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Matthew C. v. Commissioner of Children and Families

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

March 26, 2019

MATTHEW C.
v.
COMMISSIONER OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES*

          Argued November 27, 2018

         Procedural History

         Administrative appeal from the decision by the defendant denying the plaintiff's request for a hearing regarding the decision by the defendant to substantiate allegations that the plaintiff neglected his two minor children, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain and tried to the court, Hon. Henry S. Cohn, judge trial referee; judgment dismissing the appeal, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court.

          Campbell D. Barrett, with whom were Johanna S. Katz and, on the brief, Jon T. Kukucka, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Daniel M. Salton, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, and George Jepsen, former attorney general, for the appellee (defendant).

          Lavine, Keller and Beach, Js.

          OPINION

          KELLER, J.

         The plaintiff, Matthew C., appeals from the judgment of the trial court dismissing his administrative appeal following a decision by the defendant, the Commissioner of Children and Families, denying him a hearing to challenge the defendant's decision to substantiate allegations that he neglected his two minor children. The plaintiff avers that the trial court erred by (1) deciding the plaintiff's appeal on a basis not decided by the defendant's administrative hearing officer, (2) declining to equate § 22-12-4 of the policy manual (policy manual) of the Department of Children and Families (department), [1] as derived from § 17a-101k-7 of the department's regulations, [2] with the doctrine of collateral estoppel, (3) dismissing his appeal from the denial of his request for a substantiation hearing irrespective of whether § 22-12-4 of the policy manual and collateral estoppel are equivalent, and (4) violating his right to fundamental fairness by dismissing his appeal after denying him a substantiation hearing. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The facts and procedural history of the case are as follows. The plaintiff is the father of two minor children, B and E. He became legally involved with the department on September 16, 2015, when neglect petitions were filed by the defendant pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-129, alleging that B and E, who were twelve and ten years of age at the time, had been neglected pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 2015) § 46b-120.[3]On the same date, the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters granted applications filed by the defendant seeking ex parte temporary custody orders and vested temporary custody of the children ex parte in their mother, pending a further hearing, after finding that the children were in immediate physical danger from their surroundings, and that continuation in those surroundings was contrary to their welfare.[4]

         The summary of facts accompanying the neglect petitions alleged, inter alia, that the plaintiff had demonstrated a pattern of coercive, controlling, and abusive behavior toward the children's mother, to which the children were exposed; that the children had witnessed their mother being screamed at, demeaned, and threatened by the plaintiff; that B had mimicked the plaintiff's behavior in that he engaged in verbally and physically aggressive behavior toward his mother and sister; that B was hospitalized after he damaged his mother's car with a hammer or ax, broke a window, and set four small fires outside the home; that the plaintiff was unwilling to accept voluntary services in order to help B with his mood disorder diagnosis; and that E was directly affected by the plaintiff's actions in that she was fearful in the home, had emotional outbursts, and had become dysregulated with her emotions.

         The juvenile court, Hon. Barbara M. Quinn, judge trial referee, held a consolidated hearing on October 2 and 19, 2015, on the applications for orders of temporary custody and on the adjudicatory phase of each of the neglect petitions, which the plaintiff, through his counsel, contested.[5] On November 3, 2015, the juvenile court rendered its decision concluding that the allegations of the affidavit seeking the orders of temporary custody and the grounds for the neglect alleged in the neglect petitions had been proven. The court sustained the orders of temporary custody and adjudicated both of the children neglected on the basis that they were being denied proper care and attention, physically, educationally, emotionally or morally, and were being permitted to live under conditions, circumstances or associations injurious to their well-being.

