An Albemarle County Circuit Court judge has granted a request from the county to amend its lawsuit against the defunct Scottsville Volunteer Rescue Squad, expanding the scope of the complaint.
The lawsuit follows an April 2019 decision by the county Board of Supervisors to dissolve the rescue squad after 45 years of service.
The decision was made in response to a December 2018 letter from the squad board’s chairman, John Waits, sent to Albemarle County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston, asking the county to take over its day-to-day operations because it had been unable to attract sufficient volunteer membership.
The day after the vote, the county filed a petition for a temporary injunction and requested an emergency order to try to stop the organization from transferring its assets to another nonprofit, which was taken under advisement by the county’s circuit court. A cash basis balance sheet as of June 2019 showed the rescue squad had $533,941.36 in assets.
The petition was filed by the county after Waits told The Daily Progress that the squad had a “substantial amount of private donations” and the board was moving the funds and land ownership to a different 501©(3) “to make sure that both of those assets serve the southern part of the county going forward.”
In December 2019, an Albemarle Circuit Court judge ruled on a demurrer filed by an attorney for SVRS, stating that the nature of the relationship between the county and the organization does authorize the county to dissolve the entire entity.
The case has been further complicated by an October 2020 Supreme Court of Virginia opinion in the Dumfries-Triangle Rescue Squad v. Board of County Supervisors of Prince William County case.
That opinion said the Prince William board did not have the power to dissolve the corporate status of the Dumfries-Triangle Rescue Squad, but said that it can end a contract with DTRS for emergency medical services.
In the opinion, Justice Cleo E. Powell said the Prince William Circuit Court erred in concluding that a county’s board of supervisors could dissolve the corporate status of a rescue squad registered with the State Corporation Commission as a Virginia nonstock corporation.
Albemarle County had made a similar argument as to why its Board of Supervisors could dissolve the Scottsville Volunteer Rescue Squad, which an Albemarle Circuit Court judge later ruled it could do. Both parties agreed to ask the court to stay proceedings until an opinion was issued in the Prince William case.
In the wake of the Dumfries opinion, the county filed a motion to amend its lawsuit, which “altered the partial foundation” of the county’s complaint. Per the county’s motion, the complaints and allegations in the proposed amended petition for declaratory judgment “pursue the same and additional grounds as those in the amended petition filed in September 2019.”
During Monday’s hearing in Albemarle County Circuit Court, Amanda Farley, senior assistant attorney for the county, argued that the county had been diligent in filing the motion and that the amended petition would serve the interests of justice.
“Per the Virginia Supreme Court, leave to amend shall be liberally granted in furtherance of the means of justice and leave to amend a pleading is up to the trial court’s discretion,” she said.
On behalf of the rescue squad, attorney Michael Gardner argued that the amended petition would indeed prejudice his clients, whose funds and ability to operate have been stalled for two years by an injunction.
“The near complete enjoinment of their assets takes away the very essence of the corporation,” he said. “They have already been prejudiced, and allowing an amendment now will only continue that.”
Describing the amended petition as a “full second bite of the apple,” Gardner said the latest motion was filed because the rescue squad’s motion for summary judgment was granted on all counts in January, save for a “limited exception” related to the deed of the property the rescue squad operated on.
After an approximately 45-minute-long recess, Judge Cheryl Higgins ruled that the county could file an amended petition, citing the same state Supreme Court rule mentioned by Farley.
“The stronger argument is that leave to amend should be granted,” she said. “Many of the issues respondents raised are judiciable issues and I cannot find that there is reason to deny a leave to amend at this time.”
The case still remains without a trial date and Higgins stayed discovery for the time being until other issues in the case could be worked out.