.
International Harvester Co., 496 A.2d 286, 294 (Me. 1985) (court
committed no error in excluding a witness's opinion testimony as a sanction
for failure to comply with a discovery request). On remand, however, the
court may revisit the appropriateness of the sanction imposed. 
[¶9] There are three ways to establish a town road: (1) by the
statutory method of layout and acceptance; (2) by dedication and
acceptance; and (3) by prescriptive use. See Avaunt v. Town of Gray, 634
A.2d 1258, 1260 (Me. 1993). The trial court did not reach the issue of
whether a valid layout and acceptance had occurred because the court
determined that the Longleys were barred under the theories of estoppel
and laches from asserting that the disputed area was a town way. The court
nonetheless addressed the issue of whether a public easement by
prescription had been created and determined that, as a matter of law, it
had not.
[¶10] Laches is the omission to assert a right for an unreasonable and
unexplained length of time and under circumstances prejudicial to the
adverse party. See A.H. Benoit & Co. v. Johnson, 202 A.2d 1, 5 (Me. 1964). 
Laches cannot be predicated on delay alone. See Carter v. Carter, 611 A.2d
86, 87 (Me. 1992). The issue of whether the equitable doctrine of laches
applies in a given circumstance is one of law. See H.E. Sargent v. Town of
Wells, 676 A.2d 920, 926 (Me. 1996). We review an issue of law de novo. 
See id. at 923. 
[¶11] The Longleys enjoyed unrestricted use of the disputed way for
years until Knapp asserted her private ownership of the way. Under these
circumstances, the Longleys had no reason to seek declaratory relief to
assert their right to use this way to access their property; they used the
disputed way under the reasonable assumption that it was a public road and
sought judicial relief only at that time when they were excluded from using
the way. We cannot say that the Longleys' failure to assert their right to use
the disputed way was either unreasonable or unexplainable and we thus hold
that the application of laches in this case is inappropriate. 
[¶12] Similar reasoning guides our determination that the Longleys
are not barred by the doctrine of equitable estoppel from asserting that the
disputed road is a town way. The doctrine of equitable estoppel "bars the
assertion of the truth by one whose misleading conduct has induced another
to act to his detriment in reliance on what is untrue." Anderson v. 
Commissioner of Dep't of Human Servs., 489 A.2d 1094, 1099 (Me. 1985). 
Equitable estoppel precludes an owner from asserting his legal title when,
by his own action or inaction, he has caused another person to act or to alter
her position to her detriment. See Milliken v. Buswell, 313 A.2d 111, 119
(Me. 1973). Intent to mislead is not required -- equitable estoppel may be
applied when a party "remains silent when it is his duty to speak, as where
inquiries are made of him," Grant v. Warren Bros. Co., 405 A.2d 213, 217
(Me. 1979), or when circumstances are such that would "impel an honest
man to speak." Milliken, 313 A.2d at 119. Equitable estoppel based on an
owner's silence will only be applied when it is shown by "clear and
satisfactory" proof that the owner was silent when he had a duty to speak. 
Littlefield v. Adler, 676 A.2d 940, 942 (Me. 1996). Equitable estoppel
should be "carefully and sparingly applied." Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Bert
Cote L/A Auto Sales, Inc., 1998 ME 53, ¶ 26, 707 A.2d 1311, 1318 
(quoting Milliken, 313 A.2d at 119). We review a court's application of
equitable estoppel for clear error. See Littlefield, 676 A.2d at 943. 
[¶13] In the instant case, the trial court determined that the Longleys
are equitably estopped from asserting that the disputed way is a town way. 
The record does not contain clear and convincing proof that the Longleys
were silent "when the circumstances would impel an honest man to speak." 
Milliken, 313 A.2d at 119. The Longleys were merely neighbors using what
they considered to be a public street, having enjoyed the unfettered use of
the disputed way for decades. The Longleys had no reason to speak up until
Knapp asserted her private interest in the disputed way; they had no duty to
inquire as to what property Knapp was seeking to purchase and then warn
her that a portion of her intended purchase was actually a town way. The
facts in this case do not give rise to a "careful and sparing" application of an
equitable estoppel defense. The trial court thus erred in its conclusion that
the Longleys' claim to a public way is barred by Knapp's equitable defenses. 

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