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Maurice v. Chester Housing Associates Ltd. Partnership

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 26, 2019

DE ANN MAURICE
v.
CHESTER HOUSING ASSOCIATES LIMITED PARTNERSHIP ET AL.

          Argued November 26, 2018

         Procedural History

         Writ of error from the order of the Superior Court in the judicial district of New London, Vacchelli, J., granting the defendant's motion for sanctions, brought to the Supreme Court, which transferred the matter to this court. Writ of error dismissed.

          Michael P. Carey, with whom, on the brief, was Daniel L. King, for the plaintiff in error (Douglas Williams).

          Kelly E. Reardon, for the defendant in error (De Ann Maurice).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Lavine and Moll, Js.

          OPINION

          LAVINE, J.

         The plaintiff in error, Douglas Williams, brings this writ of error after the trial court sanctioned him for bad faith litigation misconduct and determined that, following further proceedings, attorney's fees shall be awarded to the defendant in error, De Ann Maurice. In his writ, he claims that (1) the trial court acted outside of the scope of its authority and (2) even if the court had such authority, it abused its discretion by determining that an award of attorney's fees was an appropriate sanction against him for out-of-court conduct when he was not a party to the underlying matter. We dismiss the writ of error.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to Williams' claims. The underlying action was a premises liability case brought in January, 2015, by the defendant in error against the defendants, Chester Housing Associates Limited Partnership (partnership), MJKH Property Services, LLC, and Something Natural, LLC, which resulted in a verdict for the defendants. Williams is a general partner and the managing partner in the partnership but was not a defendant in the underlying matter. On January 15, 2016, at 11:02 p.m., Williams sent an inappropriate e-mail to the defendant in error's counsel, Kelly E. Reardon.[1] After receiving the e-mail, Reardon reported it to the police, who warned Williams not to contact Reardon again. For the next year, the litigation proceeded toward trial.

         On April 27, 2017, while Reardon and others were standing in a hallway outside the courtroom immediately before opening statements were to begin, Williams stated to an unidentified individual, loud enough to be heard by those present, that he wanted Reardon to ‘‘sit on his fucking head.'' Shortly thereafter, Reardon reported to the court what had transpired and made an oral motion for sanctions. The court immediately held a hearing on the motion for sanctions, [2] which continued on May 3, 2017, [3] delaying the start of trial. On May 3, 2017, after the hearing, the court granted the motion and awarded the defendant in error attorney's fees in an undetermined amount, to be decided after a motion for attorney's fees was filed and a hearing held.[4]

         In its oral decision, the trial court found that the purpose of Williams' e-mail ‘‘was obviously to threaten [Reardon], harass her, intimidate her, which the court believes was done for the purposes of getting some advantage in the case, to rattle her so that she'd do a poor job in representing her client, to scare her to get her to drop the case.'' As to the statement made in the hallway, the court found that ‘‘considering the context and the purpose, which was essentially a sexual harassment of [Reardon] to try to scare her and rattle her, and obviously had that exact effect because during the April 27 hearing when the motion was made, . . . Rear- don was obviously very upset, almost in tears, and so he accomplished his purpose to try to knock her off her ability to proceed in the case, and to cause her distress for a litigation advantage.'' The court concluded that ‘‘these tactics were without any color of propriety and they were taken in bad faith . . . .'' These factual findings are not contested.

         On January 31, 2018, Williams filed a writ of error with our Supreme Court, which transferred it to this court on June 5, 2018.[5]

         I

         Williams, asserting that his conduct did not occur in the courtroom itself or in the court's presence, first claims that the trial court exceeded the scope of its authority by awarding attorney's fees for out-of-court conduct by a nonparty. Specifically, he argues that the inherent power of the judiciary does not allow for the sanctioning of nonparties for out-of-court conduct. We disagree.

         As a threshold matter, we address the standard of review. In the present case, the issue before us is whether the trial court properly determined that it had the inherent authority to impose sanctions for bad faith litigation misconduct against Williams. ‘‘Because this presents a question of law, our review is plenary.'' Burton v. Mottolese, 267 Conn. 1, 25, 835 A.2d 998 (2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1073, 124 S.Ct. 2422, 158 L.Ed.2d 983 (2004).

         ‘‘It has long been understood that [c]ertain implied powers must necessarily result to our Courts of justice from the nature of their institution, powers which cannot be dispensed with in a Court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all others. . . . For this reason, Courts of justice are universally acknowledged to be vested, by their very creation, with power to impose silence, respect, and decorum, in their presence, and submission to their lawful mandates. . . . These powers are governed not by rule or statute but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases. . . .

         ‘‘[I]t is firmly established that [t]he power to punish for contempts is inherent in all courts. . . . This power reaches both conduct before the court and that beyond the court's confines, for [t]he underlying concern that gave rise to the contempt power was not . . . merely the disruption of court proceedings. Rather, it was disobedience to the orders of the Judiciary, regardless of whether such disobedience interfered with the conduct of trial. . . .

         ‘‘Because of their very potency, inherent powers must be exercised with restraint and discretion. . . . A primary aspect of that discretion is the ability to fashion an appropriate sanction for conduct which abuses the judicial process. . . . [O]utright dismissal of a lawsuit . . . is a particularly severe sanction, yet is within the court's discretion. . . . Consequently, the less severe sanction of an assessment of attorney's fees is undoubtedly within a court's inherent power as well.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 43-45, 111 S.Ct. 2123, 115 L.Ed.2d 27 (1991).

         ‘‘As a substantive matter, [t]his state follows the general rule that, except as provided by statute or in certain defined exceptional circumstances, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable [attorney's] fee from the loser. . . . That rule does not apply, however, where the opposing party has acted in bad faith.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Maris v. McGrath, 269 Conn. 834, 844, 850 A.2d 133 (2004).

         It is well settled that this bad faith exception applies both to counsel and parties. Id., 845. Williams argues that this exception, however, does not extend to non-parties under any circumstance. We are unpersuaded. Such a bright line approach that focuses only on the distinction between party and nonparty fails to take into account factual circumstances and situations in which a nonparty who has a close relationship with the litigation could, in bad faith, abuse the judicial process to the same degree and effect as a party and interfere with the orderly functioning of the court. Notably, the United States Supreme Court could have made such a bright line rule between parties and nonparties when it upheld sanctions against a person for his fraudulent and bad faith conduct before and after he became a party, but it chose not to do so.[6] See Chambers v.NASCO, Inc., supra, 501 U.S. 36-37, 50-51 (order requiring sole shareholder of company operating television station to pay attorney's fees and expenses totaling almost $1 million upheld as inherent power of court). Yet, the inherent power of the judiciary is ...


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