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Praisner v. State

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

April 30, 2019

MARTIN J. PRAISNER, JR.
v.
STATE OF CONNECTICUT

          Argued December 6, 2018

         Procedural History

         Action for indemnification for economic losses allegedly incurred by the plaintiff as a result of a federal criminal action filed against him in his capacity as a police officer, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, where the court, Hon. Richard M. Rittenband, judge trial referee, denied the defendant's motion to dismiss; thereafter, the court, Scholl, J., denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment and granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment as to liability; subsequently, after a hearing in damages, the court, Pittman, J., rendered judgment for the plaintiff, from which the defendant appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Pittman, J., rendered a supplemental judgment awarding the plaintiff attorney's fees and costs, and the defendant filed an amended appeal. Reversed; judgment directed.

          Emily V. Melendez, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, was George Jepsen, former attorney general, for the appellant (defendant).

          Elliot B. Spector, with whom was David C. Yale, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Prescott and Elgo, Js.

          OPINION

          ELGO, J.

         The defendant, the state of Connecticut, appeals from the judgment of the trial court denying its motion for summary judgment in this indemnification action brought by the plaintiff, Martin J. Praisner, Jr., pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) § 53-39a.[1]On appeal, the state contends that the court improperly concluded that the action was not barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.[2] We agree and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         The facts are not in dispute. At all relevant times, the state maintained a special police force for Eastern Connecticut State University (university). The plaintiff was a member of that special police force and an employee of the state. While on duty on September 1, 2008, the plaintiff was involved in an incident in which he allegedly "deployed pepper spray against an intoxicated and violent prisoner in a converted Sheetrock coat closet, which was used as a holding cell, and failed to promptly decontaminate the prisoner." Weeks later, the plaintiff was placed on paid administrative leave by the university. He thereafter applied for a position with the state's Department of Correction (department) and was hired as a correction officer on August 15, 2009.

         On December 1, 2009, the plaintiff was indicted by the federal government and charged with the crimes of conspiracy to violate an individual's civil rights in violation of 18U.S.C.§ 241 and deprivation of an individual's civil rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242. Following his arrest, the plaintiff's employment with the department was terminated. After two federal trials that both resulted in hung juries, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut on August 10, 2011, granted the government's motion to dismiss the indictment against the plaintiff.

         The plaintiff subsequently demanded reimbursement from the state for economic losses that he allegedly incurred as a result of his federal prosecution. When the state declined to do so, the plaintiff commenced the present action. His one count complaint sought indemnification pursuant to § 53-39a "for economic losses sustained . . . as a result of the aforesaid arrest and prosecution, including the payment of any legal fees incurred in pursuing these damages."[3]

         In response, the state moved to dismiss the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In the memorandum of law that accompanied that motion, the state acknowledged that § 53-39a "waives the [s]tate's immunity to liability and suit," but only with respect to "those individuals who fall within the designated classifications" set forth in that statute. The state then argued that (1) members of the university's special police force do not fall within the class of individuals who expressly are authorized to bring an action against the state pursuant to § 53-39a and (2) the complaint contained no allegation that the plaintiff had obtained permission from the Claims Commissioner to institute the action for monetary relief. See General Statutes § 4-160.[4] The plaintiff filed an objection to the motion to dismiss, to which the state filed a reply brief.

         The court, Hon. Richard M. Rittenband, judge trial referee, heard argument from the parties on March 17, 2014. In an order issued later that day, the court concluded that a member of the university's special police force "falls under the category of a member of a local police department" as that term is used in § 53-39a. The court therefore denied the motion to dismiss. The state filed a motion to reargue that ruling, which the court denied.

         The state then answered the complaint, and the plaintiff filed a certificate of closed pleadings, in which he requested a court trial. On January 13, 2017, the state filed a motion for summary judgment, renewing its claim that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction due to sovereign immunity. Relying on the law of the case doctrine, [5] the court, Scholl, J., denied that motion. The court at that time also granted the plaintiff's cross motion for summary judgment as to liability only. A hearing in damages followed, at the conclusion of which the court, Pittman, J., rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff "in the amount of $658, 849 in lost earnings and benefits . . . ." ...


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