Circuit Court Ordered to Enforce Option-to-Purchase Provision in Commercial Real Estate Lease

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District II of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently remanded a commercial lease dispute back to the Waukesha County Circuit Court, directing the court to enforce the parties’ agreed-upon option-to-purchase provision as written.  See Headstart Building, LLC v. National Centers for Learning Excellence, Inc., No. 2016AP434 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 8, 2017).

The dispute originated from a 2002 commercial lease in which Headstart Building, Inc. (“Headstart”) agreed to lease real estate property in Waukesha to National Centers for Learning Excellence, Inc. (“NCLE”).  Id. ¶ 5.  The lease included a provision allowing NCLE to invoke an option to purchase the property at any time.  The following language in the option-to-purchase provision is the focus of the parties’ dispute:

In the event Tenant shall elect to exercise Tenant’s option to purchase the Premises, Landlord and Tenant shall each choose an appraiser to appraise the Premises which appraisals must be completed within forty-five (45) days of the date Tenant notifies Landlord that it intends to exercise its option to purchase.  In the event the fair market value of the Premises in the two appraisals differs by no more than five percent (5%), the Appraised Value shall be the average of the two appraisals.  In the event the appraised value of the Premises in the two appraisals differs by more than five percent (5%), the two appraisers shall agree upon a third appraiser and the result of such third appraisal shall be the Appraised Value.

Id. ¶ 6.

In December 2012, NCLE invoked its right to purchase the property, and the two parties commissioned their respective appraisals.  Headstart’s appraiser valued the property at $6.88 million dollars while NCLE’s appraiser issued a $4.075 million valuation.  Upon comparing the two appraisals, it became clear that the cause of such a wide discrepancy was the differing methodologies employed by the appraisers.  Headstart’s appraiser determined the fair market value with consideration of the current NCLE lease encumbrance, while NCLE’s appraiser calculated the fair market value of the property free and clear of the current lease.  Id. ¶¶ 7-8.

Rather than following the terms of the option-to-purchase provision and have their respective appraisers seek a third party to resolve the conflict, the parties instead engaged in written correspondence disputing the proper methodology to calculate the fair market value of the property.  Once those communications broke down, Headstart filed suit in Waukesha County Circuit Court requesting specific performance of the option-to-purchase (at $6.88 million) and damages arising from NCLE’s bad faith breach of the lease.  NCLE filed a declaratory judgment counterclaim, requesting the court to declare the proper appraisal methodology.  Id. ¶ 9.

After a two-day bench trial, Judge Haughney issued an oral ruling rejecting Headstart’s breach of contract and bad faith claims, though it was unclear from the record whether the grounds for the dismissal was based on Headstart’s failure to follow the option’s procedure of seeking a third appraisal or because the court concluded that the parties’ differing appraisal methodology positions represented a failure to reach a meeting of the minds, rendering the entire provision unenforceable.  Judge Haughney requested supplemental briefing regarding the fate of NCLE’s declaratory judgment counterclaim, and ultimately dismissed that claim as moot on the ground that the option provision was unenforceable and must be stricken from the lease in its entirety.  Id. ¶¶ 10-11.

After NCLE filed an appeal seeking to revive its declaratory judgment counterclaim, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals overruled the Circuit Court’s order striking the option from the lease.  Writing for the Court, Judge Hagerdorn noted that, while essential contractual terms (such as the purchase price in a real estate transaction) must be definite in order to be enforceable, it is well-settled under Wisconsin law that the terms need not be 100% certain so long as they are “capable of being ascertained from the agreement itself.”  Id. ¶ 17.  The Court referenced a long line of Wisconsin precedent upholding real property contracts setting a “fair market value” price to be determined by appraisement, and concluded that the parties’ dispute was one of differing interpretations of agreed-upon contractual terms.  Id. ¶¶ 17-22.   In conclusion, the Court found that the provision provided a simple, straightforward and definite means of determining the purchase price: either the average of the parties’ respective appraisals or, if the difference between those values was too great, the third appraised value of the property.  Id. ¶ 22.

Despite this conclusion, however, the Court found that substantive questions regarding the meaning of the option-to-purchase provision were not before it on appeal and remanded the case to the Circuit Court to address NCLE’s declaratory judgment counterclaim regarding whether the parties must appraise the property with consideration of the NCLE lease encumbrance.  Id. ¶¶ 24-25.  In a concurring opinion, Presiding Judge Reilly disagreed with these remand instructions, concluding that the proper methodology for determining the fair market value of commercial real estate is not a question of law for the courts to decide and that the provision here provides a dispute resolution procedure (i.e., a third appraisal) that should be enforced.  Id. ¶¶ 26-29.