         After being notified that the defendant substantiated allegations that the plaintiff was responsible for the neglect of his children, the plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing on February 18, 2016.[6] On April 4, 2016, the department moved to dismiss the plaintiff's appeal from the substantiation pursuant to the department regulation and § 22-12-4 of the policy manual because the juvenile court already had factually determined that the plaintiff was the perpetrator of the neglect. On April 19, 2016, the plaintiff filed an objection to the motion to dismiss arguing that § 22-12-4 did not apply because there was no determination by the juvenile court that the plaintiff was responsible for the abuse or neglect of his children. He went on to argue that the motion ‘‘should also be denied because the policy behind the denial [of hearing] clause of § 22-12-4 does not apply to the facts of the present case.'' In particular, he argued that § 22-12-4 was based on the common-law doctrine of collateral estoppel and that ‘‘the doctrine of collateral estoppel, or the [department] equivalent, § 22-12-4, does not apply because, '' inter alia, the issue of whether the plaintiff was the perpetrator of the neglect was not actually litigated.

         After receiving the motion to dismiss and the objection to the motion, the hearing officer required that the department ‘‘submit the [s]ummary of [f]acts submitted to the [j]uvenile [c]ourt in the neglect proceedings'' and ordered the parties to ‘‘submit a brief on the issue of whether the [plaintiff] is collaterally estopped from proceeding with his substantiation hearing if the issue was actually litigated and necessarily determined in the prior action.''[7] On September 26, 2016, the hearing officer issued a written decision granting the department's motion to dismiss, denying the plaintiff's request for a substantiation hearing on the basis of collateral estoppel. In her decision, the hearing officer indicated that the ‘‘issue of whether the [plaintiff] has emotionally or physically neglected [his] children has been actually decided . . . in the juvenile court proceedings, and, therefore is subject to collateral estoppel.''

         On November 9, 2016, the plaintiff filed an administrative appeal pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183. The parties submitted briefs to the court and, on August 1, 2017, the court, Hon. Henry S. Cohn, judge trial referee, held oral argument on the merits. During argument, the court expressed some skepticism about whether collateral estoppel and § 22-12-4 of the policy manual were substantively identical and whether it was proper for the hearing officer to have applied collateral estoppel instead of the policy manual provision directly related to this matter. Accordingly, with the consent of the parties, the court ordered the parties to provide supplemental briefs pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183 (g) on the issue of whether § 22-12-4 of the policy manual was identical to collateral estoppel and whether § 22-12-4 provided an independent administrative basis for dismissal of the request for a substantiation hearing. On October 2, 2017, the court issued a memorandum of decision in which it concluded that although the policy manual provision and the doctrine of collateral estoppel were similar in some respects, ‘‘the two concepts are not identical.'' On the basis of the department regulation and § 22-12-4 of the policy manual, the court concluded that the dismissal of the administrative appeal was proper. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         We commence our discussion by setting forth the standard of review. Judicial review of an administrative decision is governed by statute. See Celentano v. Rocque, 282 Conn. 645, 652, 923 A.2d 709 (2007). When reviewing the trial court's decision, we seek to determine whether that decision is in harmony with the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (act), General Statutes § 4-166 et seq. See Dickman v. Office of State Ethics, Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board, 140 Conn.App. 754, 766, 60 A.3d 297, cert. denied, 308 Conn. 934, 66 A.3d 497 (2013). With regard to questions of fact, our cases have made clear that review of administrative agency decisions is limited and ‘‘requires a court to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the agency's findings of basic fact and whether the conclusions drawn from those facts are reasonable. . . . Neither this court nor the trial court may retry the case or substitute its own judgment for that of the administrative agency on the weight of the evidence or questions of fact.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Matthew M. v. Dept. of Children & Families, 143 Conn.App. 813, 824, 71 A.3d 603 (2013).

