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Walenski v. Connecticut State Employees Retirement Commission

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

October 16, 2018

CAROL WALENSKI
v.
CONNECTICUT STATE EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT COMMISSION ET AL.

          Argued May 16, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision by the named defendant denying the plaintiff's claim for certain survivor benefits, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the court, Schuman, J., granted in part the defendants' motions to dismiss; thereafter, the court, Huddleston, J., rendered judgment dismissing the appeal, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Harold J. Geragosian, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Cindy M. Cieslak, with whom, on the brief, was Michael J. Rose, for the appellee (named defendant).

          Alayna M. Stone, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, was George Jepsen, for the appellees (defendant state of Connecticut et al.).

          Robert J. Kor, with whom was Marialta Sparagna, for the appellee (defendant Arlene M. Walenski).

          Lavine, Moll and Bishop, Js.

          OPINION

          LAVINE, J.

         The sole issue in this appeal is whether the trial court properly dismissed the administrative appeal filed by the plaintiff, Carol Walenski, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to her failure to obtain a final decision from, or to otherwise exhaust her administrative remedies with, the named defendant, the Connecticut State Employees Retirement Commission (commission).[1] On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court, Huddleston, J., improperly dismissed her appeal because (1) the commission and a prior judge of the Superior Court concluded that the court had subject matter jurisdiction, and (2) she appealed from a final decision by an administrative agency pursuant to General Statutes § 4-166 (5) (A) and (C).[2] We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The present appeal involves a rather tangled procedural history that arose when the plaintiff, the second wife of a former state employee, Walter Walenski (Walter), was denied certain spousal retirement benefits in accordance with the State Employees Retirement Act (act), General Statutes § 5-152 et seq. At the root of the appeal was Walter's decision to elect a retirement benefit option that reduced his retirement benefits during his lifetime and provided spousal benefits to his surviving spouse after his death. See General Statutes § 5-165 (a).

         The trial court's memorandum of decision and the record reveal the following undisputed facts and procedural history that are relevant to this appeal. Walter retired from state employment in 1989. At the time he retired, Walter was married to his first wife the defendant Arlene M. Walenski (Arlene).[3] On September 30, 1997, Walter and Arlene divorced and, in their separation agreement, agreed that each of them would retain his or her own pension free and clear of any claims from the other. In 1997, sometime after he was divorced from Arlene, but before he married the plaintiff, Walter attempted to change the beneficiary of his surviving spouse benefits. He was informed that he could not do so. On April 18, 1998, approximately seven months after he was divorced from Arlene, Walter married the plaintiff. Walter and the plaintiff remained married until Walter passed away on May 20, 2015.

         The plaintiff subsequently contacted the retirement services division of the Office of the State Comptroller (retirement services) after Walter's death to discuss receiving spousal retirement benefits.[4] Cindy Wilson, a representative of retirement services, sent the plaintiff a letter, dated June 4, 2015, indicating that she was ‘‘entitled to receive 50 [percent] of [Walter's retirement] benefits . . . .'' After the plaintiff received this correspondence, however, another representative from retirement services verbally told her that the information in the letter she received from Wilson was incorrect and that her application for benefits was denied. In a follow up letter, dated July 14, 2015, Bonnie Price, the assistant director of retirement services, ‘‘advised [the plaintiff] that [the letter was] an administrative denial [of her request for spousal benefits]'' and informed her that she ‘‘[had] the right to make a written claim to the [commission] requesting review of [the] administrative denial.''[5] Thereafter, on July 30, 2015, the plaintiff made a written request for review and for a full hearing ‘‘before the commission to exhaust available remedies . . . .'' She did not receive a response to her July 30, 2015 letter.

         On March 31, 2016, the plaintiff commenced the underlying action and, in an amended complaint, alleged four counts: (1) an administrative appeal from the commission pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183; (2) breach of an agreement; (3) various common-law claims against Arlene; and (4) a request for declaratory judgment.[6] On May 20, 2016, the commission filed a motion to dismiss. The commission argued, among other grounds, that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the claims alleged against it because the plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. According to the commission, the plaintiff failed to exhaust its ‘‘five-step administrative process.''[7] On June 22, 2016, the defendant state of Connecticut and the defendant Connecticut state comptroller filed a joint motion to dismiss. See footnotes 1 and 6 of this opinion. Among other grounds, they, too, argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the counts directed against them because the plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. The plaintiff opposed the motions to dismiss.

         Notwithstanding the arguments regarding the plaintiff's alleged failure to exhaust her administrative remedies, during a hearing on the motions to dismiss, the commission ‘‘expressed a willingness to reach a final decision in [the] case by October 20, 2016.'' More specifically, the commission indicated that it would ‘‘waive the fifth step of its administrative process''-i.e., a declaratory ruling-in an effort to avoid further delay, but asked that the plaintiff obtain a ‘‘final decision'' from the commission by requesting reconsideration (step four of administrative process). See footnote 7 of this opinion. Relying on the commission's representation, the court, Schuman, J., remanded count one- the administrative appeal-to the commission. Judge Schuman's September 1, 2016 order addressing the motions to dismiss provided in relevant part: ‘‘[T]he court remands count one to the full commission to hear, decide, and reach a final decision on the plaintiff's claim by October 20, 2016. The court retains jurisdiction. In the event of a commission decision adverse to the plaintiff, the plaintiff may return to court by motion to reinstate the appeal.'' The court dismissed counts two and four of the amended complaint due to a lack of subject matter jurisdiction; it stayed count three.[8]

         On September 15, 2016, in response to Judge Shu-man's order, the plaintiff filed a substitute complaint (operative complaint). The operative complaint sounded in two counts: (1) an administrative appeal from the commission pursuant to § 4-183 and (2) a single count directed against Arlene, which alleged various common-law claims.

         On October 20, 2016, the commission held an informal hearing and denied what it considered ‘‘[the plaintiff's] request for reconsideration of [retirement services'] denial of a spousal benefit.'' The commission further indicated in a letter, also dated October 20, 2016, that it ‘‘agree[d] that [§] 5-165 (a) does not allow for a change in election or beneficiary after benefits have been provided to the member.'' On October 27, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion to reinstate the appeal in the Superior Court, which Judge Huddleston granted absent objection.

         Following the reinstatement of the plaintiff's appeal, a dispute arose between the parties regarding the proper record before the court. During oral argument addressing the parties' dispute about the record, Judge Huddleston, sua sponte, questioned the court's subject matter jurisdiction. The court ordered supplemental briefing, and in their memoranda of law, both the plaintiff and the commission argued that the court had subject matter jurisdiction.[9] The plaintiff relied primarily on Judge Schuman's September 1, 2016 order and contended that the hearing before the commission on October 20, 2016, was a contested case under § 4-166 (4) and (5). The commission argued that it was futile to remand the case to it and that it had waived the fifth step of its usual administrative procedure. Relying principally on Derwin v. State Employees Retirement Commission, 234 Conn. 411, 661 A.2d 1025 (1995), and Ahern v. State Employees Retirement Commission, 48 Conn.App. 482, 710 A.2d 1366, cert. denied, 245 Conn. 911, 718 A.2d 16 (1998), Judge Huddleston disagreed, concluding that the plaintiff had not appealed from a ‘‘final decision''; see General Statutes § 4-166 (5); and had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. See General Statutes § 4-183 (a). This appeal followed.[10]

         We begin by setting forth the principles of law governing our standard of review. ‘‘In 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. . . . It is a familiar principle that a court which exercises a limited and statutory jurisdiction is without jurisdiction to act unless it does so under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly ...


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