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Metropolitan District v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

March 27, 2018

THE METROPOLITAN DISTRICT
v.
COMMISSION ONHUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES

          Argued November 30, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action seeking, inter alia, a judgment declaring that the defendant Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities had engaged in improper rule making, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, where the court, Scholl, J., granted the defendant's motion to dismiss and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Jeffrey J. Mirman, with whom, on the brief, was Amy E. Markim, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Emily V. Melendez, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, was George Jepsen, attorney general, for the appellee (defendant).

          Sheldon, Elgo and Mihalakos, Js.

          OPINION

          ELGO, J.

         In this civil action, the plaintiff, The Metropolitan District, [1] appeals from the judgment of the trial court granting the motion to dismiss filed by the defendant, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (commission). On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the court improperly dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the plaintiff's failure to exhaust its administrative remedies. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The plaintiff is a municipal entity that was created in 1929 by a special act of the General Assembly ‘‘for the purpose of water supply, waste management and regional planning.'' Martel v. Metropolitan District Commission, 275 Conn. 38, 41, 881 A.2d 194 (2005); see also Rocky Hill Convalescent Hospital, Inc. v. Metropolitan District, 160 Conn. 446, 450-51, 280 A.2d 344 (1971). The commission is a state agency whose ‘‘primary role . . . is to enforce statutes barring discrimination . . . .'' Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Hartford, 138 Conn.App. 141, 144 n.2, 50 A.3d 917, cert. denied, 307 Conn. 929, 55 A.3d 570 (2012). With respect to certain nondiscrimination statutes, the legislature expressly has deemed the plaintiff ‘‘to be a state agency'' within the jurisdiction of the commission. General Statutes § 46a-68 (a).

         In late December, 2015, the plaintiff commenced this action seeking a declaratory judgment against the commission, as well as injunctive relief and a writ of mandamus. In its complaint, the plaintiff alleges that the commission, ‘‘as a matter of practice, '' assumes and retains jurisdiction over complaints without conducting a proper merit assessment review and makes improper reasonable cause determinations, in contravention of its statutory and regulatory obligations. More specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the commission routinely fails to comply with the strictures of General Statutes § 46a-83 and §§ 46a-54-42a (a) and 46a-54-49a (b) of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies.[2] By so doing, the commission allegedly has engaged in improper rulemaking and has violated the plaintiff's due process rights, as secured by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Those allegations are predicated in part on the commission's conduct in five specific proceedings in which the plaintiff was the respondent.[3] The complaint also alleges that the commission lacks jurisdiction over complaints made by independent contractors against the plaintiff.

         The request for relief in the plaintiff's complaint is primarily declaratory in nature. The plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that the commission has engaged in improper rulemaking by engaging in certain ‘‘routine practices''[4] and has ‘‘violated the procedural and substantive due process rights of the [plaintiff] by engaging in [those] practices.'' The complaint also seeks a declaratory judgment ‘‘that General Statutes § 46a-71[5] does not apply to the [plaintiff], and that the [commission] does not have jurisdiction over complaints filed by independent contractors against the [plaintiff].'' (Footnote added.)

         Apart from such declaratory relief, the complaint requests a permanent injunction ‘‘enjoining the [commission] from engaging in improper rulemaking . . . and requiring [it] to follow its statutory mandate to engage in proper merit assessment reviews, to dismiss complaints during the merit assessment review process where no reasonable cause exists, to engage in proper substantive review during the early legal intervention process, and to refrain from attempting to assume jurisdiction over matters outside the jurisdiction of the agency.''[6] The complaint further requests a writ of mandamus ordering the commission ‘‘to review all of its files regarding complaints of discriminatory employment practices since 2011'' to determine whether the commission engaged in any of the routine practices enumerated in its complaint. See footnote 4 of this opinion.

