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Williams v. City of New Haven

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 3, 2018

SIMON WILLIAMS
v.
CITY OF NEW HAVEN ET AL.

          Argued February 20, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District denying the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim, brought to the Compensation Review Board, which affirmed the commissioner's decision, and the defendants appealed. Affirmed.

          Anne Kelly Zovas, with whom was Philip T. Markus-zka, for the appellants (defendants).

          William J. Ward, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Palmer, Robinson, D'Auria, Mullins and Kahn, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          D'AURIA, J.

         In Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., 226 Conn. 475, 493, 628 A.2d 946 (1993), this court held that, under General Statutes § 31-51bb, principles of collateral estoppel do not bar a claimant, who had previously brought a grievance pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, from bringing a statutory cause of action in the Superior Court raising the same or a similar issue. We recently affirmed this holding in Spiotti v. Wolcott, 326 Conn. 190, 199-200, 163 A.3d 46 (2017). In the present case, we are asked to determine whether our holding in Genovese, in which the plaintiff brought an action in the Superior Court pursuant to General Statutes § 31-290a, applies equally when a plaintiff has opted to bring his claim pursuant to § 31-290a before the Workers' Compensation Commission (commission). Specifically, we must determine whether the Compensation Review Board (review board) correctly determined that§ 31-51bb permitted the plaintiff, Simon Williams, to file a claim with the commission alleging that the named defendant, the city of New Haven, [1] had violated § 31-290a by wrongfully terminating his employment in retaliation for bringing a workers' compensation claim, despite the fact that a related issue previously had been decided by the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration (state board) in an arbitration proceeding brought pursuant to the plaintiff's collective bargaining agreement. We conclude that the review board correctly determined that, under § 31-51bb, the plaintiff's claim brought before the commission pursuant to § 31-290a was not barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Accordingly, we affirm the review board's decision.

         The record reveals the following procedural history and facts that either were found by the review board, the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District (commissioner), or are not disputed. The plaintiff was employed by the city in its refuse division from 1993 until his employment was terminated on November 1, 2012. In January, 2011, the plaintiff injured his left shoulder, neck and back during the course of his employment. Patrick Ruwe, a physician, treated the plaintiff for his shoulder injury, and Shirvinda Wijesekera, also a physician, treated him for his neck and back injuries. On January 19, 2012, Ruwe released the plaintiff for light duty work for eight hours each day effective January 23, 2012.

         Pursuant to the city's policy of returning injured employees to work as soon as medically reasonable, the city informed the plaintiff that he was assigned to light duty work at the city's fleet maintenance division. His hours were 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and his work consisted of transferring handwritten work orders to a computerized database. Upon returning to work, the plaintiff requested that his hours be changed to the hours that he had worked before his injury, 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., because the new schedule interfered with his second job. John Prokop, the city's director of public works, explained to the plaintiff that the city could not accommodate that request because the location of the plaintiff's light duty assignment did not open until 7 a.m., and the city did not want the plaintiff to work unsupervised.

         Upon being informed of this, the plaintiff, later that same day, called Ruwe's office and spoke to his secretary. As a result of this conversation, Ruwe revised his work status report to restrict the plaintiff's hours to four to five hours of work per day. Shortly thereafter, Prokop called Ruwe's office and asked why the plaintiff's hours had been changed just days after he had returned to work. Ruwe then conducted a follow-up examination of the plaintiff and issued a work release form indicating that he had executed the previous form, which restricted the plaintiff's work to four to five hours per day, in order to accommodate the plaintiff's desire to perform his second job and that Ruwe was now lifting that restriction.

         The city subsequently filed with the commission a notice of intent to reduce or discontinue the plaintiff's workers' compensation benefits and initiated an investigation of the matter. During the course of the investigation, the plaintiff and Ruwe were deposed. Ruwe testified at his deposition that he had reduced the plaintiff's work hours to accommodate the plaintiff's desire to perform his second job and that there was no medical reason for the restriction. Thereafter, the commissioner granted the city's request to reduce the plaintiff's workers' compensation benefits for the period of January 19 through May 22, 2012.

         After giving the plaintiff notice of its intent to do so, the city conducted a pretermination hearing to determine whether the plaintiff's employment should be terminated because he had committed workers' compensation fraud. The city subsequently notified the plaintiff that his employment was being terminated. The plaintiff's union, the United Public Service Employees Union, Local 424, Unit 34 (union), then filed a grievance pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union, claiming that the plaintiff had been fired without just cause. The parties agreed to bypass the grievance procedure and to proceed directly to arbitration before the state board, as authorized by the collective bargaining agreement. After conducting evidentiary hearings, the state board issued an award in favor of the city, concluding that it had just cause to terminate the plaintiff because his receipt of workers' compensation benefits was ‘‘the result of the [plaintiff's] intentional deceit'' and his conduct ‘‘amounted to theft . . . .'' The state board noted that, as defined in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (2d Ed. 1987) p. 762, ‘‘fraud'' means, among other things, ‘‘deceit, trickery, sharp practice, or breach of confidence, perpetrated for profit or to gain some unfair or dishonest advantage.''

         The plaintiff then filed an application to vacate the arbitration award pursuant to General Statutes § 52-418 (a) (4). The trial court observed that, because the submission to arbitration was unrestricted, the court's review was limited to determining whether ‘‘(1) the award fail[ed] to conform to the submission, or, in other words, [fell] outside the scope of the submission; or (2) the arbitrators manifestly disregarded the law.'' Harty v.Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., 275 Conn. 72, 85, 881 A.2d 139 (2005). The court ...


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