         Our Supreme Court also has noted that ‘‘[j]udicial review of the conclusions of law reached administratively is also limited. The court's ultimate duty is only to decide whether, in light of the evidence, the [agency] has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally, or in abuse of its discretion. . . . Conclusions of law reached by the administrative agency must stand if the court determines that they resulted from a correct application of the law to the facts found and could reasonably and logically follow from such facts.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Goldstar Medical Services, Inc. v. Dept. of Social Services, 288 Conn. 790, 800, 955 A.2d 15 (2008). ‘‘Cases that present pure questions of law, however, invoke a broader standard of review than is ordinarily involved in deciding whether, in light of the evidence, the agency has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion. . . . Furthermore, when a state agency's determination of a question of law has not previously been subject to judicial scrutiny . . . the agency is not entitled to special deference.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Palomba-Bourke v. Commissioner of Social Services, 312 Conn. 196, 203, 92 A.3d 932 (2014). Thus, when an agency's interpretation has not been ‘‘subjected to judicial scrutiny or consistently applied by the agency over a long period of time, our review is de novo.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Chairperson, Connecticut Medical Examining Board v. Freedom of Information Commission, 310 Conn. 276, 283, 77 A.3d 121 (2013).

         I

         We first address the plaintiff's claim that the trial court erred by deciding the plaintiff's appeal on a basis not decided by the hearing officer. In his view, because judicial review under the act ‘‘ ‘is very restricted' '' and because the hearing officer dismissed his request for a substantiation hearing only on the basis of collateral estoppel, the court was not permitted to determine whether § 22-12-4 of the policy manual was the applicable law to govern the present matter. In other words, the plaintiff claims that the trial court was not permitted to consider the applicability of the policy manual and could only evaluate the correctness of the collateral estoppel analysis undertaken by the hearing officer. We disagree.

         To support his argument, the plaintiff contends that Dortenzio v. Freedom of Information Commission, 42 Conn.App. 402, 679 A.2d 978 (1996), is determinative. In Dortenzio, this court addressed a claim of whether the trial court improperly substituted its judgment for that of the Freedom of Information Commission (commission). Id., 407. The commission argued that the trial court ‘‘failed to confine its review of the [commission's] decision to the issues raised and the findings in the administrative record.'' Id. In reversing the trial court's judgment, this court concluded that the trial court ‘‘needlessly enlarged the issue on appeal . . . by examining . . . an argument not found in the administrative record . . . [that was] neither raised before nor addressed by the [commission].'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 409.

         The present case is easily distinguishable. The issue of whether § 22-12-4 of the policy manual and the department regulation precluded the plaintiff from a hearing was clearly in the administrative record-the department's sole argument for its motion to dismiss was that § 22-12-4 of the policy manual and the regulation precluded the plaintiff from obtaining a substantiation hearing. The plaintiff then argued in his opposition motion that § 22-12-4 of the policy manual did not apply and, by relying on Superior Court authority, equated it to the doctrine of collateral estoppel. After receiving the motion to dismiss and the opposition to the motion, the hearing officer appears also to have equated § 22-12-4 of the policy manual and the doctrine of collateral estoppel because she requested briefing solely on whether the plaintiff was collaterally estopped from receiving a substantiation hearing. The hearing officer ultimately dismissed the appeal on the basis of collateral estoppel. On appeal in the Superior Court, the court, rather than addressing whether the hearing officer's analysis of collateral estoppel was correct, determined that the applicable department policy manual provision, as authorized by the department regulation, was the proper basis for denying the plaintiff's request for a substantiation hearing.

         We recognize and agree with the plaintiff that the act limits judicial review of agency decisions but disagree with him as to the extent it does so with respect to questions of law. The plaintiff avers that the trial court's decision dismissing his appeal pursuant to the policy manual provision and its failure to consider the issue under the doctrine of collateral estoppel ‘‘was error in light of the clear precedent that a trial court may not retry the case or substitute its own judgment for that of the agency.'' We reject this argument for several reasons.

         First, the act makes clear that a ‘‘court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact.'' General Statutes § 4-183 (j). On the basis of our review of the record, it is clear that the court did not do so. The court did not attempt to substitute or retry the case with respect to any questions of fact found by the hearing officer. Instead, it questioned at oral argument, as a matter of law, the applicability of collateral estoppel in light of the existence of a department regulation and policy manual provision that were applicable to the case. The court also went as far as to note in its memorandum of ...


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