         In response, the commission filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the plaintiff's failure to exhaust its administrative remedies.[7] Following the filing of memoranda of law by the parties, the court heard argument on the motion. In its subsequent memorandum of decision, the court concluded that the plaintiff had adequate administrative remedies that it failed to exhaust prior to commencing this action. Accordingly, the court granted the motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and this appeal followed.

         As a preliminary matter, we note that ‘‘[i]n an appeal from the granting of a motion to dismiss on the ground of subject matter jurisdiction, this court's review is plenary. A determination regarding a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law. When . . . the trial court draws conclusions of law, our review is plenary and we must decide whether its conclusions are legally and logically correct and find support in the facts that appear in the record. . . . Jurisdiction of the subject matter is the power [of the court] to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong. . . . A court has subject matter jurisdiction if it has the authority to adjudicate a particular type of legal controversy.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Francis v. Chevair, 99 Conn.App. 789, 791, 916 A.2d 86, cert. denied, 283 Conn. 901, 926 A.2d 669 (2007). ‘‘When a . . . court decides a jurisdictional question raised by a pretrial motion to dismiss, it must consider the allegations of the complaint in their most favorable light. . . . In this regard, a court must take the facts to be those alleged in the complaint, including those facts necessarily implied from the allegations, construing them in a manner most favorable to the pleader.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Bellman v. West Hartford, 96 Conn.App. 387, 393, 900 A.2d 82 (2006). Further, in addition to admitting all facts well pleaded, the motion to dismiss ‘‘invokes any record that accompanies the motion, including supporting affidavits that contain undisputed facts.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Henriquez v. Allegre, 68 Conn.App. 238, 242, 789 A.2d 1142 (2002).

         This appeal concerns the proper application of the exhaustion doctrine. ‘‘The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies is well established in the jurisprudence of administrative law. . . . Under that doctrine, a trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over an action that seeks a remedy that could be provided through an administrative proceeding, unless and until that remedy has been sought in the administrative forum. . . . In the absence of exhaustion of that remedy, the action must be dismissed.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Republican Party of Connecticut v. Merrill, 307 Conn. 470, 477, 55 A.3d 251 (2012); see also Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51, 58 S.Ct. 459, 82 L.Ed. 638 (1938) (‘‘no one is entitled to judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted'').

         The exhaustion doctrine is rooted in both prudential and constitutional considerations. As our Supreme Court has explained, ‘‘separation of powers principles [underlie] the exhaustion doctrine, namely, to foster an orderly process of administrative adjudication and judicial review, offering a reviewing court the benefit of the agency's findings and conclusions. It relieves courts of the burden of prematurely deciding questions that, entrusted to an agency, may receive a satisfactory administrative disposition and avoid the need for judicial review. . . . Moreover, the exhaustion doctrine recognizes the notion, grounded in deference to [the legislature's] delegation of authority to coordinate branches of [g]overnment, that agencies, not the courts, ought to have primary responsibility for the programs that [the legislature] has charged them to administer. . . . Therefore, exhaustion of remedies serves dual functions: it protects the courts from becoming unnecessarily burdened with administrative appeals and it ensures the integrity of the agency's role in administering its statutory responsibilities.'' (Emphasis in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lopez v. Board of Education, 310 Conn. 576, 598-99, 81 A.3d 184 (2013); see also McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185, 194, 89 S.Ct. 1657, 23 L.Ed.2d 194 (1969) (exhaustion doctrine an expression of executive autonomy); American Federation of Government Employees v. Resor, 442 F.2d 993, 994 (3d Cir. 1971) (‘‘[f]or the courts to act prematurely, prior to the final decision of the appropriate administrative agency, would raise a serious question regarding the doctrine of separation of powers, and in any event would violate a [legislative] decision that the present controversy be initially considered by the [agency]''); Pet v. Dept. of Health Services, 207 Conn. 346, 351-52, 542 A.2d 672 (1988) (‘‘[A] favorable outcome [in an administrative proceeding] will render review by the court unnecessary as . . . [a] complaining party may be successful in vindicating his rights in the administrative process. If he is required to pursue his administrative remedies, the courts may never have to intervene.'' [Internal quotation marks omitted.]). Accordingly, ‘‘[i]t is a settled principle of administrative law that, if an adequate administrative remedy exists, it must be exhausted before the Superior Court will obtain jurisdiction to act in the matter.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fairchild Heights Residents Assn., Inc. v. Fairchild Heights, Inc., 310 Conn. 797, 808, 82 A.3d 602 (2014).