While exercising restraint in only addressing the narrow question presented to it on appeal (whether NCLE’s declaratory judgment claim was properly dismissed), the Court of Appeals’ analysis leaves little doubt in the enforceability of the entirety of the parties’ option-to-purchase provision, including their agreed-upon means of resolving any valuation disputes through the use of a third appraiser.  It will be interesting to see if the Circuit Court follows the Court of Appeals’ lead on remand or instead elects to resolve the substance of the parties’ “fair market value” appraisal methodology dispute, which is one of first impression in Wisconsin.  See id. ¶ 24 n.7

Court of Appeals Decides Wis. Stat., Ch. 90, Applies Equally to Cities, Villages, and Towns

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Over 150 years ago, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, now codified in Chapter 90 of the Wisconsin Statutes, to resolve conflicts over fences separating neighboring agricultural lands.  Chapter 90 requires fences partitioning farmland from neighboring properties. Chapter 90 also provides detailed requirements for what constitutes a sufficient partition fence and provides cost sharing and dispute-resolution procedures. Chapter 90 assigns towns to assist in resolving disputes between property owners regarding partition fences on land located within their borders.  Chapter 90 also references cities and villages, but it makes no similar assignment to such municipalities. The law therefore is ambiguous about whether cities and villages are obligated to resolve fence disputes.  

In White v. City of Watertown, No. 2016AP2259 (Oct. 12, 2017), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals resolved this ambiguity and clarified that Chapter 90 applies to cities, villages, and towns alike.

The Whites owned and farmed land in the City of Watertown on which they maintained a partition fence. The cost and maintenance of the fence resulted in a dispute between the Whites and their neighbors. Invoking the procedures of Chapter 90, the Whites asked the City to assist in resolving this dispute. When the City refused, the Whites filed suit, asking the circuit court to clarify that the City was legally obligated to help. The circuit court observed that Chapter 90 is ambiguous but held that Chapter 90 applies to cities and villages, the same as it does to towns.

The City appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court agreed with the circuit court that the text of Chapter 90 is ambiguous. On the one hand, the statute requires “fence viewers” to carry out specified governmental duties, which include resolving disputes between property owners. And the statutory definition of fence viewers includes town supervisors, city alderpersons, and village trustees. On the other hand, most of Chapter 90’s references to “fence viewers” include only “town fence viewers.” Further, additional provisions in Chapter 90 appear to contemplate administration and enforcement only by towns.

To resolve this ambiguity, the Court of Appeals looked to the Chapter’s legislative history. The Court found that, prior to 1875, the Chapter contained no references to cities or villages. However, in 1875 the legislature amended Chapter 90 to apply to cities, villages, and towns alike. In 1878, the legislature revised the Wisconsin Statutes. Without reason, most of the language added in the 1875 amendments—language clarifying that the Act applied to cities and villages, as well as to towns—was omitted from the 1878 revised publication. Concluding that the omission “must have been inadvertent,” the Court of Appeals held that, when farmland is in a city or village, that municipality must administer and enforce Chapter 90’s requirements just as a town would if the land were within the town’s boundaries. As a result, the Whites prevailed and the City of Watertown will have to assume Chapter 90 duties with respect to the Whites’ land.

The Court of Appeals in White clarified that cities, villages, and towns must now assume the duties of fence viewers under Chapter 90. The main duty for fence viewers under Chapter 90 is to resolve disputes between adjoining property owners with lands divided by partition fence. For example, under Wis. Stat. § 90.10, fence viewers can direct property owners to repair or rebuild partition fences. Further, under § 90.07, fence viewers, under certain circumstances, may locate the line upon which a partition fence between adjoining lands must be built.

Multi-Month Medical Leave Not A Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

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The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 181197*, 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017) that a leave for medical purposes of two months or more is not a reasonable accommodation under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In so doing, however, the Court left open the possibility that shorter or intermittent leaves might be, under appropriate circumstances.    

In Severson, the plaintiff took the full 12-week allotment of medical leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) due to back pain.  During his leave, he scheduled back surgery for day his FMLA leave expired.  Severson told the employer that he would not be able to work for two-to-three months after the surgery and requested non-FMLA medical leave for the recovery time.  The employer denied the request, given that Severson would be unable to perform any part of his job for several months.    

The court held that the employer’s decision did not violate the ADA.  The ADA, the court explained, is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.  Id. at *3.  According to the court, the ADA is designed to prevent discrimination against a “qualified” individual, defined as a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.”  Id.  Thus, protection under the ADA is “expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.  An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.”  Id. (citing Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003)).  Based on these considerations, the court determined that Severson was not a qualified individual under the ADA because the requested accommodation—a leave of two-to-three months—would not allow him to perform the essential duties of his job and thus was not reasonable.   

Employer Takeaway

Severson provides definitive guidance to employers in the Seventh Circuit with respect to employee requests for medical leave for two or more months, but only if the leave is not mandated by a medical leave statute like the federal FMLA or any state law counterparts.  While Severson also suggests that even a leave of more than a couple of weeks may not be a reasonable accommodation, employers should still proceed with caution in responding to requests for leave of less than two months because the reasonableness of the leave will turn on the particular circumstances of each request.  Employers also should keep in mind that Severson does not permit employers to deny extended leave mandated by another statute.  In such cases, of course, employers must provide the leave whether or not it would be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

For additional guidance or questions related to employers’ responsibilities under the ADA, contact Meg Vergeront at (608) 256-0226.    

