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Spiotti v. Town of Wolcott

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 11, 2017

DOREEN SPIOTTI
v.
TOWN OF WOLCOTT ET AL.

          Argued May 2, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for, inter alia, alleged employment discrimination, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Waterbury, where the court, Zemetis, J., granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint against the defendant Wolcott Police Department and granted in part the defendants' motion to strike; thereafter, the court, Brazzel-Massaro, J., denied in part the named defendant's motion for summary judgment, and the named defendant appealed. Affirmed.

          Michael J. Rose, with whom, on the brief, was Johanna G. Zelman, for the appellant (named defendant).

          Eric R. Brown, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, Espinosa, Robinson, D'Auria and Vertefeuille, Js.

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff police officer sought to recover damages from the defendant town for alleged employment discrimination, claiming that the defendant had violated the statute (§ 31-51q) pertaining to, inter alia, the termination of employees for engaging in protective speech and the statute (§ 46a-60 [a] [4]) pertaining to discriminatory practices against employees who have previously brought a discrimination action. After the plaintiff had been terminated, she filed a grievance pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the plaintiff's union and the defendant. The state Board of Mediation and Arbitration conducted hearings with respect to the grievance, and, on the basis of its conclusion that the plaintiff had made false statements in her discrimination complaint to the police department's ombudsman and during the department's investigation of that complaint, the board ultimately concluded that the plaintiff had been terminated for just cause. The plaintiff then brought the present action, and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, contending, among other things, that the plaintiff's claims under §§ 31-51q and 46a-60 (a) (4) were barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel because the factual underpinning of those claims had been decided adversely to her by the board. The trial court denied the motion as to those claims, relying on this court's decision in Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc. (226 Conn. 475), which interpreted the statute (§ 31-51bb) providing that no employee shall be denied the right to pursue a cause of action arising under a state statute or the state or federal constitution solely because the employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The trial court specifically concluded that an adverse determination in an arbitration proceeding pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement should not have a preclusive effect with regard to a subsequent statutory cause of action. On appeal from the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the defendant claimed that Genovese should be overruled because, subsequent to that decision, the legislature enacted the statute (§ 1-2z) requiring courts to interpret a statute according to its plain and unambiguous language without consulting extratextual evidence of its meaning, and the court in Genovese had relied on the legislative history of § 31-51bb when interpreting that purportedly clear and unambiguous statute. The defendant also claimed that the principles of stare decisis did not prevent this court from overruling Genovese. Held that, even if § 31-51bb was clear and unambiguous and its legislative history was the sole basis for this court's decision in Genovese, the legislature did not intend that the enactment of § 1-2z would overrule the prior interpretation of any statutory provision merely because this court previously had failed to apply the plain meaning rule, and, therefore, ordinary principles of stare decisis applied to the defendant's claim; furthermore, this court declined to depart from the principles of stare decisis and to overrule its decision in Genovese, as the legislature had not taken action since that decision to suggest that it disagreed with this court's conclusion that § 31-51bb was intended to bar the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel to claims of statutory and constitutional violations brought after a claim involving the same issues had been finally resolved in grievance procedures or arbitration, and the defendant did not identify any intervening developments in the law, unconscionable results, or irreconcilable conflicts or difficulties in this court's interpretation of § 31-51bb that would justify overruling Genovese; moreover, by enacting § 31-51bb, the legislature limited an arbitrator's power to determine finally and conclusively factual and legal issues that are critical to an employee's right to pursue a statutory cause of action, and, to conclude that the trial court must defer to the board's findings of fact would be inconsistent with this legislative intent.

          OPINION

          VERTEFEUILLE, J.

         The primary issue that we must resolve in this appeal is whether this court should overrule its decision in Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., 226 Conn. 475, 486, 628 A.2d 946 (1993), holding that, under General Statutes § 31-51bb, [1] a factual determination made in a final and binding arbitration conducted pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement does not have preclusive effect in a subsequent action claiming a violation of the state or federal constitution or a state statute. The plaintiff, Doreen Spiotti, was a member of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 332 (union), and was employed as a police officer in the Wolcott Police Department (department). After the plaintiff filed a complaint with an ombudsman for the department alleging that the department had engaged in retaliatory conduct against her, the department conducted an investigation and concluded that certain statements that the plaintiff had made in her complaint were false. Thereafter, Neil O'Leary, the chief of the department, recommended to the town council of the named defendant, the town of Wolcott, [2]that the plaintiff's employment be terminated. The defendant terminated the plaintiff, who then filed a grievance pursuant to the procedures set forth in the collective bargaining agreement between the defendant and the union. In accordance with those procedures, the Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration (board of mediation) conducted hearings on the issue of whether the plaintiff's employment had been terminated for just cause, and it ultimately concluded that there was just cause on the basis of its determination that the plaintiff had made false statements in her complaint to the ombudsman and during the department's investigation of that complaint.

