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Buck v. Town of Berlin

Appellate Court of Connecticut

February 23, 2016

LAWRENCE H. BUCK ET AL.
v.
TOWN OF BERLIN ET AL

         Argued October 9, 2015.

          Action to recover damages for, inter alia, the alleged taking by inverse condemnation of certain of the plaintiffs' real property, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the complaint was withdrawn in part and the action was withdrawn as against the defendant Paul J. Prior et al.; thereafter. the court, Swienton, J., denied the named defendant's motion for summary judgment, and the named defendant appealed to this court.

          SYLLABUS

         The plaintiff landowners brought this action to recover damages for the defendant town's alleged inverse condemnation of certain of their real property, which resulted when the defendant eliminated the plaintiffs' sole means of vehicular access to the property by placing gates and concrete blocks at the ends of the road used to access the property. The defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that there were no genuine issues of material fact because the plaintiffs' claim was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The defendant asserted that the plaintiffs' claim had been raised or could have been raised in prior litigation between the parties, and that the plaintiffs had had an adequate opportunity to litigate their claim in the prior action. The trial court denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the ground that there remained genuine issues of material fact as to whether res judicata barred the plaintiffs' claim and whether the defendant had provided the plaintiffs with a key to unlock the gates to access their property in light of the defendant's promise in the prior action to provide a key to anyone who could prove ownership of the property. The defendant thereafter appealed to this court. It claimed, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied its motion for summary judgment because the plaintiffs' claim had arisen from the same cause of action that was litigated in the prior action between the parties, and that the plaintiffs had had an adequate opportunity to litigate their claim in that action. Held :

         1. The trial court improperly denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment because the plaintiffs' claim was barred by res judicata: the complaints in the prior action and in the present action were premised on the same underlying transaction for the purpose of preclusion, and the claim was the same in both actions; moreover, although the plaintiffs' legal theories of recovery in the two complaints may have differed somewhat, their theory of recovery in this action could have been advanced in the prior action, and the plaintiffs had an adequate opportunity to litigate their claim in that prior action, the trial court in the present case having improperly determined that the prior action had been brought pursuant to the statutes (§ § 13a-49 and 13a-62) pertaining to the discontinuance or layout of a highway, which would not have allowed the plaintiffs to seek damages.

         2. There was no issue of material fact as to whether the defendant had provided the plaintiffs with a key to unlock the gates to access the property, the plaintiffs not having alleged in the trial court or in their brief to this court that the provision of a key, or any other fact, was material and in dispute.

         Melinda A. Powell and Cindy A. Miller filed a brief for the appellant (named defendant).

         Michael F. Dowley and Melissa S. Harris filed a brief for the appellees (named plaintiff et al.).

         DiPentima, C. J., and Beach and Sheldon, Js. BEACH, J. In this opinion the other judges concurred.

          OPINION

Page 1238

          [163 Conn.App. 283] BEACH, J.

          The defendant town of Berlin appeals from the decision of the trial court denying its motion for summary judgment.[1] On appeal, the defendant claims [163 Conn.App. 284] that the court improperly denied its motion for summary judgment because (1) the plaintiffs' claim is barred by res judicata, in that (a) the claim arises from the same cause of action that was litigated in a prior action, and (b) the plaintiffs had an adequate opportunity to litigate the cause of action in that action; and (2) the court erred by concluding that a genuine issue of material fact, requiring the denial of the motion for summary judgment, existed. We agree with the defendant and reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts, as recounted by the trial court, are relevant to our review of the defendant's claim. " On August 31, 2012, the plaintiffs, Lawrence Buck and Christopher Buck, filed the operative seven count complaint against the defendants, [the] town of Berlin, Paul Prior, Sally Prior, Kevin Budney, and Lisa Budney. On January 2, 2013, the plaintiffs withdrew counts two through seven of the complaint and withdrew the action against the defendants Paul Prior, Sally Prior, Kevin Budney, and Lisa Budney. The plaintiffs allege the following relevant facts in the remaining count, count one,[2] against the remaining defendant, the defendant Berlin. . . .