Management Policies Generally Will Not Abrogate Employment-At-Will

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The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently reversed a circuit court decision that awarded a physician-employee $2.2 million against his employer, Dean Health Systems (Dean). Bukstein, M.D. v. Dean Health Systems, Inc., No. 2016AP920 (Wis. Ct. App. July 20, 2017) (recommended for publication). The dispute revolved around whether Bukstein was an employee at-will who Dean could terminate for any reason, with or without cause, without being subject to a breach-of-employment contract claim.

Background

Bukstein initially signed an employment agreement with Dean that confirmed that Buckstein was an at-will employee.  After an investigation into allegations of inappropriate touching of patients, Dean fired Buckstein “without cause,” pursuant to the at-will provision in the initial agreement.  Bukstein sued, arguing that one of Dean’s management policies modified his at-will employment status, and afforded him greater employment protection from termination. Buckstein argued that the policy “‘change[d] the employment relationship by creating a ‘contract separate from or supplemental to the [employment agreement].’”  The decision did not identify relevant content of the policy at issue.    

Court’s Decision

The court of appeals rejected Bukstein’s argument in one fell swoop, stating that “[t]he problem with Bukstein’s reliance on the [management] policy is that, under controlling case law, the policy does not modify Dean’s right to terminate Bukstein under the at-will provision in the employment contract.”  The court explained that a policy such as the one in this case “does not modify or take precedence over an at-will employment agreement” unless the “only when” rule applies.

The “only when” rule provides that policies “alter an established at-will employment relationship ‘only when’ the policy ‘contains express provisions from which it can reasonably be inferred that the parties intended to bind each other to a different employment relationship’ than the established at-will relationship.’” The court stated that Bukstein failed to point to any language in Dean’s management policy that could support a reasonable inference that the parties intended to change their at-will employment relationship.  Therefore, the court held that Dean did not breach its contract with Bukstein when it relied on the at-will provision in the employment agreement to terminate Bukstein “without cause.”

Employer Take-Away

Employers that issue policies governing the employment relationship, such as policies setting the duration of employment or conditions upon which it may terminate employees, should carefully examine the policy language to determine whether that language could trigger the “only when” rule. A decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Ferraro v. Koelsch, 124 Wis.2d 154, 163-65, 368 N.W.2d 666 (1985), gives a few examples of the kinds of polices that might trigger the “only when” rule.  Such policies include those that (1) govern employees in exchange for “continued employment,” (2) establish a layoff procedure based on seniority, and (3) provide that “discharge [will] only be for ‘just cause.’”

Associate Olivia Pietrantoni assisted in researching and writing this post.

The Not-So-Scenic Pit: Court Reaffirms Limited Local Control Over Certain Solid Waste Facilities

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The issue of local control is once again front and center in a recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision, Scenic Pit LLC v. Village of Richfield, No. 2015AP2291 (June 28, 2017) (recommended for publication).

Scenic Pit LLC sought to open a clean fill solid waste facility in the Village of Richfield. Such facilities accept disposal of only certain low hazard wastes. The Village took the position that Scenic needed to obtain several local approvals, including for rezoning the property, for a conditional use permit, and for a construction storm water and erosion control permit. Id., ¶4. Scenic applied for construction permits from the Village, but it did not attempt to acquire the storm water and erosion control permit or the rezoning of the property. Id., ¶4. The Village denied Scenic’s application for construction permits. Id.

Scenic also applied for and obtained a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) general permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for construction site storm water runoff and erosion control. Id.

When the Village denied the construction permits, Scenic sued seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to comply with local approvals and an injunction ending the Village’s interference with its proposed plan. Id., ¶5. Both Scenic and the Village moved for summary judgment. Id.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to the Village, on the ground that under the authority of Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, Scenic was required to comply with all local ordinances unless “‘state and local interests are diametrically opposed,’” which the court found they were not. Id.

On appeal, Scenic argued that the DNR had exempted clean fill facilities from needing to obtain the kind of local approvals the Village was requiring. The court of appeals agreed with Scenic. The court explained that the legislature has designated the regulation of solid waste facilities as a matter of statewide concern. Id., ¶8. While a municipality may regulate matters of statewide concern, it may only do so as long as local ordinances do not conflict with state law. Id.

The court relied heavily on DeRosso Landfill Co. v. City of Oak Creek, 200 Wis. 2d 642, 547 N.W.2d 770 (Wis. 1996), which it explained was directly on point. The DeRosso court had previously determined that the statutory and regulatory scheme allowed DNR to exempt low hazard waste facilities from local requirements that applied to most other waste facilities and that this scheme amounted to an express withdrawal of municipal power to require local approvals. Id., ¶11. 

