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Gladstein v. Goldfield

Supreme Court of Connecticut

May 16, 2017


          Argued January 26, 2017

          Daniel J. Klau, with whom was Bradley K. Cooney, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Louis B. Blumenfeld, with whom, on the brief, were Lorinda S. Coon and Lawrence J. Merly, for the appellees (defendants).

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


          ROGERS, C. J.

         This case raises the question of whether a party's actions during the pendency of her appeal have resulted in that appeal becoming moot. The plaintiff, Ruth Gladstein, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the trial court's dismissal of her action due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction; Gladstein v. Goldfield, 163 Conn.App. 579, 587, 137 A.3d 60 (2016); which followed the trial court's denial of the plaintiff's motion to substitute the trustee of her bankruptcy estate as the correct party plaintiff. The plaintiff claims that the Appellate Court improperly refused to consider her claim that the trial court had applied an improper standard when denying her motion to substitute, concluding instead that she had induced the error of which she complained. Because the bankruptcy trustee, at the plaintiff's behest, has abandoned the underlying action and the plaintiff no longer is seeking to substitute the trustee as party plaintiff, we conclude that our resolution of this claim would afford the plaintiff no practical relief. Accordingly, we dismiss the plaintiff's appeal as moot.

         The following undisputed facts and procedural history are relevant to the appeal.[1] The plaintiff is a beneficiary of a trust established by her mother in 1992. In 1997, the plaintiff's mother executed an amendment to the trust that reduced the plaintiff's residual interest therein. In July, 2008, the plaintiff and her husband filed a petition for bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nevada (bankruptcy court). In July, 2009, the bankruptcy court granted the plaintiff and her husband a discharge of their debts. In September, 2009, the plaintiff filed the present action in her own name against the defendants, her sister, Sarann Goldfield, and her brother-in-law, Alvin Gold-field, alleging, inter alia, misuse of trust funds as well as forgery and undue influence in connection with the 1997 amendment of the trust, and Attorney Martin Wolf and his law firm, Cohen and Wolf, P.C., alleging, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duty. Wolf had drafted the trust and its amendment and served as trustee.

         In her 2008 bankruptcy court filings, the plaintiff did not disclose her interest in her mother's trust or her potential legal claims against the defendants. Pursuant to federal bankruptcy law, the plaintiff was required to do so. See 11 U.S.C. § 541 (a) (1) (debtor must disclose ‘‘all legal or equitable interests . . . in property as of the commencement of the case''); 11 U.S.C. § 541 (a) (7) (duty to disclose is continuous so as to include any interest acquired after commencement of case). Moreover, her claims against the defendants were part of the bankruptcy estate and belonged to the bankruptcy trustee and not to her individually.[2] For that reason, the defendants filed motions to dismiss this action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the plaintiff's lack of standing.[3]

         In response, the plaintiff conceded that she lacked standing and filed a motion to substitute the bankruptcy trustee as the proper plaintiff pursuant to General Statutes § 52-109, [4] to which the defendants objected. A hearing, at which evidence was presented, was held on the motion. On October 30, 2013, after concluding that the plaintiff had failed to show that she had brought the action in her own name due to mistake, as contemplated by § 52-109, the trial court denied the motion to substitute the bankruptcy trustee as plaintiff, then dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed an appeal with the Appellate Court, claiming that the trial court improperly had disallowed the substitution of the bankruptcy trustee.

         While the plaintiff's appeal to the Appellate Court remained pending, she requested that the bankruptcy trustee abandon the underlying cause of action. On August 7, 2014, the bankruptcy court granted the trustee's motion to abandon the action, nunc pro tunc. As a result of this ruling, the plaintiff's claims against the defendants now belong to her, alone, to pursue.

         In her initial brief to the Appellate Court, filed thereafter, the plaintiff contended that the August 7, 2014 order of the bankruptcy court merited a reversal of the trial court's October 30, 2013 judgment dismissing her action to allow further proceedings to be prosecuted in her own name. The defendants moved to strike the plaintiff's brief, arguing that it relied on material outside of the trial court record and pertaining to events that postdated the judgment. After the Appellate Court granted the defendants' motion to strike, the plaintiff filed a substitute brief in which she argued instead that the trial court had applied an improper standard in deciding her motion to substitute.

         On March 8, 2016, the Appellate Court decided the plaintiff's appeal. As previously indicated, that court declined to review the plaintiff's claim on its merits, reasoning instead that the plaintiff had induced the action of the trial court that she was challenging on appeal and, therefore, had waived the right to review. Gladstein v. Goldfield, supra, 163 Conn.App. 585-86.[5]The plaintiff's appeal to this court followed.[6]

         In her briefs to this court and at oral argument, the plaintiff alluded to the posttrial proceedings in the bankruptcy court and indicated that, in the event she prevailed and the case were remanded to the trial court, she intended to move that her motion to substitute be declared moot. Following oral argument, this court, sua sponte, ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing the following issue: ‘‘ ‘Is this appeal moot, in light of the representation of plaintiff's counsel that the plaintiff no longer is seeking the substitution of the bankruptcy trustee as party plaintiff?' '' The plain- tiff, in her supplemental brief, contends that the appeal is not moot because a live controversy continues between the parties in regard to her claims of the defendants' wrongdoing in connection with her mother's trust, and this court can provide practical relief in the manner of an unrestricted remand. The defendants, for their part, do not challenge this contention. We disagree with the parties and conclude that this appeal is moot.

         Mootness presents a legal question and implicates this court's subject matter jurisdiction, a threshold matter to resolve. Burton v.Commissioner of Environmental Protection, 323 Conn. 668, 677, 150 A.3d 666 (2016). This court has a duty to dismiss cases over which it lacks subject matter jurisdiction, which cannot be conferred by the consent of the parties. Bender v.Bender, 292 Conn. 696, 704 n.5, 975 A.2d 636 (2009); see also Lyon v.Jones, 291 Conn. 384, 392, 968 A.2d 416 (2009) (appropriate to consider mootness even when not raised by parties). We may address a mootness issue if there is either evidence in the record suggesting mootness or an acknowledgment in a party's brief, or at oral argument, as to the existence of facts ...

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