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Johnson v. Raffy'S Cafe I, LLC

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 16, 2017


          Argued Date: January 19, 2017

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven at Meriden, Fischer, J. [motion to open the default; motion to reargue; motion for articulation; motion to dismiss; motion to reargue; judgment; motion for a new trial]; Cronan, J. [motion for waiver of fees]

          Erick Bennett, self-represented, the appellant (defendant).

          Jeremiah J. O'Connor, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Alvord, Mullins and Norcott, Js.


          MULLINS, J.

          In this wrongful death action, the self-represented defendant, Erick Bennett, [1] appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Lubecca Johnson, administratrix of the estate of Willie Brown, Jr. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court improperly (1) denied his motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, [2] (2) denied his motion to set aside a default for failure to plead, and (3) denied his motion for a new trial. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our consideration of the defendant's claims on appeal. The plaintiff commenced this action against the defendant, Raffy's Cafe´ I, LLC, doing business as Raffy's Cafe´ (Raffy's Cafe´), and Rafael Robles on July 8, 2010. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant fatally stabbed Willie Brown, Jr. during an altercation at Raffy's Cafe´ in Meriden on July 10, 2009. The first two counts of the four count complaint were directed at Raffy's Cafe´ and its proprietor, Robles. The first count sounded in dram shop liability, and the second sounded in common-law recklessness.[3]

         The last two counts of the complaint were directed at the defendant. The third count sought recovery on the theory that the defendant's intentional conduct wrongfully caused Brown's death. The fourth count alleged that the defendant's negligence wrongfully caused Brown's death.

         On August 30, 2010, the defendant filed an appearance, representing himself. The defendant also had been arrested and charged with murder as a result of the stabbing incident. Consequently, this civil matter and the defendant's criminal case were occurring simultaneously. However, the criminal matter concluded on August 26, 2011, when the trial court rendered a judgment of conviction and sentenced the defendant to fifty years of incarceration in accordance with the jury's guilty verdict. At no point during the duration of the criminal proceedings did the defendant file a responsive pleading in this civil matter.

         Even after the criminal matter concluded, the defendant neglected to file any responsive pleading to the plaintiff's complaint. Accordingly, on October 13, 2011, nearly two months after the conclusion of the criminal case, the plaintiff filed a motion for default for failure to plead. On October 20, 2011, the clerk granted that motion.

         Three years later, on November 21, 2014, the plaintiff filed a certificate of closed pleadings and requested a hearing in damages. In the three year period between the entering of the default and the closing of the pleadings, the defendant neither filed a responsive pleading nor sought to set aside the default. However, the defen- dant filed his first motion to dismiss during that period, on May 7, 2014. The plaintiff objected to the defendant's first motion to dismiss on June 4, 2014, and the court sustained the objection on June 23, 2014. The defendant has not challenged the court's ruling with respect to the first motion to dismiss.

         On December 8, 2014, after the plaintiff already had filed a certificate of closed pleadings, the defendant filed a motion to set aside the default. The court denied that motion on December 22, 2014.

         Subsequently, on December 26, 2014, the defendant filed a second motion to dismiss. In that motion, he argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. On February 5, 2015, the defendant, who was incarcerated, filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum[4] seeking permission to attend court for a hearing on this motion. The court granted the application. Thereafter, on February 9, 2015, the defendant attended the hearing on the motion. Following the hearing, on April 6, 2015, the court issued a memorandum of decision denying the motion. The defendant has challenged the court's denial of his second motion to dismiss in this appeal.

         On April 27, 2015, the court helda hearing in damages. As with the hearing on his second motion to dismiss, the defendant was incarcerated at the time of the hearing in damages. However, unlike the hearing on his second motion to dismiss, the defendant did not file an application for a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum. Consequently, the defendant did not appear at the hearing in damages. As a result of the hearing, the court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff, awarding $9217.74 in economic damages and $1, 292, 200 in noneconomic damages.

         On June 15, 2015, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, to which the plaintiff objected on June 23, 2015. The court sustained the plaintiff's objection on July 7, 2015. This appeal followed.