The Village attempted to distinguish DeRosso on the ground that the precedent does not apply to local zoning. That, the Village argued, placed its dispute with Scenic beyond the scope of DeRosso decision. Id., ¶14-19. The court disagreed, explaining that the precedent on which the Village was relying, Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, was inapposite and simply did not address the issue raised here, nor did it conflict with the rationale in DeRosso. Id., ¶¶14-19.

After holding that DeRosso controlled and that any local approvals required to construct Scenic’s facility were preempted, the court went on to examine whether the Village’s zoning ordinance and construction storm water and erosion control regulations were local approvals. Id., ¶19. The court concluded that they were, based on the very broad definition of “local approval” found at Wis. Stat. § 289.33(3)(d). Id., ¶29.

The takeaway from this case is that municipalities have limited control over the siting of certain solid waste facilities such as low-hazard clean fill facilities. However, the court was careful to point out that DNR regulations still control siting of such facilities. As the court explained, “[l]eaving the regulation of clean fill facilities to DNR may or may not be good policy, but it is what the legislature and DNR have done through statute and administrative rule (as interpreted by the supreme court.)” Id., ¶24.

WI Courts Continue To Limit Criminal Expungement, Even as Legislature Considers Expanding Scope

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In May, Representatives Steffer (R-Howard) and Hoyke (D-Milwaukee) introduced 2017 AB 331 in the Wisconsin Assembly. The proposed legislation would change current Wisconsin law to make expungement available to those previously convicted of a crime or who were ineligible for expungement at the time their case was resolved, and it would expand the number of defendants who can seek expungement. However, this legislative proposal is at odds with the current trend in Wisconsin courts interpreting existing expunction law.

Wisconsin’s current expungement statute, Wis. Stat. § 973.015, allows courts, at the time of sentencing, to order a defendant’s conviction to be expunged after “successful completion” of a sentence, if the defendant is under age twenty-five at the time of conviction and the offense has a maximum period of imprisonment of six years or less. This statute gives the court a chance to “shield youthful offenders from some of the harsh consequences of criminal convictions.” State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27, ¶42.

The combination of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law and the availability of court records online through the Consolidated Court Automation Program (CCAP) means that anyone with Internet access—read: nearly everyone—can easily obtain criminal history and case history from any Wisconsin court. Without expungement, convictions (whether of the original charge or a lesser, amended charge), charges that do not lead to convictions, and dismissed charges are all viewable by prospective employers, admissions officers, landlords, in-laws, etc. This access has practical consequences. For example, the American Bar Association has identified 38,000 statutes that impose collateral consequences for those with criminal convictions—of those, nearly half negatively impact employment opportunities. State v. Ozuna, 2017 WI 64, ¶ 39 (A.W. Bradley, J., dissenting).

While the purpose and scope of Wis. Stat. § 973.015 seem straightforward at first glance, the law contains ambiguities that courts have interpreted to limit access to expungement. Recent court cases have featured debates over what “expunge” and “successful completion” mean within the statutory context. The judicial trend has been to answer these questions in favor of narrowing the availability and scope of expungement under Wisconsin law.

The committee notes to Wis. Stat. § 973.015 define “expunge” as “to strike or obliterate from the record all references to the defendant’s name and identity.” Comm. Note to Wis. Stat. § 973.015(3) (citing 67 Atty. Gen. 301). But recent decisions have limited the efficacy of expungement in practice. Yes, the criminal record is sealed, with access barred absent a court order—but the police and some other governmental entities can still view the arrest. The court records still exist despite being removed from CCAP and can still be accessed by some individuals. Additionally, the record is still accessible in the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Crime Information Bureau (CIB) database and the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the federal Department of Justice’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

Moreover, under State v. Leitner, 2002 WI 77, courts can use information from judicial records, Department of Corrections files, and police reports relating to a prior, expunged conviction to formulate the sentence for a subsequent conviction, even though the record of the earlier conviction was “obliterate[d].” The Leitner Court clarified that, while § 973.015 bars formal consideration of a prior, expunged conviction, it does not otherwise “shield a misdemeanant from all of the future consequences of the facts underlying a[n expunged] record of a conviction,” so long as “those facts are not obtained from expunged court records.” Leitner, 2002 WI 77,38.

In one recent decision, the Supreme Court expanded even further the acceptable use at sentencing of underlying facts from an expunged record. In State v. Allen, 2017 WI 7 (Feb. 9, 2017), the criminal background check contained in the Pre-Sentence Investigation Report detailed the incident behind the defendant’s ostensibly obliterated record: “This incident involved a fight with another boy at high school and he was charged because the other boy lost a tooth in the fight.” Id., ¶10. Although the report acknowledged that the record was “officially expunged,” the circuit court sentenced more harshly based on the fact of prior offense, noting that Allen “had an opportunity to learn something from that [occasion].” Id., ¶12. The Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court, holding that, even where a record is expunged, many (if not all) of the incriminatory details are still available for a sentencing court’s review and may factor into the court’s subsequent sentencing decision.

