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Capasso v. Christmann

Appellate Court of Connecticut

February 23, 2016

GIUSEPPE CAPASSO ET AL.
v.
IAN CHRISTMANN ET AL

         Argued October 20, 2015.

          Action to recover damages for, inter alia, defamation, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven, where the court, Blue, J., granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiffs appealed to this court.

          SYLLABUS

         The plaintiffs, C and his construction company, G Co., appealed from the summary judgment rendered by the trial court in favor of the defendant abutting property owners. The plaintiffs had sought to recover damages from the defendants arising out of certain allegedly defamatory statements that the defendants made concerning, inter alia, the plaintiffs' construction of a fence on G Co.'s commercial property. The defendants moved for summary judgment on each count of the plaintiffs' complaint on the grounds that none of the statements attributed to them were defamatory as a matter of law, and that the plaintiffs remaining claims failed in the absence of evidence of pecuniary losses, evidence of damage to reputation, and a genuine issue of material fact. In support of summary judgment, the defendants provided evidence including affidavits, excerpts of C's deposition testimony, copies of certain correspondence, and a copy of an Internet website article concerning the parties' dispute over the fence. In their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment, the plaintiffs made no specific references to that evidence, and attached evidence of certain other correspondence and a copy of the same article. The trial court conducted a conference with counsel for the parties in chambers and then requested on the record that the plaintiffs submit a more detailed response to the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The trial court explicitly directed the plaintiffs' counsel to specifically cite to record evidence in opposing summary judgment, and to state with precision the cause of action alleged in the first count of the complaint. In response, the plaintiffs' counsel filed three affidavits and a supplemental memorandum of law, which contained general references to the affidavits, but no specific citations to the evidence of record as the court had instructed. At a subsequent hearing, the trial court found that the plaintiffs' supplemental memorandum was completely inadequate and did not hear argument on the merits of the motion for summary judgment. Thereafter, the trial court rendered summary judgment for the defendants. On appeal to this court, held that the trial court improperly rendered summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs' had submitted an inadequate brief without first addressing whether the defendants had met their burden of establishing that they were entitled to summary judgment: only if the party moving for summary judgment has met its burden of establishing its right to judgment in its favor should the trial court consider the nonmovant's memoranda in opposition and supporting evidentiary submissions to determine whether they raised a genuine issue of facts material to the movant's right to judgment in its favor and, here, the trial court effectively sanctioned the plaintiffs for failing to abide by its prior order by rendering summary judgment in favor of the defendants without considering whether the defendants had satisfied their burden of demonstrating that they were entitled to summary judgment in the first instance.

         Laurence V. Parnoff, with whom, on the brief, was Laurence V. Parnoff, Jr., for the appellants (plaintiffs).

         Eric P. Smith, for the appellees (defendants).

         DiPentima, C. J., and Sheldon and Schuman, Js. DiPENTIMA, C. J. In this opinion the other judges concurred.

          OPINION

          [163 Conn.App. 250] DiPENTIMA, C. J.

          The plaintiffs, Giuseppe Capasso and G. L. Capasso, Inc.,[1] appeal from the summary

Page 734

judgment rendered in favor of the defendants, Ian Christmann and Carolyn Christmann. On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the court improperly rendered summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiffs' counsel failed to file an adequate opposition to the defendants' motion. Notwithstanding the plaintiffs' failure to comply with the court's clear and explicit directions, we conclude that the court failed to address the merits of the defendants' motion, and therefore improperly rendered summary judgment in this case. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. The plaintiffs commenced this action on August 7, 2009. On March 5, 2012, the plaintiffs filed a second revised complaint, the operative pleading in this case, setting forth six causes of action. In count one, the plaintiffs claimed that G. L. Capasso, Inc., is the tenant at 15 Oxford Street in New Haven and, since 1984, has used that property as a legal nonconforming use for its construction business, including overnight vehicle parking. The defendants reside at 475 Quinnipiac Avenue, which abuts one side of 15 Oxford Street. The defendants are associated with the Quinnipiac River Community Group that " purports to be a 'grassroots neighborhood action group that has been working to improve the quality of [life] for residents on both sides of the Quinnipiac River . . . .'"

         The plaintiffs alleged that in January, 2009, the defendants disapproved of a fence constructed on 15 Oxford [163 Conn.App. 251] Street and began a series of steps to have it removed, including requests to have the city of New Haven intervene. After this effort proved unsuccessful, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants " continued to attempt to force the removal of the fence . . . by initiating a public campaign of complaints against the [p]laintiffs regarding their use of the [15 Oxford Street]." This included claims and statements that the plaintiffs " were not good members of the community . . . violated the law . . . showed their disregard of the damage to the neighborhood by . . . installation of a fence . . . allowed and caused a deterioration of the environment . . . violated ordinances and permits . . . and . . . owned property potentially contaminated by petroleum products."

         The plaintiffs further maintained that the defendants sought to have a special exception for the 15 Oxford Street property misinterpreted so as to prevent the plaintiffs from accessing it before 7 a.m. from Monday through Saturday and for 24 hours on Sunday.[2] They also alleged that the defendants conducted " a libelous public campaign against the [p]laintiffs in [e]-mails and in the newspaper" by, inter alia, referring to the plaintiff's fence as a " spite fence" and accusing the plaintiffs of wrongful acts, such as violating zoning laws and the illegal storage and disposal of chemicals on the property. As a result of these actions, which were allegedly motivated by the defendants' desire to gain public attention, greed and " to extort the removal of the fence," the plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive [163 Conn.App. 252] relief, compensatory

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damages for loss of business, damage to business reputation, and punitive damages.

         The remaining counts alleged tortious interference with prospective business relations, extortion,[3] intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and a violation of General Statutes § 42-110a et seq., the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA). The defendants filed an answer to the plaintiffs' complaint on January 22, 2013, but did not raise any special defenses.[4]

         After the case was assigned for trial, with jury selection scheduled to begin on June 27, 2014, the defendants filed a motion for permission to move for summary judgment. See Practice Book § 17-44.[5] The court granted the motion on April 28, 2014, over the plaintiffs' objection.

         The defendants filed their motion for summary judgment and memorandum of law on May 23, 2014. They [163 Conn.App. 253] argued that they were entitled to summary judgment because " (1) none of the statements attributed to the defendants is defamatory as a matter of law; (2) in the absence of admissible evidence of pecuniary loss that was proximately caused by the defendants' statements, there can be no genuine issue of material fact and the plaintiffs' defamation claims fail as a matter of law; (3) in the absence of evidence of harm to the plaintiffs' respective reputations that was proximately caused by the defendants' statements, there can be no genuine issues of material fact and the plaintiffs' defamation claims fail as a matter of law; (4) given the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the plaintiffs' 'tortious interference' claims fail as a matter of law; (5) given the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, plaintiff Giuseppe Capasso's 'intentional infliction of emotional distress' claim fails as a matter of law; (6) given the absence of a genuine issue ...


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