         " The plaintiffs accessed their property by utilizing . . . Lamentation Mountain Pass Road[3] and Middle Road, which are known as Quincy Trail Road. The defendant authorized the Lamentation Mountain Estates Subdivision Section XIII, which approved a road being partially built over part of Quincy Trail Road and an easement for the defendant . . . . The defendant

Page 1239

later placed gates and concrete blocks at the ends of [163 Conn.App. 285] Quincy Trail Road, eliminating the plaintiffs' sole means of vehicular access to their property. The defendant stated in a memorandum from . . . [the] town manager that 'if someone can prove ownership . . . of [or] the need for access to this land between the fences, we will give them a key.' This statement was reinforced by Mayor Ida Ragazzi at a town council meeting, held on March 18, 1997, when she stated, 'upon proof of ownership to property on Lamentation Mountain, the owners will be given a key to the fences.' . . .

         " The plaintiffs were also two of the plaintiffs involved in prior litigation, titled Tighe v. Berlin, [Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CV-97-0575028-S (August 9, 2000), aff'd, 259 Conn. 83, 788 A.2d 40 (2002)] which was initiated on October 28, 1997. The four count complaint was brought by numerous individuals who owned land affected by the project, but the plaintiffs were only part of [the] third and fourth counts. Put simply, the plaintiffs alleged in the third count of that complaint that the subdivision approval granted by the defendant [to the buyers] resulted in the installation of a locked gate and cement blocks on the road the plaintiffs use to access their properties, denying the plaintiffs access to their properties. Similarly, the plaintiffs alleged in the fourth count of that complaint that the defendant . . . had not formally abandoned the road and that the placement of the fences and cement blocks denied the plaintiffs access to their properties. . . .

         " On May 19, 2014, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that 'there are no genuine issues of material fact for a jury to decide because [the] plaintiffs' inverse condemnation claim is barred by res judicata, because the instant claims were raised or could have been raised in previous litigation between these parties.' . . . In response, on June 19, 2014, pursuant to Practice Book § 17-45, the plaintiffs [163 Conn.App. 286] filed a memorandum of law in opposition . . . . The defendant subsequently filed a reply on July 9, 2014 . . . . The matter was heard at the short calendar on July 14, 2014." (Footnotes altered.)

         The court denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment because " there remain[ed] a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the claim is barred by res judicata." The court implicitly held that the prior action had been brought pursuant to General Statutes § 13a-49 and, thus, a subsequent claim for money damages was not necessarily barred. The defendant disagreed, and this appeal followed.

         We begin by setting forth our standard of review. " Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. . . . The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law. . . . On appeal, we must determine whether the legal conclusions reached by the trial court are legally and logically correct and whether they find support in the facts set out in the memorandum of decision of the trial court. . . . Our review of the trial court's decision to deny the defendant's motion for summary judgment is plenary. (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Savvidis v. Norwalk, 129 Conn.App. 406, 409-10,

Page 1240

21 A.3d 842, cert. denied, 302 Conn. 913, 27 A.3d 372 (2011).

          " [T]he applicability of res judicata . . . presents a question of law over which we employ plenary review. [163 Conn.App. 287] . . . The principles that govern res judicata are described in Restatement (Second) of Judgments . . . . The basic rule is that of § 18, which [provides] in relevant part: When a valid and final personal judgment is rendered in favor of the plaintiff . . . [t]he plaintiff cannot thereafter maintain an action on the original claim or any part thereof, although he may be able to maintain an action upon the judgment. . . . As comment (a) to § 18 explains, [w]hen the plaintiff recovers a valid and final personal judgment, his original claim is extinguished and rights upon the judgment are substituted for it. The plaintiff's original claim is said to be merged in the judgment. Our . . . case law has uniformly approved and applied the principle of claim preclusion or merger." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 410.

          We consider the policies underlying res judicata in our determination of whether to apply the doctrine in a particular case. " These [underlying] purposes are generally identified as being (1) to promote judicial economy by minimizing repetitive litigation; (2) to prevent inconsistent judgments which undermine the integrity of the judicial system; and (3) to provide repose by preventing a person from being harassed by vexatious litigation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Isaac v. Truck Service, Inc., 253 Conn. 416, 422, 752 A.2d 509 (2000). " [W]e have recognized that the application of res judicata can yield harsh results . . . and, as a result, have stated that the doctrine should be flexible and must give way when [its] mechanical application would frustrate other social policies based on values equally or more important than the convenience afforded by finality in legal controversies." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Savvidis v. Norwalk, supra, 129 Conn.App. 412.

         The court concluded that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the case was barred by res judicata [163 Conn.App. 288] because the plaintiffs never were provided a key with which to unlock the gate and access their land. The defendant contends that the court " mistakenly found a factual dispute where there is none." Accordingly, we shall address the defendant's two res judicata arguments before turning to the ...


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