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Bonelli v. Bonelli

Supreme Court of Connecticut

February 20, 1990

Richard J. BONELLI
Sandra A. BONELLI.

Argued Nov. 7, 1989.

Page 190

C. Michael Budlong, with whom was Terence S. Ward, Hartford, for appellant (plaintiff).

M. Jane Christensen, with whom was Ruth H. Mantak, Hartford, for appellee (defendant).


[214 Conn. 15] SANTANIELLO, Associate Justice.

This is an appeal from the judgment of the Appellate Court setting aside the judgment of the trial court in a dissolution action on the ground that the "undisputed facts on the record [were] sufficient to require the disqualification of the judge...." Bonelli v. Bonelli, 18 Conn.App. 207, 209, 557 A.2d 559 (1989). On May 25, 1989, we granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to determine whether the Appellate Court had erred in its conclusion. We reverse.

The underlying procedural and factual background is as follows. A judgment was rendered in a dissolution action between the parties by the trial court, Kaplan, J., on January 30, 1987. Approximately two months later, the defendant moved to open the judgment and to disqualify Judge Kaplan, alleging that the defendant's counsel had recently become aware that the plaintiff's attorney and the judge had been co-counsel in a wrongful death action from January, 1984, until his appointment to the bench in November, 1985. The motion further alleged that a dispute over legal fees in the wrongful death action remained pending and that the judge's successor law firm retained a financial interest in the outcome of that dispute.

The judge denied the defendant's motion, acknowledging the facts contained therein, but finding that the [214 Conn. 16] allegations were legally insufficient to require disqualification. The defendant subsequently filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing, which was denied by the court, Barall, J., on the ground that an evidentiary hearing is not required when there are no facts in dispute.

The defendant raised four issues on appeal. [1] The Appellate Court ruled only on the motion for disqualification, holding that "[a]lthough no single fact in this case requires disqualification, we conclude from the totality of circumstances, and the facts as established on the record, that disqualification was required...." Bonelli v. Bonelli, supra, at 211, 557 A.2d 559. We disagree.

The judge's former law firm and the plaintiff's attorney were cocounsel in a wrongful death action, Nesko v. Graves, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford-New Britain at Hartford, Docket No. CV-82-269220 (November 19, 1986). The Nesko plaintiff retained the law firm of Lavitt, Hutchinson and Kaplan to represent her on June 10, 1982. While he was an attorney, Judge Kaplan's involvement with the case was confined to an introductory meeting with the Nesko plaintiff, writing a letter discharging the attorneys [2] who previously had served as counsel and making arrangements for disposition of fees upon the conclusion of the case. A member of Judge Kaplan's former law firm entered an appearance in the case a few days later. The plaintiff's attorney entered an appearance as cocounsel in the Nesko action on

Page 191

January 27, 1984. [3] The cocounsel [214 Conn. 17] relationship with the judge's law firm existed until the judge went on the bench on November 6, 1985.

After his appointment to the bench, the judge's successor law firm continued to represent the Nesko plaintiff. Eventually the Nesko case was resolved by a stipulated judgment entered by the Superior Court on November 19, 1986. A subsequent dispute over legal fees in the case resulted in a separate action in the Superior Court and the filing of an objection in the Probate Court to the distribution of funds derived from the stipulated judgment. Both of these matters were still pending at the time of the decision in the Bonelli dissolution action, but the judge was not involved in either matter. [4] The only financial association he retained with the successor law firm was a stock redemption agreement, which was not affected in any way by the Nesko case.

A careful examination of the record reveals that the judge's involvement in the Nesko matter while a practicing attorney was very limited after the initial interview and correspondence of June 10, 1982. He never personally entered an appearance or signed any of the pleadings or other documents in the case. The judge stated unequivocally and accurately that his participation in the Nesko case had been minimal. His name does not appear in the Nesko file except on two notices of depositions that were addressed to him personally. There is no evidence that the judge ever attended either of the depositions, and indeed the record as a whole indicates that he took no active role in the case after [214 Conn. 18] the initial interview. There is, for example, no indication of any correspondence or personal meetings between the judge and the plaintiff's attorney concerning the Nesko file during the existence of the cocounsel relationship or after its termination.

The defendant does not claim, nor is there any other indication, that the judge had a financial relationship with the plaintiff's attorney or that the judge retained a financial interest in the outcome of the wrongful death action. In addition to the absence of any financial relationship, the record indicates that there was no business, social or any other relationship between the judge and the plaintiff's attorney other than the prior cocounsel association.

The undisputed facts thus disclose a formal cocounsel relationship between the judge and the plaintiff's attorney in an unrelated action that ended fourteen months prior to any involvement of the judge in the instant case. The issue Before the court is whether these facts required disqualification of the trial judge.

The Appellate Court determined that this case is governed by Canon 3 C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, [5] which provides: " 'A judge should disqualify himself in a proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned....' " The standard provided in Canon 3 C(1) was more fully developed by this court in Papa v. New Haven Federation of Teachers, 186 Conn. 725, 744-46, 444 A.2d 196 (1982): "The standard to be employed is an objective one.... 'Any conduct that would lead a reasonable [person] knowing all the circumstances to the conclusion that the judge's "impartiality might reasonably be questioned" is a basis for the judge's disqualification. Thus, an [214 Conn. 19] ...

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