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Farren v. Farren

Appellate Court of Connecticut

December 29, 2015

MARY MARGARET FARREN
v.
J. MICHAEL FARREN

         Argued September 9, 2015

Page 254

          Action to recover damages for, inter alia, assault, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, where the court, Brazzel-Massaro, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for a prejudgment remedy, and the defendant appealed to this court, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court; thereafter, the court, Brazzel-Massaro, J., granted the defendant's motion to modify the prejudgment remedy, and the plaintiff appealed to this court, which dismissed the appeal; subsequently, the court, Genuario, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for default for failure to appear; thereafter, the issue of damages was tried to a jury before Genuario, J.; verdict and judgment for the plaintiff; subsequently, the court, Genuario, J., denied the defendant's motion to open the judgment, and the defendant filed separate appeals with this court.

          Affirmed.

          SYLLABUS

         The plaintiff brought this action against the defendant to recover damages for personal injuries she allegedly sustained as a result of the defendant's assault of her. The state also filed criminal charges against the defendant in connection with the assault. The day before the civil trial was scheduled to begin, the self-represented defendant sent an e-mail to the trial court explaining that he would be unable to attend the trial because he was hospitalized. The trial already had been delayed multiple times due to the defendant's repeated motions for continuances and other procedural tactics. In response to the defendant's e-mail, the trial court advised the defendant that he needed to provide the court with a letter from his treating physician that included the reason for his hospitalization and its expected duration. After the defendant failed to reply to the court, he was defaulted for failure to appear. Following a hearing in damages, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and the court rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict. Thereafter, the defendant filed a motion to open the default judgment on the ground that he had reasonable cause for his absence from the trial because at the time of the trial he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital pursuant to a physician's emergency certificate. The plaintiff objected to the motion, arguing that the defendant had orchestrated his hospitalization and emergency commitment to delay the trial. The trial court denied the defendant's motion. The court determined that the defendant's involuntary commitment alone was not sufficient to prove that he had reasonable cause for his absence from the trial, but that, in light of his previous attempts to delay the trial, his commitment could constitute reasonable cause only if it was the result of a bona fide mental health emergency. The court concluded that the defendant had not met his burden of showing that he had reasonable cause for his absence. Thereafter, the defendant filed separate appeals to this court, challenging the denial of the motion to open the default judgment as well as the judgment on the verdict for the plaintiff.

         Held :

         1. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant's motion to open the default judgment:

         a. The trial court properly determined that the defendant's involuntary commitment did not constitute conclusive proof of reasonable cause for his failure to attend the trial, the record having indicated that he previously had attempted to delay the trial through various means and that he had provided the court with little probative evidence that he had suffered a bona fide medical emergency, as the evidence was not certified or authenticated and was based on his self-reported statements.

         b. The trial court acted within its discretion in according the physician's emergency certificate limited weight, as the court carefully weighed it against evidence that the defendant had notified the court that he would be absent from the trial seven hours before the issuance of the emergency certificate, the defendant consistently and aggressively had tried to delay the trial, the emergency certificate was based on the defendant's self-reported statements, the defendant had not manifested any mental health issues at voir dire the week preceding the trial, and the Probate Court had found that the defendant did not have a psychiatric disability that warranted involuntary commitment.

         c. The trial court provided the defendant with the opportunity to adequately prepare or clarify his evidence for the evidentiary hearing on the motion to open the default judgment, as the court held a preliminary hearing two months before the evidentiary hearing at which the defendant was notified, inter alia, that he need to provide evidence to support his assertion that he had been suicidal on the day before the trial, that the court intended to ascertain whether he had suffered a bona fide mental health emergency, and that his ability to show reasonable cause would be compromised if he refused to disclose certain medical information that the plaintiff had requested.

         d. The trial court did not improperly imposed a unique burden of proof on the defendant because his disability was psychiatric rather than physical, as the burden of proof that the trial court applied was consistent with the burdens imposed by trial courts in previous cases involving parties who had moved to open judgments after failing to attend trial due to medical emergencies.

