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Chapdelaine v. Town of Brookfield

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Danbury, Danbury

May 18, 2017



          Anthony D. Truglia, Jr., J.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         The plaintiffs in this action are John Chapdelaine, a minor, and his mother, Kristen Campagna. The plaintiffs bring this action against the defendants, the Town of Brookfield and the Brookfield Board of Education, seeking compensatory and exemplary damages for personal injuries and losses. The plaintiffs bring four causes of action against the defendants, two identical counts of common law negligence and recklessness against each defendant. The plaintiffs make the following allegations in support of their claims for damages against each defendant.

         On December 16, 2013, Chapdelaine was a student attending the Huckleberry Elementary School in Brookfield. Chapdelaine was a special needs student who " qualified for and was educated under an individualized education plan (commonly referred to as an IEP)." Chapdelaine's IEP was created by a team of the defendants' employees including a general education teacher, a special education teacher, the school psychologist, a specialist trained to interpret results of the child's evaluations, and a school district representative with authority over the defendants' special education services. At all times relevant to the present case, Chapdelaine's IEP included use of seclusion and restraint, when necessary, by educators and paraprofessionals assigned to him. On the morning of December 16, 2013, the defendants' employees were placing Chapdelaine into seclusion in a designated " quiet room" when his right hand middle finger became caught in the room's entrance door. One of the defendants' employees closed the door on the plaintiffs finger " thereby amputating the top of the right hand middle finger and causing the minor child injury, pain and trauma."

         The plaintiffs allege that, as early as a year prior to the December 16, 2013 incident, Chapdelaine's IEP had not been properly reviewed or tailored to provide a " safe, appropriate and sufficient education" for him. As a result, during his prior school year, and " quickly from the start of the 2013 school year, " the number of times the defendants' employees used restraint and seclusion increased. Educators assigned to Chapdelaine " were employing and utilizing seclusion and restraint on an increasingly frequent basis, " even though alternative and less restrictive methods of " educating and achieving the child's focus were available." The plaintiffs further allege that, as a result of the continuing failure of the defendants' employees to timely review and tailor Chapdelaine's IEP, immediately following the December 16, 2013 incident, the defendants denied Chapdelaine part-time or full-time access to the school for an unreasonable amount of time without proper cause, which exposed " the minor child to risk of injury, feelings of embarrassment and low selfworth and deprivation of a safe, appropriate and sufficient education for the child." This continued until Chapdelaine's transfer to a different school.

         In the first and second counts of their complaint, the plaintiffs list twelve ways in which negligence of the defendants' employees caused the " amputation incident and injuries/losses therefrom." The plaintiffs first claim that the defendants failed to construct a safe, sufficient, and appropriate IEP for Chapdelaine, even though they " should have and could have done so." They allege that the defendants failed to review and tailor Chapdelaine's IEP " when it was obvious that said IEP was failing to meet the child's needs and a change was requested by at least one of the minor child's parents, " and failed to place the child in the " least restrictive environment" after it became apparent that " the seclusion and restraint pattern in use... was ineffective and harmful." The plaintiffs further allege that the defendants failed to record and notify instances of physical restraint/seclusion consistent with" General Statutes § 46a-153 [1] and failed to notify Chapdelaine's parents of instances of such restraint and seclusion, " failed to employ other less restrictive behavior interventions; " and failed to " clearly articulate in the IEP the parameters of the use of restraint/seclusion." The plaintiffs, therefore, make two central claims: First, they allege that the defendants engaged in a pattern of ever-increasing " inappropriate and excessive restraint" in the weeks and months before the December 16, 2013 incident. That pattern, the complaint appears to allege, led to Chapdelaine being placed in seclusion in the assigned quiet room unnecessarily on the morning of the incident. Second, they allege that the defendants failed to comply with statutory and regulatory requirements as to size and configuration of the school's assigned quiet room. As a direct and proximate result of these regulatory compliance failures, Chapdelaine was seriously injured on the morning of December 16, 2013. The first failure, the plaintiffs contend, was that the quiet room was located in a so-called " portable classroom; " it was not a " building" and, therefore, did not comply with the requirement that an assigned quiet room be located in a " school building." Second, the quiet room did not have a window large enough nor was it placed in such a way that the educators could monitor Chapdelaine at all times in the quiet room. On Short Calendar, at oral argument, the plaintiffs further alleged that the quiet room had " alcoves" off to the side of the room where a child, such as Chapdelaine, could move to and not be seen from the only window, which was in the door. On the morning of the incident, Chapdelaine was moving back and forth between one of the alcoves and the center of the room and could not be seen by the staff person assigned to monitor him at all times. Also, on the morning of the incident, Chapdelaine appeared to be agitated and asked to be let out of the room on several occasions. The staff checked on him several times. On one such occasion, Kent Gemmell, the school psychologist, opened the door in order to check on him. Chapdelaine then rushed to the door as Gemmell was closing it, causing the injury to Chapdelaine's finger.