In another recent decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court further limited the availability of expungement. State v. Ozuna, 2017 WI 64, addressed another ambiguity in Wis. Stat. § 973.015: where expungement automatically occurs upon the successful completion of a probation sentence, who decides what “successful” means? Under the terms of his plea agreement, Ozuna’s convictions for criminal damage to property and disorderly conduct were to be expunged once he successfully completed probation. At the end of Ozuna’s probation, the DOC filed a “Verification of Satisfaction of Probation Conditions for Expungement” with the circuit court, indicating that Ozuna had “successfully completed” his term of probation. Notwithstanding the DOC’s determination, the circuit court disregarded the DOC form and denied Ozuna’s expungement. The circuit court based its decision on Ozuna’s receipt of an underage drinking citation—in violation of a no-alcohol probation rule.

The question on appeal was narrow: had Ozuna successfully completed probation, entitling him to expungement? Ozuna’s brief to the Supreme Court pointed out that, “upon successful completion of the sentence the detaining or probationary authority shall issue a certificate of discharge which shall be forwarded to the court of record and which shall have the effect of expunging the record.” Under the statute, he argued, the expungement process is ‘self-executing’ once the probation officer determines the sentence is complete.

Ozuna relied on State v. Hemp, 2014 WI 129, and State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27. Under Hemp, a probation officer was given discretion to determine whether or not probation had been successfully completed. Moreover, once the officer determined the sentence was completed, expungement would be automatic, or self-executing. Under Matasek, the decision of expungement should be made at the sentencing stage, rather than after completion of the sentence. In other words, the circuit court’s role is before the sentence is served, and the probation officer’s role is after. In response, the State claimed that Ozuna had not successfully completed his probation sentence, differenting him from the defendants in Hemp and Matasek, who had done so.

The Supreme Court sided with the State. Its reasoning was simple. The statute says a record can be expunged “upon successful completion” of the sentence—here, probation. Successfully completing his probation required Ozuna to follow all of its requirements. Because Ozuna did not follow the no-drinking conditions of his probation, he did not successfully complete his probation. It did not matter that the DOC indicated otherwise. Nor did it matter that expungement is typically self-executing. What controlled the outcome of the case was that “Ozuna did not meet the criteria for expungement, because he did not satisfy the conditions of his probation.” 2017 WI 64, ¶19.

While the courts have consistently limited expungement, the legislature continues to consider changes in the opposite direction. A series of failed legislative efforts last session would have expanded the expungement statute. AB 1005 would have allowed defendants to petition for expungement of records related to a criminal prosecution after either acquittal or dismissal of charges. AB 1004 would have required expungement of records related to a criminal prosecution where the defendant was found not guilty or the conviction was reversed on appeal. And AB 1008 would have allowed courts to consider expungement after a defendant served their sentence, rather than only at the sentencing hearing.

In light of these failed measures, the prospects for 2017 AB 331 remain unclear. Unlike last session’s proposals, AB 331 has bipartisan sponsorship, but that does not mean it will gain sufficient support to become law. In the meantime, while the expungement statute appears straightforward, defendants should be cautious, bearing in mind judicially imposed limitations.

Law clerk Charles Ureña assisted in researching and writing this post.

Discharged Police Officer Has No Constitutional Entitlement to Pay During Pendency of His Appeal

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As we reported in November 2016, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the Milwaukee City Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (“Board”) to terminate the employment of Milwaukee Police Department (“MPD”) Officer Daniel Vidmar for falsifying a document to take possession of an unclaimed dirt bike from MPD inventory. While Officer Vidmar did not seek Wisconsin Supreme Court review of that decision, the court of appeals’ decision ended only one of Officer Vidmar’s legal challenges arising out his termination.

In a parallel federal case asserting due process and state law wage claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently slammed the door on another of Vidmar’s related challenges to his termination. Milwaukee Police Ass’n v. Flynn, No. 16-3743, 2017 WL 2962017 (7th Cir. July 12, 2017). The federal claims advanced by Vidmar and other discharged officers alleged they were denied due process when the City of Milwaukee terminated their pay and benefits upon discharge, even though they had not yet exhausted their right to challenge their terminations by appeals to the Board.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that the discharged officers had no entitlement to pay during the pendency of their appeals. As the court framed its holding, under Wisconsin law the former officers had no “property interest” in their employment once they were discharged for cause. 2017 WL 2962017 at *7. The court rejected the officers’ assertion that the chief’s “authority is limited to suspending a member’s police powers pending a trial before the Board,” concluding that the argument was “directly contradicted by the language of the statute.” Id. at *4. Instead, the court construed the statute to provide that the chief’s decision to terminate the officers was a final employment action, subject to the officers’ right to appeal the decision to the Board. As the court described it, the statute clearly provides that the officers’ property interest in their employment “is lost at the first juncture,” that is, with the chief’s decision to terminate for cause, while the discharged officer had the “opportunity to reclaim his property interest in employment on appeal after a trial.” Id. at *5.

