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Harnage v. Lightner

Supreme Court of Connecticut

March 6, 2018

JAMES A. HARNAGE
v.
RACQUEL LIGHTNER ET AL.

          Argued November 15, 2017

          James A. Harnage, self-represented, the appellant (plaintiff).

          Michael A. Martone, assistant attorney general, with whom were Steven R. Strom, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, and Terrence M. O'Neill, assistant attorney general, for the appellees (defendants).

          Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, Mullins and Kahn, Js.

          OPINION

          PER CURIAM.

         The self-represented plaintiff, James A. Harnage, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court; see Harnage v. Lightner, 163 Conn.App. 337, 362, 137 A.3d 10 (2016); affirming the judgment of the trial court, which dismissed his action against the defendant state employees[1] in their individual capacities for lack of personal jurisdiction due to insufficient service of process. We granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to appeal, limited to the following question: ‘‘Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that the plaintiff's action against the defendants in their individual capacities properly was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction?'' Harnage v. Lightner, 323 Conn. 902, 150 A.3d 683 (2016). We answer the certified question in the affirmative.

         The following undisputed facts and procedural history are set forth in the opinion of the Appellate Court. ‘‘The plaintiff is incarcerated at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. On February 11, 2014, the trial court found that the plaintiff was indigent and granted him a fee waiver for the entry fee, the filing fee, and the cost of service of process. The plaintiff then initiated this action against the defendants, in their official and individual capacities, [2] alleging that [they] had violated his constitutional rights because they were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. The plaintiff claimed, inter alia, that the defendants reused needles when administering insulin medication to inmates with diabetes . . . [and] refused to provide him with medical treatment for a serious hemorrhoid and an abdominal hernia.

         ‘‘On March 5, 2014, the plaintiff attempted to serve the defendants by leaving a copy of the writ of summons . . . and [the] complaint with the attorney general or his designee at the Office of the Attorney General. On or about April 15, 2014, the defendants mailed a letter to the plaintiff, requesting that he post a recognizance bond in the amount of $250 within ten days [in accordance with the provisions of General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) §§ 52-185[3] and 52-186].[4] That same day, the defendants also filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against the defendants in their individual capacities for lack of personal jurisdiction due to insufficient service of process, and against the defendants in their official capacities because the plaintiff had failed to post a recognizance bond.

         ‘‘The plaintiff subsequently filed an objection to the defendants' motion to dismiss. In his objection, the plaintiff argued that he had properly served the defendants in their individual capacities by leaving a copy of the process with the attorney general at the Office of the Attorney General in [the city of] Hartford. Furthermore, he claimed that the requirement of posting a recognizance bond pursuant to § 52-185 and Practice Book § 8-3 did not apply to him, and, even if it did, the amount of the recognizance bond was in the court's discretion and should be limited to the nominal amount of one dollar, which, in essence, is a request for a waiver.

         ‘‘On June 30, 2014, the court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss in part. Specifically, the court granted the motion to dismiss the claims against the defendants in their individual capacities because the plaintiff failed to properly serve the defendants in their individual capacities pursuant to [General Statutes] § 52-57 (a).[5]The court also ordered the plaintiff to post a recognizance bond in the amount of $250 within two weeks or it would dismiss the case in its entirety upon reclaim of the motion. Because the plaintiff could not afford to post the $250 recognizance bond and desired to appeal from the court's decision, on November 10, 2014, he filed a motion for judgment, which the court subsequently granted.'' Harnage v. Lightner, supra, 163 Conn.App. 340-42.