         Had the defendants complied with the regulatory requirements as to location and configuration of the quiet room, the plaintiffs allege, the events of December 16, 2013 would not have occurred in the manner in which they did and Chapdelaine would not have been injured. The plaintiffs claim that, as a direct and proximate result of the defendants' employees' actions, Chapdelaine's ability to pursue and enjoy life's activities has been permanently impaired.

         In the third and fourth counts of their complaint, the plaintiffs repeat the same allegations of negligence and claim that Chapdelaine's injuries and losses were caused by the reckless actions and inactions of the defendants' employees. The plaintiffs claim monetary damages for each count and " double/treble damages" for the two counts which assert common law recklessness.

         The defendants have moved for summary judgment in their favor on all four counts of the complaint. The defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate for several reasons. First, the defendants assert the defense of sovereign immunity. They argue that when providing services for special needs children (such as the plaintiff) pursuant to a state mandate (as in the present case), they are acting as agents of the state. As such, they are entitled to sovereign immunity for common law claims arising from the provision of such services. Second, the defendants assert that they are protected by the doctrine of governmental immunity, which protects municipal employees from suit arising from discretionary acts taken in the course of their employment. Third, they assert that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before commencing this action. They argue that the provisions of educational services to special needs students such as Chapdelaine are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § § MOO-1485. The IDEA requires all states that receive federal educational funding to provide all disabled children with a free and appropriate public education (sometimes referred to as FAPE). See, e.g., B.K. v. Board of Education, Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, Docket No. CV-98-0332503-S (February 16, 2001, Adams, J .) (" Congress enacted the IDEA to ensure that all handicapped students receive a free and appropriate education"). The IDEA provides that if a dispute arises between a school board and a parent relating to the child's IEP, either party may request an impartial due process hearing conducted by the state education agency. [2] The IDEA also states that " before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under this subchapter." 20 U.S.C. § 1415.

         In support of their motion, the defendants submit excerpts from Campagna's deposition transcript verifying that, while she did contact the Brookfield Board of Education to discuss her continuing concerns about her son's IEP in the months preceding the December 16, 2013 incident, at no time did she file a formal complaint or at any time request an impartial due process hearing before the State of Connecticut Bureau of Special Education. [3] The defendants also submit the affidavit of Kent Gemmell, the school psychologist at Huckleberry Elementary School who supervised placing Chapdelaine in seclusion on the date of the incident, and excerpts from Gemmell's deposition transcript for this case.

         In opposition to the motion, the plaintiffs argue first, in response to the claims of sovereign and governmental immunity, that the IDEA and General Statutes § § 10-76a, et seq., impose duties upon the defendants and their employees that are ministerial in nature. Therefore, the governmental immunity of General Statutes § 52-557n does not apply to the present case. Second, the plaintiffs argue that the question of whether the duties owed to the plaintiffs were ministerial or discretionary is a question of fact for the jury and cannot be decided on a motion for summary judgment. Third, the plaintiffs argue that even if governmental immunity applies to the present case, the " imminent harm" exception to governmental immunity applies to the unique facts of the present case. The plaintiffs submit additional excerpts from Gemmell's deposition transcript and copies of all regulations governing children requiring special education in Connecticut in support of their claim that all of the duties owed to Chapdelaine up to and including the date of the December 16, 2013 incident were ministerial. Therefore, the plaintiffs argue, there are genuine issues of material fact that prevent the court from granting summary judgment in the defendants' favor at this time. Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement does not apply to their claims because they are not claiming educational injuries or seeking administrative remedies under the IDEA.

         II. Discussion

         Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment " shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." " In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court's function is not to decide issues of material fact, but rather to determine whether any such issues exist." Nolan v. Borkowski, 206 Conn. 495, 500, 538 A.2d 1031 (1988). The purpose of a motion for summary judgment is to dispose of actions lacking a triable issue of material fact. See Dorazio v. M. B. Foster Electric Co., 157 Conn. 226, 228, 253 A.2d 22 (1968). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Rodriguez v. Testa, 296 Conn. 1, 6, 993 A.2d 955 (2010). " The test is whether a party would be entitled to a directed verdict on the same facts." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Connecticut Bank & Trust Co. v. Carriage Lane Associates, 219 Conn. 772, 781, 595 A.2d 334 (1991). " The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy his burden the movant must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.... As the burden of proof is on the movant, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opponent." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v. Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

         A. Defense of ...

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