         I

         We first consider the question of whether administrative remedies were available to the plaintiff in the present case. In this regard, we note that the plaintiff's complaint is twofold in nature. Although it primarily complains of certain ‘‘routine practices'' allegedly engaged in by the commission, it also is predicated on the commission's conduct in five specific proceedings in which the plaintiff was the respondent. See footnote 3 of this opinion.

         With respect to the former, we note that the complaint generally alleges that the commission routinely fails to comply with certain statutory and regulatory obligations. In addition, the plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment ‘‘that [§] 46a-71 does not apply to the [plaintiff], and that the [commission] does not have jurisdiction over complaints filed by independent contractors against the [plaintiff].'' In granting the motion to dismiss, the court concluded, inter alia, that the plaintiff had ‘‘the ability to request a declaratory ruling from the commission as to the issues it raises, '' which it failed to exhaust before commencing this civil action in the Superior Court.[8] That determination merits closer scrutiny.

         The commission is a state agency governed by the provisions of the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (UAPA), General Statutes § 4-166 et seq. See Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Board of Education, 270 Conn. 665, 673, 855 A.2d 212 (2004). Pursuant to General Statutes § 4-176 (a), ‘‘[a]ny person may petition an agency, or an agency may on its own motion initiate a proceeding, for a declaratory ruling as to the validity of any regulation, or the applicability to specified circumstances of a provision of the general statutes, a regulation, or a final decision on a matter within the jurisdiction of the agency.'' If the agency issues a declaratory ruling in response to a request made pursuant to § 4-176, ‘‘[a]n aggrieved party can appeal from a declaratory ruling to the Superior Court pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183. See General Statutes §§ 4-166 (3)[9] [now (5)] and 4-176 (h).[10] In addition, if an agency declines to issue a declaratory ruling, the person who requested the ruling may bring a declaratory judgment action [in the Superior Court] pursuant to General Statutes § 4-175 (a).[11]'' (Footnotes in original.) Republican Party of Connecticut v. Merrill, supra, 307 Conn. 477-78.

         Compliance with § 4-176 is not a discretionary option for aparty such as the plaintiff, but rather is a ‘‘precondition'' to the commencement of a declaratory action in the Superior Court. Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., 315 Conn. 196, 199, 105 A.3d 210 (2014). As our Supreme Court has explained, ‘‘[i]n 1988, the legislature passed No. 88-317 of the 1988 Public Acts (P.A. 88-317), which substantially revised the UAPA. . . . The purpose of this revision, in part, was to simplify the [circumstances] that require appeal [from declaratory rulings]as oppose[d] to independent action. . . . Accordingly, the legislature subjected declaratory rulings . . . in both contested and noncontested cases, to judicial review by way of [administrative] appeal . . . and limited direct petitions to the Superior Court for declaratory judgments to those circumstances wherein the petitioner first had requested a declaratory ruling from the agency, but did not receive one.'' (Citations omitted; emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) Sastrom v. Psychiatric Security Review Board, 291 Conn. 307, 322-23, 968 A.2d 396 (2009). For that reason, the Supreme Court ‘‘repeatedly has held that when a plaintiff can obtain relief from an administrative agency by requesting a declaratory ruling pursuant to § 4-176, the failure to exhaust that remedy deprives the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction over an action challenging the legality of the agency's action.'' Republican Party of Connecticut v. Merrill, supra, 307 Conn. 478; see also Polymer Resources, Ltd. v. Keeney, 227 Conn. 545, 558, 630 A.2d 1304 (1993) (‘‘[b]ecause [the plaintiff] could have appealed to the Superior Court pursuant to § 4-183 from any adverse declaratory ruling by the commissioner . . . [it] was required to request such a declaratory ruling before seeking redress in court''); Connecticut Mobile Home Assn., Inc. v. Jensen's, Inc., 178 Conn. 586, 589-91, 424 A.2d 285 (1979) (plaintiff improperly bypassed administrative remedy by failing to seek declaratory ruling from agency prior to commencing action in Superior Court). It is undisputed that the plaintiff did not avail itself of the administrative remedy provided by § 4-176 prior to commencing this declaratory action.

