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Trinity Christian School v. Commission On Human Rights and Opportunities

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 7, 2018

TRINITY CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
v.
COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES ET AL.

          Argued November 17, 2017

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision of the named defendant denying the plaintiff's motion to dismiss an employment discrimination complaint, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the court, Schuman, J., granted the named defendant's motion to dismiss and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiff appealed. Affirmed.

          Matthew S. Carlone, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Michael E. Roberts, human rights attorney, for the appellee (named defendant).

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

          OPINION

          PALMER, J.

         The plaintiff, Trinity Christian School, appeals from the judgment of the trial court, which dismissed the plaintiff's administrative appeal from the decision of the named defendant, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (commission), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The commission had denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss an employment discrimination complaint brought by a former female employee, [1] who claims that the plaintiff unlawfully terminated her employment on the basis of her sex, marital status and pregnancy, in violation of state and federal employment discrimination laws. The plaintiff appealed from that decision to the Superior Court, claiming that court had jurisdiction to entertain the plaintiff's interlocutory appeal because General Statutes § 52-571b (d), [2] which bars the state from burdening any religious belief, immunizes religious institutions, such as the plaintiff, from employment discrimination actions, and, therefore, the plaintiff was entitled to appeal from that decision under the immunity exception to the general prohibition against such interlocutory appeals. The trial court disagreed, concluding that § 52-571b (d) is not an immunity provision, and, as a consequence, the commission's denial of the plaintiff's motion to dismiss is not an immediately appealable order. The trial court therefore granted the commission's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's administrative appeal. On appeal to this court, [3] the plaintiff raises the same jurisdictional claim that it asserted in the trial court. We agree with the reasoning and conclusion of the trial court, and, therefore, we affirm its judgment dismissing the plaintiff's appeal.

         The following undisputed facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. The plaintiff is a religious school located in the town of Windsor. On April 19, 2011, a former female employee filed a complaint with the commission, alleging that the plaintiff had terminated her employment on the basis of her sex, marital status and pregnancy, in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, General Statutes §§ 46a-58 and 46a-60 (a) (1) and (7), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. (2012). The plaintiff subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it was immune from employment discrimination actions under the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, which is grounded in the first amendment to the United States constitution and ‘‘requires secular institutions to defer to the decisions of religious institutions in their employment relations with their religious employees'' because ‘‘administrative and judicial intervention in religious employment relationships would violate the constitutional prohibition against civil entanglement in ecclesiastic disputes.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, 301 Conn. 759, 777, 23 A.3d 1192 (2011).

         The commission denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the complaint, and the plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court. The commission moved to dismiss the plaintiff's appeal on the ground that the commission's denial of the plaintiff's motion to dismiss was not an immediately appealable order under Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171, 132 S.Ct. 694, 181 L.Ed.2d 650 (2012) (Hosanna-Tabor), a then recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in which the court held that the ministerial exception ‘‘operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable claim, not a jurisdictional bar [to such a claim] . . . because the issue presented by the exception is whether the allegations the plaintiff makes entitle him to relief, not whether the court has [the] power to hear [the] case, '' and trial courts ‘‘have power to consider [employment discrimination] claims . . . and to decide whether [such] claim[s] can proceed or [are] instead barred by the ministerial exception.''[4](Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 195 n.4. The trial court agreed that Hosanna-Tabor was controlling of the plaintiff's appeal and granted the commission's motion to dismiss for lack of a final judgment.

         Upon returning to the commission, the plaintiff filed a second motion to dismiss, this time asserting that religious institutions are immune from employment discrimination complaints under § 52-571b (d) and that, as a consequence, the commission lacked jurisdiction over the former employee's complaint. The commission disagreed and denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the complaint, and the plaintiff again appealed to the Superior Court. The commission once again moved to dismiss the plaintiff's appeal, claiming that § 52-571b (d) is not an immunity statute and, therefore, that the commission's denial of the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the employment discrimination complaint was not an immediately appealable interlocutory order under General Statutes § 4-183 (b).[5] The trial court agreed with the commission and granted its motion to dismiss the plaintiff's appeal. In so doing, the trial court explained that § 52-571b was enacted in 1993 in response to Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990), in which the United States Supreme Court held that the compelling governmental interest test that previously had been applied to governmental burdens on the free exercise of religion; see, e.g., Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 403, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963); did not apply to burdens that result from the enforcement of generally applicable laws.[6] See Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith, supra, 882-89. The court in Smith reasoned, rather, that ‘‘the sounder approach, and the approach in accord with the vast majority of [United States Supreme Court] precedents, is to hold the [compelling governmental interest] test inapplicable to such challenges. . . . To make an individual's obligation to obey . . . a law contingent [on] the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except [when] the [s]tate's interest is compelling-permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, to become a law unto himself . . . contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 885.

