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Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman

Supreme Court of Connecticut

April 17, 2018

MEADOWBROOK CENTER, INC.
v.
ROBERT BUCHMAN

          Argued November 17, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for, inter alia, breach of contract, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, and tried to the court, Hon. Robert J. Hale, judge trial referee, who, exercising the powers of the Superior Court, rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff, from which the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, Gruendel, Bear and Schaller, Js., which reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the case with direction to render judgment in favor of the defendant; thereafter, the court, Robaina, J., rendered judgment for the defendant; subsequently, the court, Wahla, J., rendered judgment denying the defendant's motion for attorney's fees and costs, from which the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, Lavine, Mullins and Bishop, Js., which reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings, and the plaintiff, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Daniel J. Klau, with whom was Edward M. Rosenthal, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Juri E. Taalman, with whom, on the brief, was Timothy Brignole, for the appellee (defendant).

          McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria, Kahn and DiPentima, Js.

          OPINION

          ROBINSON, J.

         The principal issue in this certified appeal is whether the thirty day deadline provided by Practice Book § 11-21, [1] which governs motions for attorney's fees, is directory rather than mandatory, thus affording a trial court discretion to entertain untimely motions. The plaintiff, Meadowbrook Center, Inc., a nursing facility, appeals, upon our grant of its petition for certification, [2] from the judgment of the Appellate Court reversing the judgment of the trial court, which denied as untimely a motion filed by the defendant, Robert Buchman, seeking an award of attorney's fees pursuant to General Statutes § 42-150bb.[3] Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, 169 Conn.App. 527, 529, 151 A.3d 404 (2016). On appeal, the plaintiff claims that (1) the thirty day deadline provided by Practice Book § 11-21 is mandatory and that, therefore, the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court was required to exercise discretion in deciding whether to entertain the defendant's untimely motion, and (2) even if the trial court had discretion to entertain an untimely motion for attorney's fees, the defendant's motion in the present case was barred as a matter of law. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The Appellate Court's opinion sets forth the following undisputed facts and procedural history relevant to our consideration of the issues presented in this appeal. ‘‘The plaintiff . . . brought an action against the defendant based on contract and promissory estoppel relating to its care of the defendant's mother. The admission agreement executed by the plaintiff and the defendant, as a responsible party, contained a clause providing for the responsible party to pay the cost of collection, including reasonable attorney's fees, in the event an overdue account is referred to an agency or attorney for collection. Following atrial to the court, Hon. Robert J. Hale, judge trial referee, judgment was rendered for the plaintiff in the sum of $47, 561.15 with attorney's fees to be decided postjudgment.

         ‘‘On appeal, however, [the Appellate Court] reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court with direction to render judgment in favor of the defendant. Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, 149 Conn.App. 177, 212, 90 A.3d 219 (2014). The order from [the Appellate Court] was dated April 8, 2014. Thereafter, on April 30, 2014, the court, Robaina, J., rendered judgment for the defendant. The defendant then submitted a bill of costs on May 16, 2014, and, on June 4, 2014, the thirty-fifth day after judgment, the defendant filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs. On January 29, 2015, the court, Wahla, J., conducted a hearing on the defendant's motion in which he claimed attorney's fees of $74, 918.70 and costs of $1337.38. On April 7, 2015, the court issued its decision denying the defendant's motion for attorney's fees on the basis that the motion was not timely. Rejecting the defendant's argument that attorney's fees pursuant to § 42-150bb are a component of damages and, therefore, not subject to the time limits of Practice Book § 11-21, the court stated: ‘Because I conclude that attorney's fees were not a component of damages, the defendant's motion for attorney's fees and costs [is] not timely, hence I am constrained to agree with the plaintiff. The defendant's motion is hereby denied.'

         ‘‘Following the court's ruling, the defendant filed a motion for reconsideration and reargument on April 17, 2015. In this motion, the defendant argued, inter alia, that the court incorrectly had failed to rule whether the time limit set forth in Practice Book § 11-21 is mandatory or directory. The defendant alleged that he had raised this issue in his memorandum of law in support of attorney's fees and at the hearing on his motion. In response, the plaintiff urged the court [not to] consider the defendant's motion as ‘the defendant wants to rehash the same arguments that he already made which were unpersuasive.' By order dated May 12, 2015, Judge Wahla denied the defendant's motion for reconsideration and reargument without comment.'' Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, supra, 169 Conn.App. 529-30.

         The defendant appealed from the judgment of the trial court denying his motion for attorney's fees to the Appellate Court, claiming that the deadline contained in Practice Book § 11-21 ‘‘was directory and, therefore, the [trial] court should have exercised its discretion to permit a filing that was five days late'' and that, ultimately, the trial court ‘‘should have awarded attorney's fees in light of the mandate of § 42-150bb and the fact that the defendant's delay in filing was reasonable and minimal.'' Id., 531. Guided by this court's interpretation of Practice Book § 2-47 (a), which concerns the scheduling of attorney grievance hearings, in Statewide Grievance Committee v. Rozbicki, 219 Conn. 473, 595 A.2d 819 (1991), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1094, 112 S.Ct. 1170, 117 L.Ed.2d 416 (1992), the Appellate Court determined that ‘‘the purpose of the timing provision in Practice Book § 11-21 is procedural and intended to facilitate the progress of the case since the timing of such a motion does not go to the essence of the right to reasonable attorney's fees. Second, the purpose of the timing provision in [Practice Book] § 11-21 is to avoid a long period of delay between judgment and a request for attorney's fees.

         ‘‘In light of the public policy of § 42-150bb to balance the equities between commercial contractors and consumers, the mandate of the statute that attorney's fees be awarded to a consumer who successfully defends a consumer contract claim, we conclude that the timing provision of Practice Book § 11-21 is directory and not mandatory. To hold to the contrary would rigidly exalt form over substance and, in the case of a minor failure to adhere to the rule's timing requirement, would prevent the court from fulfilling the public policy driven mandate of the statute.'' (Footnote omitted.) Mead-owbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, supra, 169 Conn.App. 538. The Appellate Court then concluded that the trial court had improperly failed to ‘‘exercise its discretion to determine whether strict adherence to the [thirty day deadline set forth in Practice Book § 11-21] would ‘work surprise or injustice.' Practice Book § 1-8.'' Mead-owbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, supra, 169 Conn.App. 540. Accordingly, the Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case ‘‘with direction to conduct a hearing on the defendant's motion for attorney's fees . . . .'' Id. This certified appeal followed. See footnote 2 of this opinion.

         On appeal, the plaintiff claims that (1) the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the thirty day deadline set forth in Practice Book § 11-21 is directory, and (2) even if that deadline is directory, remand to the trial court is not necessary in the present ...


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