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Dombrowski v. City of New Haven

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

December 10, 2019


          Argued September 19, 2019

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District denying the plaintiff's motion to open a certain stipulation, brought to the Compensation Review Board, which affirmed the commissioner's decision, and the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Paul T. Dombrowski, self-represented, the appellant (plaintiff).

          Brian L. Smith, for the appellees (defendants).

          Alvord, Moll and Norcott, Js.


          MOLL, J.

         The self-represented plaintiff, Paul Dombrowski, appeals from the decision of the Compensation Review Board (board) affirming the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Third District (commissioner) of the Workers' Compensation Commission (commission), denying the plaintiff's motion to open a stipulation executed by the plaintiff and the defendants, the city of New Haven (city) and the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA). On appeal, the plaintiff raises a number of claims that, in essence, challenge the propriety of the board's decision affirming the commissioner's denial of his motion to open. We affirm the decision of the board.

         The following procedural history and facts, as found by the commissioner in her ‘‘finding and dismissal, '' dated October 11, 2016, or as undisputed in the record, are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. The plaintiff is a retired police officer who was formerly employed by the city.[1] Following his retirement, the plaintiff sought to settle certain pending workers' compensation claims relating to several injuries that he had sustained during his employment with the city. After numerous informal hearings, the plaintiff, without the assistance of counsel, agreed to accept a global settlement of his workers' compensation claims for a lump sum payment of $22, 500. The settlement was contingent upon the approval of the funds by the city's litigation settlement committee, which approved the funds on September 23, 2015. On September 29, 2015, the commission issued a notice providing that a stipulation approval hearing was scheduled for September 30, 2015.

         On the morning of September 30, 2015, prior to the stipulation approval hearing, the plaintiff, accompanied by Craig Miller, the president of the police union, met with the defendants' counsel. The defendants' counsel presented the plaintiff with two documents: (1)a ‘‘Stipulation, '' dated September 28, 2015 (stipulation); and (2) a ‘‘Settlement Agreement, General Release and Covenant Not to Sue, '' dated September 29, 2015 (settlement agreement). The stipulation provided in relevant part: ‘‘[I]t is agreed by and between the parties hereto that the [defendants] shall pay to the [plaintiff] in addition to the compensation and medical benefits already paid by the [defendants] the further sum of [$22, 500], the same is to be in full, final and complete settlement, adjustment accord, and satisfaction of all claims which the aforesaid [plaintiff] might otherwise have against the [defendants], or either of them, and be made and accepted in lieu of all other compensation payments, in accordance with our [Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq.].'' The stipulation did not reference the settlement agreement. The settlement agreement provided in relevant part: ‘‘[The plaintiff] . . . for and in consideration of both monetary sums and by action previously recited within the content of [the stipulation] attached as Exhibit A hereto, receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, [does] remise, release and forever discharge . . . [the city] . . . as to any and all actions, causes and causes of action, sums of money, covenants, contracts, controversies, agreements, promises, damages, claims and demands whatsoever, in law or in equity . . . as a result of [the plaintiff's] employment or with severance of [the plaintiff's] employment with [the city] from the commencement of [the plaintiff's] employment with [the city] to the date of [the plaintiff's] execution of the [settlement agreement], whether known or unsuspected, including all claims, demands, or causes of action under any federal or state law, regulation or decision including but not limited to causes of action under the [Workers'] Compensation Laws of the State of Connecticut . . . [t]he Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. [§] 621 et seq. [ADEA] . . . [and] [a]ny other federal, state or local civil or human rights law or any other local, state or federal law, regulation or ordinance.''[2] The settlement agreement also provided in relevant part: ‘‘[The plaintiff] represent[s] that [the plaintiff has] been advised that [the plaintiff] should consult and acknowledge[s] that [the plaintiff has] consulted a private attorney with respect to [the settlement agreement] and [has] been given an adequate opportunity to discuss all aspects of [the settlement agreement] with counsel of [the plaintiff's] choosing. [The plaintiff] agree[s] that [the plaintiff has] had twenty-one (21) days to consider this agreement. . . . [The plaintiff] further understand[s] that this settlement agreement is contingent upon approval of [the stipulation] attached as Exhibit A hereto. . . . [The plaintiff] further understands that for a period of seven (7) days following the execution of this agreement, he may revoke this [a]greement. This [a]greement shall not become effective or enforceable until the revocation period has expired.'' The plaintiff had not seen the stipulation or the settlement agreement prior to the morning of September 30, 2015. Nevertheless, he signed both documents.[3]