Although not cited by the court, Wis. Stat. § 62.50(22) would have entitled the discharged officers to back pay if they had successfully challenged their discharge. This access to back pay plainly factors into the court’s statement about the officers’ opportunity to “reclaim” their property interests. Additionally, as the court noted, under Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18) an officer suspended for a period of time without pay is entitled to continue to be paid until exhaustion of the appeal. However, this provision does not apply to discharged officers.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision addresses Wis. Stat. § 62.50, which applies only to the City of Milwaukee Board. However, the statutory language of Wis. Stat. § 62.13, which governs all other municipal Boards of Police and Fire Commissioners, appears indistinguishable. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(h), just like Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18), provides that an officer may not be deprived of compensation while suspended pending disposition of charges but does not address discharged officers. The latter are entitled to have all lost pay restored only if the charges are not sustained. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(e). Therefore, the Seventh Circuit’s decision should not be viewed as peculiar to the City of Milwaukee.

Notably, the Seventh Circuit decision does not mark the end of Vidmar’s collateral attacks on his discharge. Presently pending before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals is Milwaukee Police Association v. City of Milwaukee, No. 2016AP1573, an appeal by Vidmar and his collective bargaining unit from a judgment dismissing their challenge to the Board’s compliance with political affiliation and training requirements set by Wis. Stat. § 62.50(1)(h) and Milwaukee City Ordinance § 314. Among other things, in that matter Vidmar seeks judgment declaring that his discharge was “unlawful” because the City’s appointment of Board members did not meet these requirements. So the Vidmar discharge matter has not yet officially reached the end of the road.

If you have any questions about the PFC disciplinary process, contact a member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Government Law Team members.

Court of Appeals Issues Decision in O’Donnell Park Parking Structure Litigation

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On July 11, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals addressed a couple of notable legal issues in litigation arising out of the O’Donnell Park Parking Structure panel collapse.  Wosinski et al. v. Advance Cast Stone Co. et al., Nos. 2014AP1961, 2213, 2274, 2660, 2015AP1212 (Ct. App. 2017).  Steven and Amy Wosinski, their son Eric, and their son’s friend, Jared Kellner, were on their way to Summerfest in June 2010 when a decorative concrete panel fell from the side of the parking structure.  Jared was killed, Amy suffered severe ankle trauma that resulted in a partial leg amputation, Eric’s leg was fractured, and Steven incurred significant emotional distress from witnessing the event.  The Kellner estate and the Wolinskis subsequently filed wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against a number of parties, including Advance Cast Stone Company (“ACS”), the entity responsible for installing the decorative concrete panels when the garage was built in the late 1980’s.

ACS’s Statute of Repose Defense

Prior to trial, ACS moved for summary judgment on the ground that the accident occurred well beyond Wisconsin’s 10-year statute of repose for improvements to real property (Wis. Stat. § 893.89).  The trial court denied the motion.  It found that there was a material issue of fact as to whether ACS concealed or misrepresented the defective and deficient manner in which the concrete panel was installed and, therefore, fell within an exception to the repose statute for parties who commit fraud, concealment, or misrepresentation (Wis. Stat. § 893.89(4)(a)).  As a result, the court allowed all of the plaintiffs’ causes of action against ACS to proceed, even those based on allegations of ACS’s negligent installation of the panel rather than the subsequent concealment and misrepresentation of those negligent installation activities.

At trial, the jury determined that ACS had used a negligent installation method that was not safe for the size of the concrete panel per the building codes in effect at the time and, therefore, was liable for 88% of the plaintiffs’ compensatory damages.  The jury also concluded that ACS’s failure to follow the building design plan by employing this suspect and defective installation method, combined with its subsequent concealment and misrepresentation of its negligent installation activities, demonstrated a “heightened state of mind” that goes beyond ordinary negligence, justifying an award of punitive damages.  The trial court denied ACS’s statute-of-repose defense based on the jury’s finding that ACS had concealed and misrepresented its defective installation of the concrete panel.  ACS appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Specifically, the court highlighted (1) the jury’s findings that the final As-Built drawings filed with Milwaukee County reflected a design inconsistent with the method actually employed by ACS, and (2) ACS employee testimony that the company chose not to document the construction design changes in writing, despite being contractually obligated to submit written change orders to the County for approval and to maintain accurate As-Built drawings in the public file.  These facts were sufficient to prove that ACS’s conduct fell squarely within the exception to the statute of repose for parties who engage in concealment and misrepresentations, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that the exception operates to preserve all causes of action against the offending party, even those based on allegations independent of the fraud, concealment, or misrepresentations that triggered the exception.

