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Robinson-Maresca v. Commissioner, Department of Children and Families

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Waterbury, Waterbury

September 4, 2015

Kelly Robinson-Maresca
v.
Commissioner, Department of Children and Families et al

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTION TO STRIKE #114

Andrew W. Roraback, J.

I

BACKGROUND

On July 3, 2013, the plaintiff, Kelly Robinson-Maresca, filed a three-count amended complaint against the defendants, the Commissioner, Department of Children and Families, and the State of Connecticut. The court, Roraback, J., dismissed counts two and three of the amended complaint on July 21, 2014. The remaining count alleges the following facts against the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families (DCF).[1] On June 15, 2011, and for a continuing period of time thereafter, DCF employees disclosed confidential information concerning the plaintiff and her family to the public and/or media outlets. The personal information of the plaintiff and her family kept by DCF in the ordinary course of business is confidential and shall not be disclosed without authorization pursuant to General Statutes § 17a-28. As a result of the wrongful and unauthorized disclosure, the plaintiff has suffered damages.

On November 13, 2014, the plaintiff filed a claim for a jury of six. The defendant filed a motion to strike the jury demand on January 5, 2015 together with an accompanying memorandum of law. This motion argues that the sovereign immunity rights of the state do not permit the plaintiff to claim a jury trial. This is so, it is alleged, because the statutes alleged to have been violated do not expressly provide for a jury trial, and there is no constitutional right to a jury trial on the issues raised in this complaint. On May 22, 2015, the plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition to the defendant's motion to strike.

II

DISCUSSION

" Historically, a motion to strike, pursuant to Practice Book (1978 Rev.) § 282, had been the proper vehicle to strike a jury claim . . . Since the repeal of § 282 in 1996, a party wishing to challenge an improper claim for a jury should file an objection to the claim under Practice Book § 14-10 . . . or the court can treat a motion to strike as an objection to the jury claim . . . The court finds that it is entirely appropriate to treat the defendant's motion to strike as an objection filed under Practice Book § [14-10] and fully address the issues presented." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kaye v. T.D. Banknorth, N.A., Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, Docket No. CV-08-5007268-S (March 1, 2011, Tobin, J.) (51 Conn. L. Rptr. 509, 510-11, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 555).

In its memorandum of law in support of the motion, the defendant argues that the plaintiff is not entitled to a jury trial as neither General Statutes § 17a-28(j) (governing violations of the confidentiality obligations imposed on by DCF) nor General Statutes § 52-146j (judicial relief for violations of privileged communications) explicitly provides for a right to a jury trial. The defendant further argues that the plaintiff does not have a constitutional right to a jury or a right under General Statues § 52-215 (claims for jury trial) because the state was not amenable to suit of this nature at common law in 1818. The plaintiff counters that she is entitled to a jury trial as this matter involves a legal claim seeking money damages. She also asserts that her right to a jury is not curtailed by the lack of express language affording a statutory right to a jury because courts routinely permit jury trials where there is no such statutory language.

" The constitution of Connecticut, article first, § 19, states that [t]he right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. This particular provision of our constitution has been consistently construed by Connecticut courts to mean that if there was a right to a trial by jury at the time of the adoption of the provision, then that right remains intact . . . It is generally held that the right to a jury trial exists not only in cases in which it existed at common law and at the time of the adoption of constitutional provisions preserving it, but also exists in cases substantially similar thereto . . . At common law, legal claims [were] tried by a jury, [and] equitable claims [were] tried by a court . . . Equitable actions, therefore, are not within the constitutional guarantee of trial by jury. (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Skinner v. Angliker, 211 Conn. 370, 373-74, 559 A.2d 701 (1989).

" [I]n determining whether a party has a right to a trial by jury under the state constitution and § 52-215, the court must ascertain whether the action being tried is similar in nature to an action that could have been tried to a jury in 1818 . . . If the action existed at common law and involved a legal remedy, the right to a jury trial exists and the legislature may not curtail that right either directly or indirectly." Id., 375-76. " [T]o entitle one to a right to a jury trial, it is not enough that the nature of the plaintiff's action is legal rather than equitable; the action must also be brought against a defendant who was suable at common law in [1818]." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 378.

If the plaintiff does not have a constitutional right to a jury trial, the right is only available where the legislature provided for the right in an applicable statute. Where the action is against a sovereign, " [l]ike a waiver of immunity itself, which must be unequivocally expressed . . . [the] limitations and conditions upon which the Government consents to be sued must be strictly observed and exceptions thereto are not to be implied . . . When the state, by statute, waives its immunity to suit . . . the right to a jury trial cannot be implied, but rather, must be affirmatively expressed." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 380-81.

In the present case, the plaintiff asserts a statutory claim for unauthorized disclosure of confidential information pursuant to § § 17a-28(j) and 52-146j. The defendant, a sovereign entity, was immune from suit in 1818 under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because the defendant was not suable at common law in 1818, the plaintiff does not have a right to a jury under the constitution or § 52-215. The plaintiff also does not have a statutory right to a jury trial, as § § 17a-28(j) and 52-146j do not expressly provide for the right.

The plaintiff argues in her opposition memorandum that jury trials are routinely permitted in Connecticut courts even where the statute allowing for an exception to sovereign immunity does not expressly provide for the right to a jury. In particular, the plaintiff cites to General Statutes § § 13a-149 (damages for injuries due to defective roads and bridges) and 52-556 (actions for injuries caused by state owned motor vehicles) as examples. For claims under § 13a-149, the court in Skinner v. Angliker explained that jury trials are permitted " when the statute does not specifically grant or deny the right to a trial by jury" because " the right is apparently preserved since governmental immunity in such actions was waived by statute in 1672 and said actions were tried to a jury prior to 1818 . . ." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 380-81 n.12. Further, while a jury trial was permitted in Rodriguez v. State, 155 Conn.App. 462, 469 n.8, 110 A.3d 467, cert. granted, 316 Conn. 916, 113 A.3d 71 (2015), for a claim under § 52-556, our Appellate Court refused to address whether a plaintiff bringing an action pursuant to § 52-556 was actually entitled to a ...


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