The owner of a local gym, Club Fitness of Vermont, sued the state for damages after the gym was closed as part of the state’s response to the pandemic, calling the closure unconstitutional, but a Rutland Civil Court judge dismissed the claim.
The lawsuit, filed against the state, Gov. Phil Scott and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, argued the state should pay for damages incurred by owner Sean Manovill when Club Fitness was closed from late March through June. Manovill’s suit said Scott’s order was an “unlawful taking” of Club Fitness.
Judge Robert Mello, of Rutland Civil Court, in a decision dated Sept. 24, upheld the state’s actions.
“COVID-19 swept the country in a short period of time, forcing governors and health officials to act quickly and diligently to protect the population. In (a Tennessee case,) the court determined that the COVID-19 closure ‘was not for a public use but was instead a valid exercise of the broad police powers bestowed upon state and local officials to prevent detrimental public harms by restricting plaintiffs’ use of their property. It is unlikely such action would require compensation under the ‘Takings Clause,’” Mello wrote.
On Wednesday, Manovill said he planned to speak with his lawyer later in the day and said he hadn’t made any decisions about his next steps.
But he added, “This is just the beginning.”
In a statement, Donovan called the decision “a win for Vermonters and Vermont businesses who have done the right thing and complied with the governor’s orders.”
“The court’s ruling confirms what Vermonters know and have done: We all have to do our part because we are all in this together,” Donovan said.
In May, Donovan’s office filed a civil lawsuit and filed a preliminary injunction against the gym and owner Sean Manovill after the gym was opened in contradiction of orders from Gov. Phil Scott.
Scott had ordered the closure of a number of businesses after declaring a state of emergency in Vermont in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Ella Spotswood, chief of the attorney general’s office’s Civil Division, said the office had made two requests in response to the re-opening of Club Fitness: An order the gym be closed and penalties because they believed it had been done in violation of the law.
As Scott’s orders have allowed some businesses to reopen, Club Fitness has been allowed to resume operations, but Spotswood’s office has continued to pursue penalties.
Some states have seen larger numbers of residents and business owners arguing that stay-at-home orders and business closures are unconstitutional. Asked if she thought Mello’s decision would address those objections, Spotswood said the suit had challenged Scott’s closure under the specific provision that the state had violated the “Takings Clause.”
The decision said the order did not fall under the Takings Clause and was allowed under the state’s police powers for the benefit of public safety, Spotswood said but there are still outstanding challenges in other jurisdictions that accuse similar shutdown or stay-at-home sorders of being unconstitutional that are still pending in their respective courts.
At the time, Manovill said he and the owners of other gyms were standing up for the idea that health and wellness are essential.
He said he reopened, which he claimed was part of an agreement he reached with Donovan, because “so many members that I adore and love need this for their health and wellness.
On Wednesday, Manovill said the state was “making an example of me.”
“In their mind, I was the only business in Vermont that was noncompliant. The unfortunate thing is, it’s become more about compliance than the health of the community,” he said.