Wosinski serves as an important warning to parties engaging in reckless or nefarious conduct that they likely will not be afforded the same time-limitation defenses as parties that, at worst, have acted negligently.  Here, for example, ACS ended up with a judgment of over $10 million in damages arising from its negligent installation of the concrete panel, though liability for those claims very well may have been barred by the statute of repose had ACS not subsequently concealed and misrepresented its construction method.

ACS’s Insurance Coverage Claim Against Liberty

Concurrent with the plaintiffs’ wrongful death and personal injury claims, ACS also was engaged in a dispute with Liberty, its liability insurance carrier, regarding defense and indemnification coverage for the plaintiffs’ claims.  Liberty had agreed to defend ACS under a reservation of rights, asserting its position that the negligence claims were barred by the statute of repose and that the allegations of fraud, concealment, and misrepresentation not subject to the repose statute would otherwise fall under the policies’ intentional acts exclusion.

Interestingly, Liberty did not file a pre-trial declaratory judgment motion seeking a ruling on its defense obligations or a motion to bifurcate the coverage issues from the liability issues.  Liberty did, however, assert its coverage position in its pre-trial report by proposing special verdict questions to be presented to the jury regarding the fraud, concealment, and misrepresentation allegations pending against ACS.  The plaintiffs and ACS both objected to Liberty’s proposed jury questions and moved to bifurcate all coverage issues from the liability trial.  The trial court granted the motion to bifurcate, holding that Liberty was not permitted to participate at trial because its strategy would jeopardize ACS’s defense, particularly with regard to punitive damages.

After trial, Liberty filed a number of post-verdict motions, including a request for a declaration that it owed no duty to indemnify in light of the jury’s findings regarding ACS’s concealment and misrepresentations.  The trial judge denied Liberty’s motions, finding not only that there was indemnification coverage as a matter of law for the damages arising from ACS’s negligent installation activities, but also that Liberty’s pre-trial conduct amounted to a breach of both the duty to defend and the duty of good faith and fair dealing it owed to ACS.  The trial court concluded that Liberty was liable for all damages that naturally flowed from its bad-faith conduct and was therefore obligated to pay the full compensatory and punitive damages award against ACS—in excess of $39 million—despite the $10 million coverage limit on ACS’s policies with Liberty.  Liberty appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that coverage was triggered under the Liberty policies based on the jury’s conclusion that ACS had negligently installed of the concrete panel.  However, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling that Liberty’s decisions not to seek bifurcation and to assert its coverage positions at trial had breached the defense obligations it owed to ACS.  The Court held that the focal point of the duty of defend is whether or not the insurer has provided the insured a defense at all, and that Liberty’s decision to provide a defense under a reservation of rights was an acceptable approach under Wisconsin law.  The Court went on to explain that an insurer’s duty of good faith and fair dealing is separate and distinct from its defense obligations, and that the lower court overstepped its authority in holding that Liberty’s litigation strategy had been employed in bad faith because ACS had not filed a bad-faith tort claim against Liberty.  The Court vacated the order obligating Liberty to pay the full $39+ million damages amount and remanded for determination of what amount of the damages award fell within the $10 million in coverage afforded by the Liberty policies.

This holding demonstrates the imperative for a party to properly plead its claims and, if necessary, amend its causes of actions as litigation progresses.  Had ACS properly placed Liberty’s litigation conduct before the court by amending its claims to add a bad-faith claim, this proceeding may have resulted in the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court decision requiring Liberty to pay all $39+ million in damages.  Instead, ACS now faces the potential of having to pay a substantial portion of the verdict out of its own pocket, as well as having to invest additional time and resources into litigating Liberty’s alleged bad faith conduct in future proceedings.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals Upholds Municipal Snowplowing Against Public Purpose Doctrine Challenge

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The Town of Argonne is a small community in northern Wisconsin, near Michigan’s upper peninsula. For more than 60 years, the Town has removed snow from residents’ private driveways upon request. The Town handled snow removal pursuant to contracts, funding the work through fees paid for the service and not through tax revenues. The Town’s road-crew employees performed the contracted snow removal work, which brought in more fee revenue than the work cost to perform. The Town did not provide snow removal services for private roads or parking lots. In 2014, the Town adopted a resolution enunciating this longstanding policy. Id.

In 2015, three local residents engaged in the business of snow plowing brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to invalidate the Town’s resolution. The plaintiffs alleged that the Town’s snow plowing work served no public purpose because private companies were available to do such work. Generally speaking, no local government may legislate on a matter that does not serve a public purpose. See Town of Beloit v. County of Rock, 2003 WI 8, ¶21, 259 Wis. 2d 37, 657 N.W.2d 344. Both the plaintiffs and the Town moved for summary judgment.

