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Pease v. The Charlotte Hungerford Hospital

Supreme Court of Connecticut

May 2, 2017

ROBERT PEASE
v.
THE CHARLOTTE HUNGERFORD HOSPITAL ET AL.

          Argued December 8, 2016

          Michael G. Rigg, for the appellant (named defendant).

          Michael C. Conroy, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa, Robinson and Vertefeuille, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          VERTEFEUILLE, J.

         The dispositive question presented by this appeal is whether a prevailing party in a civil action can enforce an unpaid award of costs through a motion for civil contempt rather than by pursuing the various postjudgment remedies authorized by chapter 906 of the General Statutes. We conclude that, under ordinary circumstances, such as those in this case, the court's inherent contempt power is not an appropriate means of enforcing an award of costs or other monetary judgment. We therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court denying the motion of the named defendant, The Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, to hold the plaintiff, Robert Pease, in contempt of court.

         The following procedural history is relevant to our disposition of this appeal. The plaintiff brought an action against the defendants, the hospital and one of its employees, Kateri D. Veillette, a registered nurse, for personal injuries allegedly sustained as a result of medical malpractice.[1] The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the hospital, and the trial court, Pickard, J., rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict. The hospital then filed a bill of costs and, following the court clerk's approval of the bill, the plaintiff sought review by the trial court. See Practice Book § 18-5 (b). The trial court ultimately awarded the hospital $5965 in expert fees and other costs.

         Approximately five months later, the hospital filed a motion to hold the plaintiff in contempt of court. Claiming that the award of costs was a court order, and thus amenable to contempt, the hospital alleged that the plaintiff had not paid any of the awarded costs and speculated that the plaintiff had the ability to comply with the order, [2] but simply refused to do so. By way of initial remedy, the hospital requested that the court issue a written order that the plaintiff must pay $5965 in accordance with the court's taxation of costs by some date certain. The hospital did not and does not contend that, prior to moving for contempt, it pursued any of the postjudgment remedies that our legislature has authorized under chapter 906 of the General Statutes, including executing the award of costs; see General Statutes §§ 52-356a and 52-361a; placing a judgment lien on the plaintiff's real or personal property; see General Statutes §§ 52-355a and 52-380a; and examining the plaintiff asa judgment debtor or engaging in other forms of postjudgment discovery. See General Statutes §§ 52-351b and 5-397.

         Following a hearing, the court denied the hospital's motion for contempt. In its order, the court ‘‘agree[d] with the plaintiff that an award of costs to the prevailing party following a jury trial is not an order that should be enforced with the contempt power'' and ‘‘suggest[ed] that the [hospital] consult the normal methods of enforcing a judgment in General Statutes chapter 906 or the possibility of a suit on the debt . . . .'' The court also declined to issue an order requiring that the plaintiff pay the costs by a definite date.

         The hospital appealed to the Appellate Court, contending that the trial court improperly concluded, as a matter of law, that it lacked the inherent authority to coerce compliance with an award of costs. We transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1. Prior to oral argument, this court, sua sponte, asked the parties to address the jurisdictional question of whether the denial of the motion for contempt was an appealable final judgment. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         At the outset, we must determine whether the trial court's denial of a postjudgment motion for contempt is an appealable final judgment. See State v. Johnson, 301 Conn. 630, 640, 26 A.3d 59 (2011). The hospital contends that it is. The plaintiff disagrees, arguing that the present appeal should be governed by the jurisdictional test that we apply to interlocutory orders under State v. Curcio, 191 Conn. 27, 463 A.2d 566 (1983), and that the denial of a motion for contempt does not satisfy either prong of the Curcio test-it neither terminates a separate and distinct proceeding nor so concludes the rights of the parties that further proceedings cannot affect them. We agree with the hospital that the denial of a postjudgment motion for civil contempt constitutes an appealable final judgment.[3]

         Although neither party cites to it, our decision most directly on point is Potter v. Board of Selectmen, 174 Conn. 195, 384 A.2d 369 (1978). In Potter, this court had held in a prior proceeding that the plaintiff was improperly denied a permit to operate a mobile home park. See id., 196. Subsequently, the defendant town denied the plaintiff the necessary building and health permits relating to the project and he sought a contempt order. Id. On appeal, we reviewed the trial court's denial of a finding of contempt on the merits, noting that such determinations are final adjudications that are within our power to review. See id., 196-97. We did so despite the fact that the plaintiff had not exhausted his available remedies and could have pursued independent administrative appeals from the denial of his requests for the permits in question. See id., 199 n.2. Although Potter came to us in a unique procedural posture, we have since cited the case for the general proposition that denial of a postjudgment motion for contempt is a final judgment subject to appellate review. See Pritchard v. Pritchard, 281 Conn. 262, 272-73, 914 A.2d 1025 (2007). The Appellate Court also has read Potter broadly for the conclusion that ‘‘the denial of a motion for contempt is a final judgment for purposes of appeal . . . .''[4] Wil-locks v. Klein, 38 Conn.App. 317, 320, 660 A.2d 869 (1995); see Johnson v. Clark, 113 Conn.App. 611, 617, 967 A.2d 1222 (2009) (same).

         Moreover, to the extent that the Curcio test, which governs interlocutory appeals, applies to the present case, we disagree with the plaintiff's contention that the first prong of that test is not satisfied. Our Curcio jurisprudence is animated by the principle that parties should not repeatedly interrupt ongoing litigation to conduct piecemeal appeals, especially when they will have the opportunity to challenge all pertinent rulings after the litigation culminates in a final judgment. See Melia v.Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 202 Conn. 252, 257-58, 520 A.2d 605 (1987); State v.Curcio, supra, 191 Conn. 30-31. Here, however, both the underlying litigation and the ancillary contempt proceedings have terminated. There is no ongoing proceeding or litigation the completion of which the parties must await, and we do not see any different termination point at which an appeal will be more appropriate. Accordingly, aside from certain exceptions not relevant to the present appeal, a completed contempt hearing generally has been treated as a separate and distinct proceeding for Curcio purposes. Compare Beveridge v.Beveridge, 7 Conn.App. 11, 14-15, 507 A.2d 502 (1986) (motion for contempt deemed appealable under first prong of Curcio because it can proceed independently), with N.D.R. Liuzzi, Inc. v.Lighthouse Litho, LLC, 144 Conn.App. 613, 621-22, 75 A.3d 694 (2013) (contempt finding did not terminate separate and distinct proceeding because further hearing on contempt motion was required to address outstanding issues), and Zirinsky v.Zirinsky, 87 Conn.App. 257, ...


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