         The defendant claims that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Specifically, the defendant argues that the court improperly rejected the following five attacks on the court's subject matter jurisdiction: (1) the plaintiff's probate certificate authorizing her to bring this lawsuit as administratrix was invalid because it lacked the valid raised seal of the Probate Court; (2) the probate certificate itself did not authorize the plaintiff to bring this suit; (3) the defendant was entitled to ‘‘sovereign immunity'' from suit; (4) principles of double jeopardy barred this suit; and (5) by granting summary judgment for the codefendants, Raffy's Cafe´ and Robles, the court also was required to dismiss the counts against the defendant. The plaintiff responds that none of these grounds deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction. We agree with the plaintiff.

         We first set forth our standard of review. ‘‘Our standard of review of a trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law in connection with a motion to dismiss is well settled. A finding of fact will not be disturbed unless it is clearly erroneous. . . . [If] the legal conclusions of the court are challenged, we must determine whether they are legally and logically correct and whether they find support in the facts . . . . Thus, our review of the trial court's ultimate legal conclusion and resulting [denial] of the motion to dismiss will be de novo.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Property Asset Management, Inc. v. Lazarte, 163 Conn.App. 737, 746, 138 A.3d 290 (2016).

         The first jurisdictional defect alleged by the defendant is that the plaintiff's probate certificate ‘‘lacks the court of probate seal impressed on the certificate, as required by the certificate.'' We conclude that this claim lacks merit. The trial court found, after examining the probate certificate, that the certificate in fact contained the proper probate seal. The defendant has presented nothing to show that the trial court's finding, based on its review of the probate certificate, was clearly erroneous.

         The defendant's second alleged jurisdictional defect is that the plaintiff's probate certificate, which states that the ‘‘fiduciary has no power to buy, sell, or withdraw assets of the estate, '' prohibits the plaintiff from bringing this suit. However, the trial court found that the probate certificate expressly authorizes the plaintiff to bring this suit because it provides that ‘‘[t]he fiduciary may . . . make claims on behalf of the estate.'' Moreover, the court also concluded that ‘‘the plaintiff's civil action is an exercise of one of the express powers granted to the fiduciary by General Statutes § 45a-234 (18).'' See General Statutes § 45a-234 (18) (administratrix of estate has authority to ‘‘compromise, adjust, arbitrate, sue on or defend, abandon, or otherwise deal with and settle claims in favor of or against . . . estate or trust as [she] shall deem advisable''). After reviewing the record, we conclude that the court's determination that the plaintiff had the authority to bring this suit is legally correct and factually supported.

         The defendant's third attack on the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is that he was immune from suit by virtue of ‘‘sovereign immunity.'' Specifically, the thrust of the defendant's claim is that he is a ‘‘sovereign in [his] own realm'' because he is a ‘‘noncorporate human being.'' Consequently, according to the defendant, this status as ‘‘a sovereign'' means that he is not subject to the jurisdiction of our courts, which are ‘‘arms'' of ‘‘the Commercial Corporate State of Connecticut.'' We agree with the trial court that the defendant does not meet the criteria necessary to claim sovereign immunity.

         ‘‘[T]he fact that the state is not named as a defendant does not conclusively establish that the action is not within the principle which prohibits actions against the sovereign without its consent. . . . The vital test is to be found in the essential nature and effect of the proceeding. . . . [There are] four criteria [used in] determin[ing] whether an action is in effect, one against the state and cannot be maintained without its consent: (1) a state official has been sued; (2) the suit concerns some matter in which that official represents the state; (3) the state is the real party against whom relief is sought; and (4) the judgment, though nominally against the official, will operate to control the activities of the state or subject it to liability.'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Miller v. Egan, 265 Conn. 301, 308, 828 A.2d 549 (2003).

         Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the defendant's claim is without merit because he failed to present any factual or legal support demonstrating (1) that he is a state official, (2) that this suit concerns a matter in which he represents the state, (3) that the state is the real party, and (4) that the judgment will operate to control the activities of the state or subject it to liability. Simply put, this suit is an action that was brought against a private person in his individual capacity for monetary damages arising out of private conduct. ...

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