         Thereafter, the plaintiff brought the present action alleging, among other things, that her termination was in retaliation for bringing a previous action against the defendant alleging sex discrimination in violation of General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (4), and for engaging in protected speech, namely, the complaint to the ombudsman, in violation of General Statutes § 31-51q.[3] The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff's claims were barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel because the factual underpinnings of those claims had been decided adversely to her by the board of mediation in the arbitration proceedings. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment as to these claims on the ground that, under this court's interpretation of § 31-51bb in Genovese, the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not bar a statutory cause of action that is brought after the same issue has been decided in arbitration pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. The defendant then filed this appeal.[4] The defendant contends that (1) Genovese should be overruled as a result of the legislature's subsequent enactment of General Statutes § 1-2z, [5] and (2) even if Genovese should not be overruled as the result of § 1-2z, it should be overruled because it was wrongly decided under then existing law.[6] We conclude that Genovese is still good law and, therefore, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Because the underlying facts of this case have little bearing on the issue that is before us, we need not discuss them in further detail, but may proceed directly to our legal analysis. We begin with the standard of review. As we have indicated, the trial court's decision denying the relevant portions of the defendant's motion for summary judgment was premised on this court's interpretation of § 31-51bb in Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., supra, 226 Conn. 486, as barring the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel to statutory claims brought subsequent to an arbitration in which the underlying issues were determined adversely to the plaintiff. The defendant's claims that Genovese should be overruled as the result of the enactment of § 1-2z or that it should be overruled because it was incorrect at the time it was decided involve questions of statutory interpretation subject to plenary review. See State v. Salamon, 287 Conn. 509, 529, 949 A.2d 1092 (2008) (because whether prior interpretation of statute should be overruled involves construction of statute, review is plenary).

         To provide context for our resolution of the defendant's claims, we provide the following overview of this court's decision in Genovese. The plaintiff in that case claimed that the trial court improperly had concluded that the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded his statutory cause of action because an arbitrator previously had determined the underlying factual issue adversely to him. Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., supra, 226 Conn. 479. After oral argument, this court in Genovese sua sponte raised the issue of whether § 31-51bb had any effect on the judgment of the trial court and requested supplemental briefs on that issue. Id., 479-80. The majority in Genovese began its analysis of this issue by observing that § 31-51bb was intended to overturn this court's holding in Kolenberg v. Board of Education, 206 Conn. 113, 123, 536 A.2d 577, cert. denied, 487 U.S. 1236, 108 S.Ct. 2903, 101 L.Ed.2d 935 (1988), that an ‘‘employee's failure to exhaust the grievance and arbitration procedures available under a collective bargaining agreement deprive[s] a trial court of jurisdiction over a cause of action arising from the employment relationship.'' Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., supra, 480-81. The majority recognized that it did not follow from this fact that, when an employee has exhausted grievance procedures and obtained a final decision in an arbitration proceeding, the employee may relitigate issues decided by the arbitrator in a subsequent action raising a statutory claim. Id., 482-83. The majority further recognized that, ‘‘ordinarily a factual determination made in final and binding arbitration is entitled to preclusive effect.'' Id., 483. Nevertheless, it concluded that applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel to preclude employment related statutory claims that previously had been determined in an arbitration pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement would defeat the intent of § 31-51bb, namely, ‘‘to ensure that employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement receive the same opportunity to litigate their statutory claims as those employees who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.'' Id., 484.

         The majority in Genovese further determined that this interpretation was supported by the legislative history of § 31-51bb. Id., 484-85. Specifically, the majority relied on the remarks of Representative Jay B. Levin that the purpose of the legislation was to codify certain United States Supreme Court decisions that had ‘‘refused to give preclusive effect to a prior arbitral decision in a subsequent court action brought to vindicate an employee's statutory rights.'' Id., 485; see also 31 H.R. Proc., Pt. 13, 1988 Sess., pp. 4565-66, remarks of Representative Jay B. Levin, citing McDonald v.West Branch, 466 U.S. 284, 104 S.Ct. 1799, 80 L.Ed.2d 302 (1984), Barrentine v.Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), and Alexander v.Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Relying on the reasoning of these cases, the majority in Genovese further observed that ‘‘[a]n arbitrator's frame of reference . . . may be narrower than is necessary to resolve [a statutory] dispute because the arbitrator's power is . . . limited by . . . the collective bargaining agreement and the submission of the parties''; Genovese v.Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., supra, 226 Conn. 486-87; employees are represented by their union during grievance procedures, the union's interests may conflict with an employee's interests; id., 488; and ‘‘arbitration may be a less effective forum for the final resolution of statutory ...


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