         The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court from the judgment of the trial court, claiming, first, that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the plaintiff had failed to properly serve the defendants in their individual capacities and, second, that the trial court improperly granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the claims brought against them in their official capacities due to the plaintiff's failure to post a recognizance bond. Id., 342, 347. With respect to his first claim, the plaintiff maintained that, ‘‘in a civil action against state employees in their individual capacities, [General Statutes] § 52-64 (a)[6] permits service of process to be made by a proper officer leaving a copy of process with the attorney general at the Office of the Attorney General in Hartford.'' Id., 342. The plaintiff also contended that ‘‘§ 52-57 (a) does not require him to serve the defendants in hand or at their place of abode because the phrase, ‘[e]xcept as otherwise provided, ' contained in § 52-57 (a), is a reference to § 52-64.'' Id. With respect to his second claim, the plaintiff claimed that, because of his indigency and status as an inmate, ‘‘the recognizance bond requirement does not apply to him, or, if it does, it is unconstitutional because it deprives him of his rights to due process and equal protection of the law under the federal constitution.'' Id., 347. Regarding his constitutional claim, the plaintiff argued, more specifically, that the recognizance bond requirement ‘‘is unconstitutional, as applied to him, an indigent inmate, because it denies him his fundamental right of access to the courts, particularly his right to challenge the conditions of his confinement.'' Id., 352.

         The Appellate Court rejected the plaintiff's first claim, explaining that it was foreclosed by well established precedent holding ‘‘that a plaintiff, who serves a state defendant pursuant to § 52-64 (a) by leaving a copy of the process with the attorney general at the Office of the Attorney General, has properly served the defendant only in his or her official capacity and has failed to properly serve the defendant in his or her individual capacity.'' Id., 344-45. The Appellate Court further explained that the plaintiff also could not prevail under § 52-57 (a), which provides that, ‘‘[e]xcept as otherwise provided, process in any civil action shall be served by leaving a true and attested copy of it, including the declaration or complaint, with the defendant, or at his usual place of abode, in this state.'' As the Appellate Court noted, subsections (b) through (f) of § 52-57 ‘‘specifically [enumerate] exceptions to subsection (a), none of which provide[s] that it is permissible to serve process in cases against state employees in their individual capacities by leaving a copy of the process with the attorney general at the Office of the Attorney General. Thus, the legislature's use of the phrase, ‘[e]xcept as otherwise provided, ' does not advance the plaintiff's claim because he has failed to identify any applicable statutory exception to § 52-57 (a).'' Id., 346.

         With respect to the plaintiff's second contention, the Appellate Court determined that the plaintiff's failure to post a recognizance bond in accordance with §§ 52-185 and 52-186 did not necessarily require dismissal of his claims against the defendants in their official capacities. See id., 362. Although concluding that the recognizance bond provisions applied to the plaintiff; id., 347; the Appellate Court also observed that the plaintiff had raised ‘‘valid constitutional concerns regarding the recognizance bond requirement as applied to him, an indigent inmate''; id., 354; because ‘‘[p]risoners possess a right of access not only to pursue appeals from criminal convictions or to bring a habeas action, but also to assert civil rights actions to vindicate their basic constitutional rights, including challenging the conditions of their confinement under the eighth [and fourteenth] amendment[s] to the federal constitution.'' Id., 354. To alleviate these constitutional concerns, the Appellate Court placed an interpretative gloss on §§ 52-185 and 52-186 as authorizing a trial court to waive or significantly reduce a party's obligation to post a recognizance bond in light of that party's indigency and, as in the present case, status as an inmate. See id., 359. The Appellate Court therefore reversed the trial court's judgment insofar as the plaintiff's action against the defendants in their official capacities was dismissed and remanded the case for a hearing on the issue of whether the plaintiff is entitled to a waiver of the recognizance bond requirement. Id., 362.

         We granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to appeal solely on the issue of whether the Appellate Court correctly concluded that the trial court properly had dismissed the plaintiff's action against the defendants in their individual capacities for lack of personal jurisdiction. Harnage v. Lightner, supra, 323 Conn. 902. Having examined the record on appeal and reviewed the parties' briefs and arguments, we conclude that the issue on which we granted certification was fully considered and properly resolved against the plaintiff in the thorough and well reasoned opinion of the Appellate Court. It would serve no useful purpose for us to repeat the discussion contained ...


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