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Harborside Connecticut Ltd. Partnership v. Witte

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

December 27, 2016


          Argued October 25, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, B. Fischer, J.

          Anne Jasorkowski, with whom, on the brief, was Angelo Maragos, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Miguel A. Almodo´var, for the appellee (defendant).

          Lavine, Prescott and Bishop, Js.


          LAVINE, J.

          The plaintiff, Harborside Connecticut Limited Partnership, appeals from the judgment of dismissal rendered in favor of the defendant, Arlene Witte.[1]On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court (1) misconstrued the allegations of the complaint as claims against the estate of William Witte (decedent), [2] thus depriving the court of subject matter jurisdiction, and (2) abused its discretion by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing to establish jurisdictional facts. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         On November 17, 2014, the plaintiff served the defendant with a two count complaint, alleging conversion and unjust enrichment. The allegations of the complaint control our resolution of the plaintiff's claims on appeal. See May v. Coffey, 291 Conn. 106, 108, 967 A.2d 495 (2009) (in reviewing ‘‘trial court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss, we take the facts to be those alleged in the complaint, including those facts necessarily implied from the allegations, construing them in a manner most favorable to the pleader'' [internal quotation marks omitted]).

         The complaint alleged, in relevant part, that the plaintiff is ‘‘a chronic care and convalescent facility'' (nursing home) in Hamden. On or about August 31, 2013, the decedent was ‘‘readmitted'' to the nursing home at which time the [p]laintiff provided him with room and board and ‘‘general nursing care and assistance with daily living activities'' (services). The decedent remained in the nursing home from August 31, 2013 through April 4, 2014, the date of his death. The complaint also alleged that no probate estate had been opened for the decedent.

         ‘‘Upon information and belief, '' the plaintiff alleged that the decedent had a long-term care policy of insurance (insurance policy) provided by John Hancock Insurance (insurer) that provided benefits for the services the plaintiff had provided to the decedent. In order for the insurance policy ‘‘to pay'' benefits, the plaintiff had to provide services to the decedent and, thereafter, bill the insurer, after which ‘‘payment would be made and or sent to the defendant . . . .''[3] The plaintiff submitted an invoice to the insurer for services it had provided to the decedent from January 1, 2014 through March 31, 2014. ‘‘Upon information and belief, '' the insurer ‘‘issued payment to the defendant for [services] rendered by the plaintiff and she never forwarded the payment to the plaintiff for the period covering January 1, 2014 through March 31, 2014.'' The defendant ‘‘retained the payment or payments from the'' insurer.

         The complaint further alleged that in March, 2014, the defendant ‘‘issued a check in the amount of $34, 200.00 to the plaintiff, in an attempt to pay for the care and services provided between January 1, 2014 through March 31, 2014.'' The plaintiff presented the defendant's check for payment, but its payment was refused due to insufficient funds. The plaintiff informed the defendant that her check had been returned and asked her to issue another check. The defendant failed to do so. The plaintiff further alleged that it provided services to the decedent, ‘‘which led to the issuance of the insurance'' benefits under the insurance policy and that the benefits belonged to it or should have been in its possession.

         On the basis of the foregoing allegations, the plaintiff alleged in count one that it had been damaged and that the defendant is liable for conversion of funds. In count two, the plaintiff alleged that it had rendered services to the decedent with the expectation that it would be paid for its services and that the insurer had paid benefits under the insurance policy. The defendant received the proceeds of the insurance policy and has been unjustly enriched in the amount of $34, 200. The plaintiff alleged that it had been harmed.

         In response to the complaint, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims because the complaint alleged a personal debt owed by the decedent for the services the plaintiff had provided him. The defendant claimed that original jurisdiction of claims against a decedent is in the Probate Court pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-98. The plaintiff objected to the motion to dismiss, arguing that its claims sounded in conversion and unjust enrichment and that the Probate Court is not empowered to adjudicate such claims. The trial court heard the parties' arguments at short calendar on April 13, 2015, and issued its decision granting the defendant's motion to dismiss on July 14, 2015.

         In its thoughtful memorandum of decision, the court summarized the factual allegations of the plaintiff's complaint and discussed, in general, the relevant principles regarding the organization of the courts of this state. It noted that the Superior Court is a constitutional court of general jurisdiction; see State v. Cruz, 155 Conn.App. 644, 648, 110 A.3d 527 (2015); but that it does not have original jurisdiction over the estates of deceased persons. General Statutes § 51-164s provides in relevant part: ‘‘The Superior Court shall be the sole court of original jurisdiction for all causes of action, except such actions over which the courts of probate have original jurisdiction, as provided by statute. . . .'' General Statutes § 45a-98[4] sets forth the general powers of the Probate Court, which include, among other things, jurisdiction over decedents' estates.

         The court, thereafter, construed the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint, finding that the plaintiff had alleged that it had provided services to the decedent for which it has not been paid. Although the plaintiff alleged that the defendant had received benefits under the insurance policy, it did not allege that the defendant was legally obligated to remit payment on behalf of the decedent. Significantly, the plaintiff's aggrievement, therefore, arises from its unpaid invoice for services it rendered to the decedent. The plaintiff provided those services pursuant to an arrangement between it and the decedent. Because payment of insurance benefits for the services provided by the plaintiff stems from a personal obligation of the decedent, the plaintiff must present its claim to the Probate Court. See Matey v. Estate of Dember, 256 Conn. 456, 477, 774 A.2d 113 (2001) (‘‘[a] claim which is characterized as an existing obligation of the decedent and would be paid out of the estate as a whole falls within the statute and must be presented'' [internal quotation marks omitted]).

         The court also addressed the plaintiff's allegation that no estate had been opened on the decedent's behalf. The plaintiff argued that it could not present a claim to the fiduciary of an estate that did not exist. In response, the court reasoned that whether an estate had been opened did not change the nature of the plaintiff's claims, and that it is within the power of the plaintiff, as a creditor of the decedent, to petition the Probate Court to open an estate. See Boucher Agency, Inc. v. Zimmer, 160 Conn. 404, 408, 279 A.2d 540 (1971) (apply for appointment of fiduciary). Once appointed, the fiduciary is responsible for collecting estate assets to distribute to creditors and beneficiaries. See Hall v. Meriden Trust & Safe Deposit Co., 103 Conn. 226, 231, 130 A.157 (1925). Moreover, the court stated, the fiduciary has the power, if necessary, ‘‘[t]o compromise, adjust, arbitrate, sue on or defend, abandon, or otherwise deal with and settle claims in favor of or against the estate . . . . General Statutes § 45a-234 (18).'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) If the plaintiff were to present a valid claim to the fiduciary of the decedent's estate, and if the fiduciary were to reject that claim, the plaintiff would then have a cause of action in the Superior Court. See General Statutes § 45a-363 (a) (‘‘[n]o person who has presented a claim shall be entitled to commence suit unless and until such claim has been rejected, in whole or in part, as provided in section 45a-360'').

         In response to the plaintiff's argument that the Probate Court cannot adjudicate claims of conversion and unjust enrichment because it lacks jurisdiction over such claims, the court acknowledged that the Probate Court lacks jurisdiction over such claims, but stated that it has jurisdiction over the estates of deceased persons. Regardless of the fact that the plaintiff framed its claims against the defendant in terms of conversion and unjust enrichment, the title of a pleading is not controlling. 225 Associates v. Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, 65 Conn.App. 112, 121, 782 A.2d 189 (2001). The plaintiff is seeking to recover a debt of the decedent. The court concluded that if the defendant has ...

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