The circuit court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. The court acknowledged that Wis. Stat. § 86.105 specifically authorizes municipalities to contract for snow removal from private driveways. And it recognized that the Town did not rely on tax revenue for removing snow from private driveways. Nonetheless, the court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that, because private entities were available to provide snow plowing services, the Town’s contracts to do so served no public purpose and were therefore not authorized by law.

The court of appeals disagreed. The court explained that under the public purpose doctrine, public funds can be expended only for public purposes. Samz v. Town of Argonne, No. 2015AP267 (Wis. Ct. App. April 11, 2017) (per curiam), ¶7. A court is not to overrule the determination of what constitutes a public purpose unless that determination is “‘manifestly arbitrary or unreasonable.’” Id. (quoted source omitted). The court concluded that the Town’s determination that there was a public purpose in contracting for snow removal from private driveways was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, citing numerous examples of how such plowing benefited the public. Id., ¶8. The court also distinguished the Town’s resolution from actions invalidated in prior court decisions, because, in this case, the Town did not rely on taxpayer funding to conduct the challenged service. Id., ¶¶9-10.

Importantly, the court explicitly rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that no public benefit can exist where a private entity could provide the same services the municipality is undertaking. Id., ¶12. The court cited prior case law rejecting this broad proposition, and explained that such a holding would put courts in the unworkable position of determining whether there were sufficient private services available to obviate a public purpose. Id., ¶¶12-14. While this case was decided per curiam—without one judge acknowledging authorship of the opinion—and therefore lacks precedential value under Wis. Stat. § 809.23(3), the decision pulls together a number of prior decisions and clearly asserts that the public purpose doctrine is not defeated any time a municipality engages in services that a private entity could alternatively provide.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals deems restrictive covenant unenforceable as to short-term rentals

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Consider the following facts: a couple owns a single-family waterfront residence on a private dead-end road. The lots on the road are subject to the following restrictive covenant (among others): “there shall be no commercial activity allowed on any of said lots.” They begin renting out the residence on a short-term basis, advertising the property as “Lake Point Lodge.” A listing for the Lake Point Lodge on the vacation rental website vrbo.com specifies it is available for minimum stays of two to seven nights, for a maximum of fifteen overnight guests. In one year alone, the couple rented the residence to over 170 people and received over $55,000.00 in rent. But the neighbors are not happy and sue the couple for injunctive relief, complaining that the short-term rental of the property violates the prohibition on commercial activity in the restrictive covenant. Does the restrictive covenant effectively prohibit short-term rentals?

No, according to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Forshee v. Neuschwander, No. 2016AP1608 (Wis. Ct. App. June 13, 2017) (recommended for publication). The decision reaffirms the long-standing rule that in order to be enforceable, property restrictions must be expressed in clear and unambiguous terms and that when the meaning of language in a restrictive covenant is doubtful, all doubt should be resolved in favor of the property owner’s free use.

The Court’s analysis focused on the term “commercial activity” and whether the covenant was susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Because the term “commercial activity” was not defined in the restrictive covenant, the Court considered dictionary definitions to discern the ordinary meaning. Applying the dictionary definitions, the Court held that the restrictive covenant prohibits property owners from “engaging in activity on their lot that is concerned with the activity of buying and selling, or activity by which they make or intend to profit.”

The Court then concluded that reasonable minds could differ as to whether short-term rentals of property met this standard. On the one hand, the Court noted, the couple made money (and presumably a profit) by renting their home to others on a short-term basis. By selling the right to use the home, the couple engaged in the activity of buying and selling. On the other hand, the Court observed, the actual use of the property by short-term tenants was residential in character. Additionally, the Court found it significant that there was no evidence that the actual “activity” on the lot was anything other than residential: there was no evidence that any actual exchange of money occurred “on” the lot or any goods were purchased or sold “on” the property, quoting the covenant. Based on these considerations, the Court concluded that short-term rentals did not constitute commercial activity “on” the property.

Because reasonable minds could differ as to whether the restrictive covenant prohibits short-term rentals, the Court held the covenant was ambiguous. The Court then analyzed whether, despite the ambiguity, the intent of the restriction could be clearly ascertained to render the covenant enforceable. The Court rejected the contention that the intent was to ensure a quiet neighborhood where people would know their neighbors, finding that the other restrictive covenants did not support this intent. One covenant prohibited the erection of any dwelling with fewer than 1,000 square feet of living space and another limited subdivision of existing lots. The Court found that none of the restriction had any effect on whether lot owners know their neighbors.

Supported by cases from North Carolina and Oregon, the Court concluded that the covenant was ambiguous with respect to whether short-term rentals were prohibited. Because the restriction was ambiguous, it could not be enforced against the couple to prevent them from renting out their property on a short-term basis.

Forshee provides instructive guidance for drafting restrictive covenants. If you are looking to protect land, Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Real Estate Team can assist in drafting enforceable restrictive covenants and in evaluating the enforcement of such covenants if and when they are violated.

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