         That same morning, Commissioner Jack R. Goldberg canvassed the plaintiff with regard to the stipulation. As part of the canvass, Commissioner Goldberg reviewed with the plaintiff forms entitled ‘‘Stipulation and What It Means''[4] and ‘‘Stipulation Questionnaire.''[5] Commissioner Goldberg then approved the stipulation after determining that the plaintiff had executed the stipulation knowingly and voluntarily. None of the parties asked Commissioner Goldberg to review or sign the settlement agreement, and at no point did Commissioner Goldberg examine or sign the settlement agreement.

         On October 1, 2015, a representative of CIRMA, the third-party administrator for the city, mailed to the plaintiff a settlement check in the amount of $22, 500. On or about October 7, 2015, the plaintiff brought the check to his police union office, signifying his rejection of the settlement agreement. On or about October 14, 2015, the police union returned the check to the plaintiff. On or about October 19, 2015, the plaintiff mailed the check to CIRMA with a note requesting that CIRMA accept the returned check. Following these events, the commission held informal hearings on January 15 and March 15, 2016, which resulted in ‘‘no resolution of the issues'' among the parties. Thereafter, the commission held a formal hearing on March 31, 2016, during which the parties agreed that the plaintiff would file a motion to open the stipulation and the defendants would file a response thereto.

         On May 6, 2016, the plaintiff, who was represented by counsel at the time, filed a motion to open, with an accompanying memorandum of law, seeking to open the stipulation (motion to open).[6] The plaintiff asserted that, prior to September 30, 2015, the parties had agreed to settle only the plaintiff's workers' compensation claims in exchange for the sum of $22, 500, and that the settlement agreement constituted a unilateral expansion of the parties' agreement by the defendants. The plaintiff argued that he did not knowingly and voluntarily execute the settlement agreement, citing factors used in analyzing waivers of ADEA claims on the basis that the terms of the settlement agreement required him to waive causes of action arising under the ADEA. The plaintiff further argued that the stipulation was nugatory on the ground that his execution of the settlement agreement was not knowing and voluntary; however, the plaintiff expressly stated that he was not challenging the canvass conducted by Commissioner Goldberg that preceded the approval of the stipulation. In addition, the plaintiff contended that the commissioner had subject matter jurisdiction to open the stipulation pursuant to General Statutes § 31-315.[7] On July 18, 2016, the defendants filed an objection and an accompanying memorandum of law, arguing, inter alia, that the plaintiff failed to establish any cognizable ground upon which the commissioner could open the stipulation and that the commissioner lacked subject matter jurisdiction to interpret the terms of the settlement agreement, which, the defendants contended, was a separately executed agreement independent of the stipulation.

         On October 11, 2016, Commissioner Nancy E. Salerno issued a decision, captioned ‘‘finding and dismissal, '' denying the motion to open. After setting forth a recitation of the parties' respective positions and her findings of fact, Commissioner Salerno concluded that opening the stipulation was not warranted because the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of fraud, misrepresentation, accident, or mistake, and the plaintiff did not contest the adequacy of Commissioner Goldberg's canvass concerning the stipulation. In addition, Commissioner Salerno concluded that Commissioner Goldberg approved the stipulation without taking into consideration the settlement agreement, and that, in accordance with our Supreme Court's holding in Stickney v. Sunlight Construction, Inc., ...

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