         Whether the plaintiff properly was entitled to avail itself of that administrative remedy is another question. While the essence of the plaintiff's complaint is that the commission allegedly has failed, as a matter of practice, to comply with certain statutory and regulatory obligations, the complaint also is predicated on the commission's conduct in five specific proceedings before the commission in which the plaintiff was the respondent. The inclusion of such allegations requires us to consider whether the pendency of any of those proceedings precluded resort to the avenues of declaratory relief afforded under §§ 4-175 and 4-176, in light of our Supreme Court's decision in Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., supra, 315 Conn. 196.

         The plaintiffs in that case were insurance producers that were licensees of the defendant administrative agency. Id., 200-201. When an insurance company notified the agency that it was terminating the plaintiffs as its agents due to their ‘‘alleged misconduct while selling life insurance policies, '' the agency began an investigation of the plaintiffs to determine whether they had violated any state insurance laws. Id., 201. During the course of that investigation, the agency issued ‘‘ ‘second chance' '' notices to the plaintiffs ‘‘informing them of the allegations and offering them an opportunity to show their compliance with the law in order to retain their licenses.'' Id.

         While that investigation was pending, the plaintiffs filed a petition for a declaratory ruling pursuant to § 4-176 with the agency, [12] which took no action thereon. Id., 202-203. After sixty days had passed, the plaintiffs brought a declaratory action in the Superior Court pursuant to § 4-175. Id., 203. Because the agency at that time was engaged in an investigation of the plaintiffs, the trial court concluded that the investigation constituted a pending ‘‘ ‘agency proceeding' '' under the UAPA. Id., 204. The court therefore ‘‘rejected the plaintiffs' claim that §§ 4-175 and 4-176 authorized them to use the declaratory judgment procedure to bypass the [agency's] pending administrative process'' and dismissed the matter for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to the plaintiffs' failure to exhaust their administrative remedies. Id., 204-205.

         On appeal, the Supreme Court addressed, as a matter of first impression, the issue of ‘‘whether the declaratory ruling and judgment procedures [set forth in §§ 4-175 and 4-176] are available when an agency proceeding, such as an investigation, is already pending with respect to the conduct at issue.'' Id., 211; see also id., 215 n.15. The court answered that query in the negative, stating that ‘‘[t]he utility of that statutory procedure is . . . largely vitiated if agency proceedings have already been commenced with respect to the same conduct that forms the basis for the petition for declaratory relief. An administrative proceeding affords its subject numerous potential remedies including . . . judicial relief in an administrative appeal pursuant to § 4-183 from the final agency decision against them. . . . Thus, once an administrative proceeding has commenced, the prudential concerns underlying the exhaustion doctrine counsel against permitting parties to pursue a judicial remedy such as a declaratory judgment.'' Id., 214-15. The court further noted authority from sister states that ‘‘supports the position . . . that the declaratory judgment procedures under §§ 4-175 and 4-176 may not be used to bypass a party's obligation to exhaust its remedies in the context of a pending administrative proceeding.'' Id., 215-16. The court nevertheless held that, because the agency had ‘‘not yet instituted formal license revocation proceedings'' against the plaintiffs; id., 221; the trial court had ‘‘improperly dismissed this declaratory judgment action on the ground that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.'' Id., 222.