         The trial court further explained that, following Smith, the legislature enacted § 52-571b to ensure greater protection for the free exercise of religion under state law than is provided under the federal constitution in the aftermath of Smith. To that end, the court explained that ‘‘subsections (a) and (b) [of § 52-571b provide] that, even in the case of a rule of general applicability, the compelling state interest test applies before the state can burden the exercise of religion. Subsection (c) essentially provides that, unless the state can meet the compelling state interest test, a person may assert a violation of his or her exercise of religion in a ‘claim or defense' against the state.'' The trial court further explained, however, that subsection (d) of § 52-571b, which provides that ‘‘[n]othing in this section shall be construed to authorize the state or any political subdivision of the state to burden any religious belief, '' was merely intended to clarify that the compelling governmental interest test applied to governmental burdens on the free exercise of religion was not intended to apply to governmental burdens on religious beliefs such that, ‘‘in theory, even a compelling state interest such as the prevention of discrimination in employment cannot overcome [a religious institution's] reliance on the ministerial exception [as an affirmative defense to an employment discrimination action brought by one of its ministers or clergy].''

         The trial court therefore concluded that § 52-571b (d), as evidenced by its plain and unambiguous terms, operates as a rule of construction rather than a grant of immunity-the effect of which was to retain ‘‘the ministerial exception [as] an affirmative defense, as provided by Hosanna-Tabor, but one . . . not subject to offset by a compelling governmental interest.'' In reaching its conclusion, the trial court emphasized that statutes purporting to confer immunity from suit must be strictly construed. In this regard, the court observed that there was nothing in the language of subsection (d) that reasonably could be construed as conferring immunity on the plaintiff. On the contrary, the court explained, ‘‘[t]he language of [subsection] (d) stands in stark contrast to the [language of] many other statutes in the same title . . . that do confer statutory immunity. This language usually takes the form of ‘shall not be liable,' ‘no action may be brought,' or ‘shall be immune from civil liability.' '' Accordingly, the trial court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to make a colorable claim of immunity under § 52-571b (d), and, as a result, the commission's denial of the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the employment discrimination complaint was not an immediately appealable order. On appeal to this court from the judgment of the trial court dismissing its appeal, the plaintiff renews its claim that § 52-571b (d) confers on religious institutions immunity from employment discrimination actions. We reject the plaintiff's claim for the reasons set forth by the trial court.

         ‘‘As a threshold matter, we address our standard of review. We have long held that because [a] determination regarding a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, our review is plenary. . . . A brief overview of the statutory scheme that governs administrative appeals . . . is necessary to our resolution of this issue. There is no absolute right of appeal to the courts from a decision of an administrative agency. . . . Appeals to the courts from administrative [agencies] exist only under statutory authority . . . . Appellate jurisdiction is derived from the . . . statutory provisions by which it is created, and can be acquired and exercised only in the manner prescribed. . . . In the absence of statutory authority, therefore, there is no right of appeal from [an agency's] decision . . . .'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Nine State Street, LLC v. Planning & Zoning Commission, 270 Conn. 42, 45-46, 850 A.2d 1032 (2004).

         The right to appeal from an agency decision to the Superior Court is generally limited to final decisions of the agency. See General Statutes § 4-183 (a) (‘‘[a] person who has exhausted all administrative remedies available within the agency and who is aggrieved by a final decision may appeal to the Superior Court as provided in this section''); see also State v. State Employees' Review Board, 231 Conn. 391, 402, 650 A.2d 158 (1994) (‘‘a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction over an administrative appeal only if the administrative agency has rendered a final decision''). When the agency has not yet issued a final decision, § 4-183 (b) permits a party to ‘‘appeal a preliminary, procedural or intermediate agency action or ruling to the Superior Court if (1) it appears likely that the person will otherwise qualify under . . . chapter [54] to appeal from the final agency action or ruling and (2) postponement of the appeal would result in an inadequate remedy.'' It is settled law that ‘‘a colorable claim to a right to be free from an action is protected from the immediate and irrevocable loss that would be occasioned by having to defend an action through the availability of an immediate interlocutory appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss.'' Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, supra, 301 Conn. 771; see id. (‘‘the essence of the protection of immunity from suit is an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation'' [internal quotation marks omitted]); see also Convalescent Center of Bloomfield, Inc. v. Dept. of Income Maintenance, 208 Conn. 187, 194, 544 A.2d 604 (1988) (‘‘[w]e have held an interlocutory order to be final for purposes of appeal if it involves a claimed right the legal and practical value of which would be destroyed if it were not vindicated before trial'' [internal quotation marks omitted]).

         Finally, whether § 52-571b (d) confers on religious institutions immunity from employment discrimination actions presents a question of statutory interpretation over which we exercise plenary review. See, e.g., State v. Lima, 325 Conn. 623, 629 n.4, 159 A.3d 651 (2017). ‘‘When construing a statute, [o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature. . . . In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case, including the question of whether the language actually does apply. . . . In seeking to determine that meaning, General Statutes § 1-2z directs us first to consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does ...


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