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Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

December 6, 2016


          Argued September 13, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Robaina, J. [judgment]; Wahla, J. [motion for attorney's fees].)

          Juri E. Taalman, with whom, on the brief, was Timothy Brignole, for the appellant (defendant).

          Edward M. Rosenthal, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Lavine, Mullins and Bishop, Js.


          BISHOP, J.

         This appeal requires us to assess the interplay between a legislative mandate based on a public policy and a procedural rule of practice. On appeal, the defendant, Robert Buchman, claims that the trial court incorrectly denied his postjudgment motion for attorney's fees, sought pursuant to General Statutes § 42-150bb, on the basis that his motion for attorney's fees was untimely, pursuant to Practice Book § 11-21.[1] We reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         The following undisputed procedural and factual background is pertinent to our consideration of the issue on appeal. The plaintiff nursing home facility, Meadowbrook Center, Inc., brought an action against the defendant based on contract and promissory estoppel relating to its care of the defendant's mother. The admission agreement executed by the plaintiff and the defendant, as a responsible party, contained a clause providing for the responsible party to pay the cost of collection, including reasonable attorney's fees, in the event an overdue account is referred to an agency or attorney for collection. Following a trial to the court, Hon. Robert J. Hale, judge trial referee, judgment was rendered for the plaintiff in the sum of $47, 561.15 with attorney's fees to be decided postjudgment.

         On appeal, however, this court reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court with direction to render judgment in favor of the defendant. Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, 149 Conn.App. 177, 212, 90 A.3d 219 (2014). The order from this court was dated April 8, 2014. Thereafter, on April 30, 2014, the court, Robaina, J., rendered judgment for the defendant. The defendant then submitted a bill of costs on May 16, 2014, and, on June 4, 2014, the thirty-fifth day after judgment, the defendant filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs. On January 29, 2015, the court, Wahla, J., conducted a hearing on the defendant's motion in which he claimed attorney's fees of $74, 918.70 and costs of $1337.38. On April 7, 2015, the court issued its decision denying the defendant's motion for attorney's fees on the basis that the motion was not timely. Rejecting the defendant's argument that attorney's fees pursuant to § 42-150bb are a component of damages and, therefore, not subject to the time limits of Practice Book § 11-21, the court stated: ‘‘Because I conclude that attorney fees were not a component of damages, the defendant's motion for attorney's fees and costs [is] not timely, hence I am constrained to agree with the plaintiff. The defendant's motion is hereby DENIED.''

         Following the court's ruling, the defendant filed a motion for reconsideration and reargument on April 17, 2015. In this motion, the defendant argued, inter alia, that the court incorrectly had failed to rule whether the time limit set forth in Practice Book § 11-21 is mandatory or directory. The defendant alleged that he had raised this issue in his memorandum of law in support of attorney's fees and at the hearing on his motion. In response, the plaintiff urged the court to not consider the defendant's motion as, ‘‘the defendant wants to rehash the same arguments that he already made which were unpersuasive.'' By order dated May 12, 2015, Judge Wahla denied the defendant's motion for reconsideration and reargument without comment. This appeal followed.

         The defendant claims, in essence, that once the court determined that Practice Book § 11-21 governed the defendant's request for attorney's fees, the court should have determined that the time limitation contained in the rule was directory and, therefore, the court should have exercised its discretion to permit a filing that was five days late and, finally, that the court should have awarded attorney's fees in light of the mandate of § 42-150bb and the fact that the defendant's delay in filing was reasonable and minimal.

         Our analysis requires discussion of § 42-150bb, captioned ‘‘Attorney's fees in action based on consumer contract or lease, '' and of Practice Book § 11-21, captioned ‘‘Motion for Attorney's Fees.'' In analyzing these two enactments, we must determine whether realizing the statutory entitlement to attorney's fees, pursuant to § 42-150bb, is necessarily limited by the thirty day filing requirement in Practice Book § 11-21, or whether a trial court has the discretion to excuse a filing delay in order to effectuate the public policy of § 42-150bb. On the basis of the record before us, it is clear that the court did not believe it had such discretion, and, therefore, did not exercise it. Because the interpretation of a statute or rule of practice involves a question of law, our review of the trial court's interpretation is plenary. See Commissioner of Social Services v. Smith, 265 Conn. 723, 734, 830 A.2d 228 (2003).

         We first address the statute. Section 42-150bb provides in relevant part: ‘‘Whenever any contract or lease entered into on or after October 1, 1979, to which a consumer is a party, provides for the attorney's fee of the commercial party to be paid by the consumer, an attorney's fee shall be awarded as a matter of law to the consumer who successfully prosecutes or defends an action or a counterclaim based upon the contract or lease. . . .'' (Emphasis added.) The parties do not dispute that, for purposes of the application of § 42-150bb, the plaintiff is a commercial party and the defendant is a consumer. In sum, the provisions of § 42-150bb are applicable to the case at hand.[2]

         Our Supreme Court has stated: ‘‘Under § 42-150bb, the court has no latitude to deny [attorney's fees] to a consumer who successfully defends an action brought against him by a commercial party.'' Rizzo Pool Co. v. Del Grosso, 240 Conn. 58, 66, 689 A.2d 1097 (1997). Attorney's fees are available, rather, by operation of law. Id. Therefore, the entitlement to attorney's fees, pursuant to § 42-150bb, is mandatory.[3] Our Supreme Court also has held that mandatory statutory provisions relate to matters of substance. Statewide Grievance Committee v. Rozbicki, 219 Conn. 473, 480-81, 595 A.2d 819 (1991), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1094, 112 S.Ct. 1170, 117 L.Ed.2d 416 (1992). Section 42-150bb is a legislative vehicle for consumer protection that affords consumers, as a matter of law, awards of reasonable ...

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