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Isabella D. v. Dep't of Children & Families

Supreme Court of Connecticut

January 19, 2016

ISABELLA D. ET AL.
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES ET AL. [*]

Argued October 13, 2015.

Page 917

Administrative appeal from the decision of the named defendant determining that the plaintiffs did not have standing to seek reconsideration of an order removing a name from the child abuse and neglect registry, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain and tried to the court, Abrams, J.; judgment dismissing the appeal, from which the plaintiffs appealed.

Affirmed.

SYLLABUS

The plaintiff D, a minor child acting through her mother as next friend, appealed to the trial court from the decision of the defendant Department of Children and Families concluding that A, the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse and emotional neglect against D, was not responsible for the allegations and ordering the removal of his name from the central child abuse and neglect registry. A's name had been placed on the central registry after an investigation conducted by the department initially substantiated certain allegations that he was responsible for the sexual abuse and emotional neglect of D. An internal review upheld the investigations' findings, and A requested an administrative hearing. A department hearing officer found that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of substantiation and, accordingly, reversed the department's finding and removed A's name from the central registry. Thereafter, D requested reconsideration of the hearing officer's decision, claiming that she was deprived of the opportunity to participate in the hearing. The hearing officer denied D's request on the ground that D lacked standing to seek reconsideration because she was not a party to the substantiation hearing. D appealed from that decision to the trial court, and the department moved to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff lacked standing to appeal. The trial court granted the department's motion and rendered judgment dismissing D's administrative appeal. On D's subsequent appeal, held that the trial court properly determined that D lacked standing to appeal from the department's decision, D having failed to establish that she had a specific, personal and legally protected interest in the substantiation process greater than any other member of the general public: although D was required to participate in the department's investigation and testified, thus revealing personal information, the department's decision did not implicate D's reputational and privacy interests, as the central registry is generally confidential and there was no evidence to indicate that the department improperly disclosed any information from the investigative process, nor did A's subsequent use of the department's decision in a collateral family preceding create a specific, personal and legal interest in the substantiation process for the purpose of classical aggrievement; furthermore, the statutory scheme governing the substantiation appeal process, to which alleged victims, like D, are not a party, was designed to protect the community and, therefore, D could not demonstrate that she had a specific, personal and legal interest in the substantiation process for the purpose of statutory aggrievement.

Alan Giacomi, with whom were Robert S. Kolesnik, Sr., and, on the brief, Stephanie E. Cummings, for the appellants (plaintiffs).

John E. Tucker, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were George Jepsen, attorney general, and Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, for the appellees (defendants).

Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js. EVELEIGH, J. In this opinion the other justices concurred.

OPINION

Page 918

[320 Conn. 217] EVELEIGH, J.

The sole issue in this administrative appeal is whether the trial court properly concluded that the plaintiff Isabella D.[1] lacks standing to appeal from the final decision of the defendant the Department of Children and Families (department)[2] finding that the alleged perpetrator was not responsible for allegations of sexual abuse and emotional neglect against the plaintiff and removing his name from the central child abuse and neglect registry (central registry).[3] On appeal to this [320 Conn. 218] court, the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly concluded that she lacks standing to bring this action. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that she has a specific, personal and legal interest in the department's decision because her constitutionally protected interests in her reputation, privacy, safety, and family integrity were implicated as a result of the department's substantiation process, and that these interests were harmed by the department's decision. The plaintiff further claims that these interests were harmed by the alleged perpetrator's use of the department's decision in a collateral family court proceeding. In response, the department contends that the plaintiff was not classically aggrieved by its decision because the plaintiff cannot establish a specific, personal and legal interest in the substantiation process that is distinguishable from that of the general public. The department further claims that the plaintiff was not statutorily aggrieved because she is not within the zone of interests intended to be protected by the statutory scheme. We agree with the department and conclude that the trial court properly determined that the plaintiff lacks standing to bring this action.[4]

Page 919

The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. As a result of a mandated reporter's anonymous referral, the department instituted an investigation [320 Conn. 219] into possible sexual abuse of the plaintiff pursuant to General Statutes § 17a-101g. [5] Following the [320 Conn. 220]

Page 920

investigation, the department's investigator found the alleged perpetrator responsible for sexual abuse and emotional neglect of the plaintiff and placed the alleged perpetrator's name on the central registry. As a result of the alleged perpetrator's request for an appeal pursuant to § 17a-101k-4 (a) of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies,[6] the department conducted an internal review and notified the alleged perpetrator of the decision to uphold the substantiation of sexual abuse and emotional neglect and the decision to place the alleged perpetrator's name on the central registry. Thereafter, the alleged perpetrator sought an administrative hearing. After a hearing, the hearing officer found that there [320 Conn. 221] was insufficient evidence to support a finding of substantiation of sexual abuse and emotional neglect by the alleged perpetrator. The hearing officer, therefore, reversed the department's finding of substantiation and removed the alleged perpetrator's name from the central registry.

Subsequently, the plaintiff sent a letter to the department requesting that the hearing officer reconsider the decision reversing the substantiation finding. As grounds for reconsideration, the plaintiff asserted that " without the opportunity to be notified of (let alone participate in), the hearings process, [the plaintiff] was deprived of the opportunity to present evidence in her own defense or to pursue challenges to the credibility, authenticity, reliability or admissibility of any of the evidence introduced by [the alleged perpetrator]." The hearing officer denied the plaintiff's request on the basis that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek reconsideration. As grounds for the decision, the hearing officer explained that because General Statutes § 4-181a[7] solely permits a party to a contested hearing to file a petition for reconsideration and, because the plaintiff was not a party to the substantiation hearing, the plaintiff did not have standing to appeal the department's decision.

Page 921

From that decision, the plaintiff filed an administrative appeal pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183 (a) of the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act.[8] At the trial [320 Conn. 222] court, the department moved to dismiss the plaintiff's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that the plaintiff lacked standing to bring the administrative appeal. Following oral argument on the issue of standing, the trial court granted the department's motion to dismiss. This appeal followed.[9]

By way of background, we briefly summarize the substantiation process and the central registry scheme as set forth in General Statutes § § 17a-101g[10] and 17a-101k.[11] As this court has previously explained, " ยง ...


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