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Town of Ledyard v. WMS Gaming, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

September 17, 2019

TOWN OF LEDYARD
v.
WMS GAMING, INC.

          Argued May 21, 2019

         Action to recover unpaid personal property taxes, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New London, where the parties entered into a stipulated agreement; thereafter, the court, Vacchelli, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment as to liability and denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment as to liability, and the defendant appealed to this court, which granted the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the appeal, from which the defendant, on the granting of certification, appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed this court's judgment and remanded the case to this court with direction to deny the plaintiff's motion to dismiss and for further proceedings. Reversed; judgment directed.

          Aaron S. Bayor, with whom was David R. Roth, for the appellant (defendant).

          Lloyd L. Langhammer, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Keller and Noble, Js.

          OPINION

          NOBLE, J.

         In this action to collect unpaid personal property taxes, the defendant, WMS Gaming, Inc., appeals from the summary judgment as to liability only rendered by the trial court in favor of the plaintiff, the town of Ledyard, awarding it attorney's fees pursuant to General Statutes § 12-161a.[1] The defendant's sole claim on appeal is that the trial court improperly concluded that the defendant was liable for attorney's fees incurred by the plaintiff while litigating a collateral action in federal court in addition to the fees incurred while pursuing this action. Specifically, it argues that the court improperly determined that the fees incurred in the collateral action were ‘‘as a result of and directly related to'' this collection action within the meaning of § 12-161a. We agree and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. On August 3, 2006, two years prior to commencing the present action, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (Tribal Nation) filed an action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut challenging the authority of the state of Connecticut and the plaintiff to impose property taxes on slot machines owned by Atlantic City Coin & Slot Co. (AC Coin) and leased to the Tribal Nation, for use in its gaming operations. In that complaint, the Tribal Nation alleged that the plaintiff lacked the authority to impose the property tax because such taxation is preempted by federal regulation of Indian gaming pursuant to both the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 25 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2721 (IGRA), and the Final Mashan-tucket Pequot Gaming Procedures, 56 Fed. Reg. 24996 (May 31, 1991), and that the taxation was an illegal interference with the Tribal Nation's sovereignty. The present action was filed on June 23, 2008, to collect unpaid personal property taxes for gaming equipment owned by the defendant and leased to the Tribal Nation for its gaming operations.

         Our Supreme Court, in a previous appeal from the judgment of this court, recited the following additional relevant facts and procedural history: ‘‘[T]he plaintiff [in the present action] sought $18, 251.23 in unpaid personal property taxes, plus costs, interest, and penalties. In addition, the plaintiff sought attorney's fees pursuant to . . . § 12-161a.

         ‘‘Shortly after the plaintiff had commenced the underlying state action, the Tribal Nation filed [a second] action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut challenging the authority of the state of Connecticut[2] and the plaintiff to impose the taxes at issue in the present state action.[3] Although it was not a party to the federal action commenced by the Tribal Nation, the defendant filed a motion to stay the present state action pending the outcome of the federal action, which the trial court, Martin, J., granted.

         ‘‘On March 27, 2012, the District Court ruled on cross motions for summary judgment filed in the . . . federal action. The District Court, determining that the authority of the state and the plaintiff to impose the taxes was preempted by federal law, granted the Tribal Nation's motion for summary judgment and denied separate motions for summary judgment filed by the plaintiff and the state . . . . See Mashantucket Pequot Tribe v. Ledyard, Docket No. 3:06CV1212 (WWE), 2012 WL 1069342, *12 (D. Conn. March 27, 2012), rev'd, 722 F.3d 457 (2d Cir. 2013). On July 15, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court's judgment, concluding that the authority of the state and the plaintiff to impose the taxes was not preempted by federal law. See Mashantucket Pequot Tribe v. Ledyard, 722 F.3d 457, 477 (2d Cir. 2013).

         ‘‘After the proceedings had resumed in the present state action, the parties executed a stipulation. Under the stipulation, the parties agreed that the defendant had tendered payment to the plaintiff for all outstanding taxes, accrued interest, and accrued penalties at issue. They further agreed that the plaintiff was entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and costs incurred in the underlying state action, the amount of which would be determined by the trial court and the payment of which would be accepted by the plaintiff as satisfaction of all of the taxes, interest, penalties, attorney's fees, and costs recoverable by the plaintiff with respect to the underlying state action. They disputed, however, whether the trial court could also find the defendant liable for attorney's fees incurred by the plaintiff in defense of the federal action commenced by the Tribal Nation to which the defendant was not a party . . . . The parties agreed to submit to the trial court the issue of whether the defendant was liable for the federal action attorney's fees.

         ‘‘After executing the stipulation, the parties filed . . . motions for summary judgment as to liability only with respect to the federal action attorney's fees. On October 6, 2016, the trial court, Vacchelli, J., issued its memorandum of decision granting the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, denying the defendant's motion for summary judgment, and rendering . . . judgment as to liability only in favor of the plaintiff with respect to the federal action attorney's fees. The trial court concluded that the defendant was liable for the federal action attorney's fees pursuant to § 12-161a. The trial court further stated that the plaintiff could file a motion for attorney's fees within thirty days and that a hearing would be scheduled thereafter to determine the amount of the attorney's fees to which the plaintiff is entitled. Shortly thereafter, on October 11, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees.

         ‘‘On October 25, 2016, [before] the trial court [scheduled] a hearing on the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees, the defendant appealed [from] the trial court's decision with respect to the federal action attorney's fees [to the Appellate Court].'' (Footnotes added; internal ...


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