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Board of Education of Town of Stratford v. City of Bridgeport

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 23, 2019

BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE TOWN OF STRATFORD ET AL.
v.
CITY OF BRIDGEPORT ET AL.

          Argued January 31, 2019

         Procedural History

         Action for, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the defendants' request to charge certain tuition to certain school districts for nonresident students who attend certain magnet schools is erroneous and unlawful, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Fairfield, where the Board of Education of the Town of Monroe was added as a party plaintiff; thereafter, the court, Bellis, J., granted the defendants' motions to dismiss and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiffs appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Daniel L. Healy, with whom, on the brief, was Norman A. Pattis, for the appellants (plaintiffs).

          Ralph E. Urban, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were William Tong, attorney general, and George Jepsen, former attorney general, for the appellees (defendant State Board of Education et al.)

          John R. Mitola, associate city attorney, for the appellees (named defendant et al.).

          Keller, Prescott and Harper, Js.

          OPINION

          KELLER, J.

         The plaintiffs, the Board of Education of the Town of Stratford, James Feehan, [1] the Board of Education of the Town of Trumbull, and the Board of Education of the Town of Monroe, appeal from the judgment of the trial court granting the motions to dismiss filed by the defendants, the State Board of Education (state board); the Commissioner of Education (commissioner); the Board of Education of the City of Bridgeport (Bridgeport board); the city of Bridgeport (city); Joseph Ganim, the mayor of the city; and Aresta Johnson, the interim superintendent of the city's schools.[2] On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court erred by (1) dismissing counts one, two, three, and four of their complaint against the state defendants for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failing to exhaust their administrative remedies, and (2) dismissing count six, a civil theft claim against the Bridgeport defendants, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failing to exhaust their administrative remedies. For the reasons discussed herein, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         In their verified complaint dated March 16, 2017, the plaintiffs alleged the following facts. The city, the Bridgeport board, and Johnson operate two interdistrict magnet schools, Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School (Fairchild Wheeler) and Interdistrict Discovery Magnet Elementary School (Discovery). The plaintiff boards are required, pursuant to General Statutes § 10-220d, to permit operators of interdistrict magnet schools to recruit students from their districts to attend magnet schools in other districts. Fairfield Wheeler and Discovery, which began operations in 2013, currently serve children from the plaintiffs' districts, in addition to others.

         Fairfield Wheeler and Discovery, heretofore, have been operated exclusively with state funds. During the 2016-2017 school year, the parties learned that the state would reduce its grants to these magnet schools by approximately $500, 000. On June 30, 2016, Frances Rabinowitz, the predecessor to Johnson as interim superintendent of the city's schools, wrote a letter to the commissioner requesting permission for the city to bill neighboring districts $3000 a year for each nonresident student who attended the magnet schools. By letter dated August 31, 2016, the commissioner granted this request. The plaintiffs alleged that the commissioner's approval of the request to charge outside school districts would result in approximately $1, 818, 000 in revenue for the city's public school system. This revenue would result in the school system receiving $1, 215, 000 from the plaintiffs alone, which is $715, 000 more than is required to replenish the $500, 000 cutback in state funding.[3]

         Furthermore, the plaintiffs alleged that the Bridgeport board commingles its operating accounts with the city's general municipal operating accounts. They alleged that this commingling permits the Bridgeport public school district and the city to convert or misappropriate the moneys supplied by the plaintiffs for the purpose of interdistrict magnet school operation to pay for nonmagnet school and noneducational expenses, such as general municipal operating expenses.

         The plaintiffs set forth six counts in their complaint. They claimed that (1) the commissioner did not apply the criteria set forth in General Statutes § 10-264l (m) (2)[4] (count one); (2) § 10-264l (m) (2) violates principles of due process as set forth in article first, §§ 1, 2, 8, 10, 11, 18, and 20, of the Connecticut constitution (count two); (3) § 10-264l (m) (2) exceeds the powers implicitly and explicitly granted to the General Assembly in article eighth, § 1, of the Connecticut constitution (count three); (4) § 10-264l (m) (2) violates the plaintiffs' right to home rule in violation of article tenth, § 1, of the Connecticut constitution (count four); (5) unjust enrichment (count five); and (6) civil theft as to the Bridgeport defendants (count six).

         On March 24, 2017, the state defendants filed a motion to dismiss, inter alia, counts one through four of the plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies contained in General Statutes § 4-176.[5] On April 12, 2017, the Bridgeport defendants also filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint in its entirety on the basis that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' claims against them. After receiving memoranda of law in support of and in opposition to the motions, the court heard oral argument regarding both motions to dismiss on April 24, 2017.

         In a memorandum of decision dated May 10, 2017, the court granted the state defendants' motion to dismiss counts one, two, three, and four of the plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies pursuant to § 4-176 prior to commencing the present action. With respect to count five, the dismissal of which is not challenged in this appeal, the court acknowledged that the plaintiffs had conceded that the plaintiffs' unjust enrichment claim against the state defendants was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

         In a separate memorandum of decision dated May 23, 2017, the court recognized that the Bridgeport defendants, in their memorandum of law in support of their motion to dismiss, had expressly adopted the same arguments that had been set forth by the state defendants with respect to counts one, two, three, and four.

         Resultantly, in granting the Bridgeport defendants' motion to dismiss with respect to these counts, the court adopted the same reasoning concluding that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies contained in § 4-176. With respect to counts five and six as alleged against the Bridgeport defendants, the court similarly concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over their claims because the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. This appeal followed.

         As a preliminary matter, 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.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Walenski v. Connecticut State Employees Retirement Commission, 185 Conn.App. 457, 464, 197 A.3d 443, cert. denied, 330 Conn. 951, 197 A.3d 390 (2018). This court must decide whether the trial court's ‘‘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 prescribed by the enabling legislation.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 464-65.

         ‘‘When a . . . court decides a jurisdictional question raised by a pretrial motion to dismiss, it must consider the allegations of the complaint in their most favorable light. . . . In this regard, a court must take the facts to be those alleged in the complaint, including those facts necessarily implied from the allegations, construing them in a manner most favorable to the pleader. . . . Further, in addition to admitting all facts well pleaded, the motion to dismiss invokes any record that accompanies the motion, including supporting affidavits that contain undisputed facts.'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Metropolitan District v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 180 Conn.App. 478, 485, 184 A.3d 287, cert. denied, 328 Conn. 937, 184 A.3d 267 (2018).

         This appeal concerns the proper application of the exhaustion doctrine. ‘‘It is a settled principle of administrative law that if an adequate administrative remedy exists, it must be exhausted before the Superior Court will obtain jurisdiction to act in the matter.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Stepney, LLC v. Fairfield, 263 Conn. 558, 563, 821 A.2d 725 (2003). In other words, ‘‘a trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over an action that seeks a remedy that could be provided through an administrative proceeding, unless and until that remedy has been sought in the administrative forum.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.)Republican Party of Connecticut v. Merrill, 307 Conn. 470, 477, 55 A.3d 251 (2012). In the absence of exhaustion of that remedy, the action must be dismissed. Piteau v. Board of Education, 300 Conn. 667, 678, 15 A.3d 1067 (2011). Thus, ‘‘where a statute has established a ...


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