Keeping Form Subservient to Substance in Rule 80B (and 80C) Actions

What is the proper remedy when a party challenges a municipal action under Rule 80B, but the court later determines that this was the wrong procedural vehicle to challenge the municipal action?  In Hurricane Island Foundation v. Town of Vinalhaven, the Law Court took a pragmatic approach by treating the proceeding as a declaratory judgment action rather than dismissing the action.

In Hurricane Island Foundation, a nonprofit sought to challenge a town tax assessor’s decision denying the nonprofit a tax abatement.  The nonprofit brought its challenge under Rule 80B.  The Town, however, argued that this was the wrong procedural vehicle because review of an assessor’s decision must be obtained through abatement or declaratory judgment.  The Law Court ultimately agreed, concluding that Rule 80B does not provide for review of a tax assessor’s decision.  This raised an important issue—should the lawsuit be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction?

The Law Court applied a very practical solution.  Chief Justice Stanfill, writing for the Court, observed that the Court has previously concluded that

Even if review under Rule 80B may not be available, the court nonetheless has jurisdiction when the complaint may fairly be treated as a complaint for declaratory judgment.

Accordingly, because the complaint in effect sought declaratory relief, the Law Court held that the courts properly had jurisdiction over the action.

Dismissal would serve no purpose whatever, would unjustifiably elevate form over substance, and would waste judicial resources as well as the resources of the parties.

The Law Court further declined to remand the matter for amendment of the complaint, because that would merely lead to duplicative proceedings.  Honoring the purpose of the Rules of Civil Procedure, namely, “to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action,” the Court declined to resolve the case on procedural grounds and instead reached the merits of the case.

The Court’s approach in Hurricane Island closely tracks the approach that the Court has previously taken in the context of Rule 80C.  In Help-U-Sell v. Maine Real Estate Commission, the Law Court similarly concluded that the plaintiff had wrongly filed a petition challenging an agency decision under Rule 80C.  And, likewise, the Court, concluding that the action was more properly brought as seeking declaratory relief, simply treated the complaint as a declaratory judgment action—again citing the purposes of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

In challenges to municipal and agency actions, therefore, it appears that the Court is charting a steady course that avoids meaningless procedural wrangling.  Where an action under Rule 80B or 80C can properly be pleaded as a declaratory judgment action, the Law Court prefers that the action be resolved on its merits rather than dismissed on procedural grounds.  This is a sensible solution, as it avoids procedural games that could ultimately be resolved by simple re-pleading.  Substance matters more than form.