         In so doing, the court in Financial Consulting, LLC, distinguished those proceedings before the defendant Commissioner of Insurance from investigatory proceedings before the commission, stating that ‘‘in contrast to the relatively informal second chance process that is a precursor to license revocation proceedings [before the Commissioner of Insurance, proceedings before the commission] involve formal agency proceedings . . . .'' Id., 222 n.21. That distinction is consistent with Greater Bridgeport Transit District v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 211 Conn. 129, 131, 557 A.2d 925 (1989), which recognized that the commission's ‘‘investigation of a complaint of employment discrimination''; id., 133; constituted a pending administrative proceeding that required exhaustion prior to ‘‘a judicial challenge'' to the commission's actions. Id., 131; see also id. (‘‘we have recognized the delay and disruption in the administrative process that would result from judicial interference with statutorily authorized administrative investigations intended to determine whether there is a factual basis for the initiation of formal proceedings''); Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Archdiocesan School Office, 202 Conn. 601, 605, 608, 522 A.2d 781 (holding that respondent in pending commission proceeding could not raise issues in Superior Court proceeding challenging administrative action because ‘‘the investigatory stage'' had not concluded and stating that ‘‘the [commission's] investigation may not be forestalled at this point in the proceeding simply because [constitutional] issues may later be raised if the outcome of the investigatory process is adverse to the defendants''), appeal dismissed, 484 U.S. 805, 108 S.Ct. 51, 98 L.Ed.2d 15 (1987).

         In accordance with the foregoing, we must examine the record to determine (1) whether any of the five proceedings before the commission detailed in the plaintiff's complaint were pending at the time that this action was commenced and (2) if so, whether the proceeding concerns ‘‘the same conduct that forms the basis for the petition for declaratory relief.'' Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., supra, 315 Conn. 214. At oral argument before the trial court on the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff's counsel conceded that the Dixon and Smith matters; see footnote 3 of this opinion; were not pending.[13] Nevertheless, the commission, in its motion to dismiss, acknowledged that the other three proceedings, identified as Sotil v. Metropolitan District Commission, Cipes v. Metropolitan District Commission, and Wills v. Metropolitan District Commission, in the plaintiff's complaint, were ‘‘currently pending'' before the commission.

         Guided by the precedent of our Supreme Court in Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., supra, 315 Conn. 214, we therefore look to whether any of those three proceedings concern the same conduct that forms the basis for the present declaratory action. In this regard, we are mindful of the procedural posture of this case, in which the court, in considering the merits of a motion to dismiss, must construe the allegations of the complaint in the light most favorable to the pleader. Wilkins v. Connecticut Childbirth & Women's Center, 314 Conn. 709, 718, 104 A.3d 671 (2014).

         So construed, the plaintiff's complaint indicates that the Sotil matter involves the same conduct complained of in this civil action-namely, the commission's alleged noncompliance with its statutory and regulatory obligations, and its jurisdiction over complaints filed by independent contractors against the plaintiff.[14] The parties have not argued otherwise in this appeal. In addition, both the commission and the plaintiff, in their respective memoranda of law submitted on the motion to dismiss, appended various documents regarding the Sotil matter that plainly evince a dispute as to whether the commission had improperly retained jurisdiction over the matter, as the plaintiff alleges in its complaint.[15]The plaintiff's complaint also indicates that although ‘‘[i]n the position statement filed on September 29, 2015, in connection with the Sotil case . . . counsel for the [plaintiff] advised the [commission], inter alia, that (1) all of the claims were filed beyond the 180 day limitation period and are time barred, and (2) that the [commission] is without jurisdiction over those claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. [§] 1981, '' the commission refused to address those jurisdictional issues. The complaint likewise alleges that the Cipes matter involves the issue of whether the complainant was an independent contractor over which the commission had jurisdiction, while the Wills matter pertains to whether the commission improperly had retained jurisdiction over an untimely complaint. Like the plaintiffs in Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., supra, 315 Conn. 202-203, the plaintiff here was a respondent in administrative agency proceedings that concerned the very issues on which it sought declaratory relief.