         2. The defendant could not prevail on his claims that the trial court violated his constitutional rights in rendering the default judgment: the defendant's claim that the court violated his constitutional rights by defaulting him and proceeding with the hearing in damages despite knowing that he had been involuntarily committed was based on the faulty premise that the court had knowledge that he had been involuntarily committed at the time of trial; furthermore, the defendant's claim that the court denied him access to counsel and deprived him of his right to representation was not supported by the record, which revealed that the court had denied his counsel's motion to withdraw and that it had dissuaded the defendant from representing himself and foregoing the assistance of an experienced trial attorney; moreover, any alleged violation of the defendant's constitutional rights by the denial of his request to continue the trial until after his criminal case had concluded was harmless because the defendant did not attend the trial, and, therefore, the defendant was not compelled to choose between presenting a defense and his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.

         Ryan C. McKeen, with whom were Allison M. McKeen and, on the brief, J. Michael Farren, self-represented, for the appellant (defendant) in AC 37079.

         Allison M. McKeen, with whom was Ryan C. McKeen, for the appellant (defendant) in AC 37080.

         Ernest F. Teitell, with whom were Marco A. Allocca and, on the brief, Paul A. Slager, for the appellee (plaintiff).

         Beach, Alvord and Keller, Js.

          OPINION

Page 255

         [162 Conn.App. 54] BEACH, J.

         For the purposes of General Statutes § 52-212[1] and Practice Book § 17-43,[2] an involuntary commitment, on the surface, would seem to constitute reasonable cause for absence from trial and to warrant the granting of a motion to open a default judgment. The [162 Conn.App. 55] facts of the present case, however, are not ordinary. The issue in the present matter is not whether an involuntary commitment may be reasonable cause for a party's absence at trial but whether an involuntary commitment must constitute reasonable cause, even where the trial court suspects that the absentee party orchestrated his own involuntary commitment after years of dilatory tactics. We conclude that an involuntary commitment does not necessarily constitute reasonable cause, and the trial court is not required to find reasonable cause from an involuntary commitment standing alone.

         This decision concerns two appeals, AC 37079 and AC 37080, arising from the same underlying case, a civil action for money damages. In AC 37079, the defendant, J. Michael Farren, appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to open the default judgment entered against him, contending that the denial was an abuse of discretion. In AC 37080, the defendant appeals from the default judgment itself. He claims that the trial court's rulings violated various constitutional rights, including the equal protection and due process guarantees of the federal and state constitutions and the sixth amendment of the federal constitution. We do not agree with the defendant's claims in either of his appeals.

         The relevant facts and procedural history of these appeals are as follows. On the evening of January 6, 2010, the defendant and the plaintiff, Mary Margaret Farren, both lawyers, were at their home in New Canaan. The defendant and the plaintiff had been married for twelve years and had two young daughters. The plaintiff recently had served a complaint seeking to dissolve the parties' marriage. The parties met in their home to discuss the action, which the plaintiff refused to withdraw, despite the defendant's request that she do so. That night, the defendant physically assaulted the plaintiff with his hands, fists, and a flashlight, and said that he was going to kill her. The plaintiff lost [162 Conn.App. 56] consciousness from repeated blows to her head. When she regained consciousness, the defendant continued to hit her and attempted to strangle her. He also pulled out large amounts of her hair. Ultimately, the plaintiff and the children managed to escape from the defendant and to flee the home. Shortly after these events, and in addition to the marital dissolution action, the plaintiff initiated this civil action against the defendant to compensate

Page 256

her for the injuries that she suffered.[3] The state also filed criminal charges against the defendant.

         The civil trial was originally scheduled to begin on January 10, 2012. Significant delays resulted when the defendant repeatedly moved for continuances, instructed his counsel to withdraw,[4] and moved to transfer the case to another judicial district. On December 2, 2013, the day before voir dire was to begin, the court denied yet another of the defendant's motions for a continuance. The defendant warned that, " I am currently under psychiatric treatment, and I really need to get a session in this week. . . . I really need that time. . . . I may not be able to be here . . . ." The court reassured the defendant that it would try to accommodate his " interests." Jury selection began the following day, on December 3, 2013, and it concluded by the end of the day on December 5, 2013. Evidence was to begin on Monday, December 9, 2013.