         The existence of those pending administrative proceedings, which concern the same conduct that forms the basis for the plaintiff's request for declaratory relief, precluded the plaintiff from seeking such relief pursuant to §§ 4-175 and 4-176. As our Supreme Court observed, those declaratory judgment procedures, which are the only statutory mechanisms by which a party to an administrative proceeding may bring a direct petition for declaratory relief to the Superior Court; Sastrom v. Psychiatric Security Review Board, supra, 291 Conn. 322; ‘‘may not be used to bypass a party's obligation to exhaust its remedies in the context of a pending administrative proceeding.''[16] Financial Consulting, LLC v. Commissioner of Ins., supra, 315 Conn. 216. If resort to the declaratory relief afforded by §§ 4-175 and 4-176 is foreclosed due to the pendency of the aforementioned administrative proceedings identified in the plaintiff's complaint, logic dictates that declaratory relief via an independent civil action in the Superior Court likewise is foreclosed. To conclude otherwise would run afoul of both the prudential and the constitutional underpinnings of the exhaustion doctrine.

         Pursuant to that doctrine, the plaintiff was required to exhaust its remedies in those pending administrative proceedings. Should the plaintiff prevail therein, unnecessary judicial intervention would be averted, consistent with the well recognized principle that ‘‘whenever possible, courts will stay their hand with respect to addressing matters that are within the cognizance of administrative agencies.'' Id., 212. If the plaintiff does not prevail, it nevertheless would have ‘‘access to an administrative remedy''; id., 207; in the form of an administrative appeal pursuant to § 4-183.

         As our Supreme Court has observed, ‘‘§ 4-183[17] provides the proper avenue for reviewing an agency's actions. . . . Not only does that statute provide a right of appeal from a final agency decision by an aggrieved party, but it also includes an immediate right to appeal from an adverse preliminary ruling if review of the final agency decision would not provide an adequate remedy.[18] Moreover, the statutory framework includes a means of staying an agency decision pending appeal.[19]. . . Thus, a potentially aggrieved party is well protected by statute.''[20] (Citation omitted; footnotes added.) Pet v. Dept. of Health Services, supra, 207 Conn. 352. In commencing this civil action while the Sotil, Cipes, and Wills matters remained pending before the commission, the plaintiff, to paraphrase our Supreme Court, chose not to avail itself of the safeguards afforded by § 4-183. See id.

         In its memorandum of decision, the trial court concluded that ‘‘[i]t is clear to the court that all the issues raised by the [plaintiff] can be litigated and resolved in the context of the [pending commission] proceedings, and, if the [plaintiff] is unsuccessful, can be appealed to the court or be the subject of a petition for a declaratory ruling to [the commission].'' We agree with that assessment. If the plaintiff does not prevail in the pending Sotil, Cipes, and Wills matters, it may bring an administrative appeal-interlocutory if necessary-before the Superior Court pursuant to § 4-183. If the plaintiff ultimately prevails in the Sotil, Cipes, and Wills matters, its interests ostensibly will be vindicated, but to the extent that any issues remain following the culmination of those proceedings, the plaintiff then properly may seek declaratory relief as provided by §§ 4-175 and 4-176. In light of the pendency of the Sotil, Cipes, and Wills proceedings before the commission, we conclude that administrative remedies were available to the plaintiff that it was required to exhaust, including an appeal pursuant to § 4-183, rather than commencing an independent civil action for declaratory relief in the Superior Court.[21] See Housing Authority v.Papandrea, 222 ...


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