          [162 Conn.App. 57] At 4:07 p.m., on Sunday, December 8, 2013, the defendant sent an e-mail to the court reading: " I'm in Hartford Hospital for treatment. Under the circumstances, travel to Stamford is impossible. Mike Farren." On the morning of December 9, 2013, a court officer replied to the e-mail, advising the defendant to provide the court with a letter from his treating physician that included the reason for the hospitalization and its anticipated duration. The court briefly recessed to provide the defendant an opportunity to reply to the e-mail. By the conclusion of the recess, however, the defendant had not replied. The plaintiff moved for the entry of a default judgment. The trial court took the motion under advisement and continued the trial until the following morning.

         The following morning, the trial court still had not received further communication from the defendant. The court then granted the motion for default, citing several reasons: the case had been continued multiple times while pending for almost four years, the jury had been selected, and the trial court had given the defendant an opportunity to provide medical documentation to avoid the entry of default. In entering the default, the trial court also stated that " the court may wish to vacate . . . the default, and may allow the defendant to participate in the balance of the trial, or it may make other rulings" should the defendant arrive during the hearing in damages stage. The trial then continued as a hearing in damages. See Practice Book § 17-33 (a)

         On December 11, 2013, during the hearing in damages, the court received a letter on letterhead of the Institute of Living, a division of Hartford Hospital. The letter appeared to be signed by a clinician and read: " Please be advised that John Farren . . . was admitted to the hospital on 12/08/2013. The discharge date has yet to be determined." The trial court had no additional [162 Conn.App. 58] information regarding the defendant's

Page 257

status. The plaintiff continued to present evidence in the case. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's evidence, on December 17, 2013, the jury reached a verdict in the amount of $28.6 million in favor of the plaintiff. The court rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict and extended the time to file posttrial motions until January 31, 2014.

         The defendant filed a motion to open the judgment on January 31, 2014. In his motion, the defendant stated that he had been absent because on December 8, 2013--the day before trial--he was involuntarily committed to the Institute of Living for fifteen days pursuant to an emergency certificate. He stated that during this period of commitment, he had not been permitted to communicate with the court. The defendant attached the following documents in support of his motion: (1) a physician's emergency certificate dated December 8, 2013, at 11:15 p.m.; (2) Institute of Living's application for the involuntary commitment of the defendant as a person with psychiatric disabilities; (3) a letter dated December 17, 2013, that was addressed to the Stamford Superior Court--where the defendant's criminal case was pending--that notified the court that the defendant " was admitted to the hospital on 12/08/2013 for treatment of severe depression. We are not prepared to discharge him at this time" ; and (4) a decree of the Hartford Probate Court dated December 26, 2013, denying the Institute of Living's application for involuntary commitment. The plaintiff objected to the motion, protesting that the defendant orchestrated his hospitalization and emergency commitment to delay the trial.

         At a preliminary hearing on the motion, the court found that the seriousness of the defendant's alleged reason for his unavailability and the plaintiff's objection warranted the court's entry of a scheduling order providing for expedited discovery, the filing of exhibits and lists of witnesses by both parties, and an evidentiary [162 Conn.App. 59] hearing. The defendant responded by filing objections to the discovery of Probate Court records, his medical records, and his medical providers. The court sustained the objections.

         At the evidentiary hearing on May 6, 2014, the defendant did not present any witnesses. His evidence consisted only of the four documents that had been attached to his motion to open, the motion itself, and a copy of General Statutes § 17a-500, which relates to commitment under an emergency certificate. The plaintiff did not present any evidence.

         When the evidentiary hearing concluded, the court denied the defendant's motion to open the judgment, stating: " The truth is that this court simply does not know whether or not the defendant orchestrated his involuntary commitment . . . in order to delay the trial of his civil action." The court found that the defendant did not meet his burden to show reasonable cause for missing the trial because he did not testify; he did not call his sister to testify, the person who, according to the emergency certificate, had requested his commitment; he did not call any of his doctors to testify; and he did not allow any discovery of his medical records, the disclosure of the transcript and exhibits from the ...


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