Antinerella v. Rioux, 14734

Citation229 Conn. 479,642 A.2d 699
Decision Date31 May 1994
Docket NumberNo. 14734,14734
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Parties, RICO Bus.Disp.Guide 8677 Joseph ANTINERELLA et al. v. Alfred J. RIOUX et al.

Timothy Brignole, Hartford, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Michael J. Lanoue, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were Margaret Quilter Chapple, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, Atty. Gen., for appellees (defendants).


KATZ, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff, deputy sheriff Joseph Antinerella, 1 an at-will employee, sued the defendant, Alfred J. Rioux, as an individual and in his capacity as high sheriff of Hartford county, for wrongfully terminating the plaintiff's employment for the alleged purposes of misappropriating the plaintiff's business of serving process and furthering the defendant's own illegal fee splitting enterprise. The principal issue on appeal is whether the trial court properly dismissed the suit on the grounds that the doctrine of sovereign immunity and the immunity provisions of General Statutes § 4-165 shielded the defendant from suit in his capacity as sheriff and as an individual, respectively. 2 Because we conclude that the defendant's alleged conduct exceeded his authority and was outside the scope of his employment as high sheriff, he is not immune from suit. Accordingly, we reverse.

The plaintiff brought a five count complaint seeking damages and injunctive relief against the defendant individually and in his capacity as sheriff for: (1) violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (General Statutes § 42-110a et seq.); (2) tortious interference with the plaintiff's contractual relationships; (3) racketeering activities; (4) illegal conspiracy; and (5) breach of contract. The plaintiff alleged in each of the five counts in his complaint the following facts that, for the purposes of this appeal, we consider to be accurate. From 1980 through 1991 the plaintiff maintained a highly profitable business with clients statewide as a deputy sheriff serving process and papers and executing process in Hartford county. To assist him in this business, the plaintiff employed Lori Chirico as a secretary to handle collections, type returns of service and deal with clients. As a result, Chirico became thoroughly familiar with all of the plaintiff's accounts and customer lists.

In 1990, the defendant hired Chirico as his personal secretary, although his appointment of her as a special deputy 3 allowed him to pay her with state funds. At or around the same time, the defendant entered into agreements with several deputy sheriffs he had appointed. Under the agreements, the defendant was to forward business he had obtained from law firms and state agencies to designated deputy sheriffs who would thereafter serve process, and, in turn, pay him 40 percent of the statutory rate in violation of General Statutes §§ 6-46 and 53a-161c. 4

Each count contained the critical allegation that the defendant, after forming the agreement with the deputy sheriffs, terminated the plaintiff's employment for the purposes of obtaining the plaintiff's business and personally benefiting from the forbidden and illegal fee splitting arrangements the defendant had devised. Thereafter, the plaintiff, on the basis of these shared facts, asserted particular legal claims accompanied by additional supporting allegations. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant, by his illegal conduct, tortiously interfered with the plaintiff's contractual relationships and breached his employment contract. The plaintiff further alleged that the defendant's efforts to engage in unfair methods of competition and unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the distribution of service of process, and the restraint, termination and confiscation by the defendant of the plaintiff's business for his own personal gain were in violation of General Statutes § 42-110b 5 et seq. Moreover, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant, by having engaged in racketeering activities in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-159, 53a-161 and 53a-161c, 6 caused him serious economic and personal injury in violation of General Statutes § 52-395 et seq. 7

The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint, arguing that the action against him in his official capacity was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity and that the action against him in his individual capacity was barred by the immunity provisions of General Statutes § 4-165. 8 The trial court granted the defendant's motion and dismissed the plaintiff's complaint. The trial court in its memorandum of decision concluded that the defendant was personally immune from suit because, pursuant to §§ 6-37 and 6-45, 9 the high sheriff has the unlimited statutory authority to hire and fire a deputy sheriff "at his pleasure regardless of his motives or the propriety of his reasons for such dismissal." The trial court also noted that, to defeat the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the plaintiff had to point to a legislative enactment indicating the state's consent to be sued. The trial court concluded that the plaintiff's reliance on General Statutes §§ 6-30 and 6-30a 10 was misplaced, and, that in the absence of any other provision expressly authorizing suit against the sheriff for wrongful termination of employment, the doctrine of sovereign immunity insulated the defendant from suit in his official capacity.

On appeal, the plaintiff argues that because the defendant fired him to further his own financial gain through a fee splitting agreement with various deputy sheriffs in violation of General Statutes §§ 6-36 and 6-46, 11 the defendant exceeded his authority as high sheriff and, therefore, cannot claim the protection of sovereign immunity. 12 The plaintiff similarly contends that because the defendant's behavior exceeded the scope of his employment, the defendant cannot claim the personal immunity afforded by § 4-165. Finally, the plaintiff argues that the express exception contained in § 4-165, eliminating immunity for a state employee acting in a wanton, reckless or malicious fashion, precludes the defendant from asserting the immunity defense. We agree with the plaintiff and therefore conclude that the trial court should not have dismissed the complaint.


" 'We have ... recognized that because the state can act only through its officers and agents, a suit against a state officer concerning a matter in which the officer represents the state is, in effect, against the state.' Sentner v. Board of Trustees, 184 Conn. 339, 342, 439 A.2d 1033 (1981). In its pristine form the doctrine of sovereign immunity would exempt the state from suit entirely, because the sovereign could not be sued in its own courts and 'there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.' Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353, 27 S.Ct. 526, 527, 51 L.Ed. 834 (1907); Bergner v. State, 144 Conn. 282, 284-85, 130 A.2d 293 (1957). This absolute bar of actions against the state has been greatly modified both by statutes effectively consenting to suit in some instances as well as by judicial decisions in others." Doe v. Heintz, 204 Conn. 17, 31, 526 A.2d 1318 (1987); see also 57 Am.Jur.2d, Municipal, County, School and State Tort Liability § 61 et seq. (1988).

"It does not necessarily follow, however, that every action in which state officials or members of state agencies are named defendants and designated by official titles should be treated as an action against the state such as to clothe the defendants with immunity from suit." Simmons v. Parizek, 158 Conn. 304, 307, 259 A.2d 642 (1969). Sovereign immunity does not bar suits against state officials acting in excess of their statutory authority or pursuant to an unconstitutional statute. Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 624, 376 A.2d 359 (1977). 13

" 'In those cases in which it is alleged that the defendant officer is proceeding ... in excess of his statutory authority, the interest in the protection of the plaintiff's right to be free from the consequences of such action outweighs the interest served by the sovereign immunity doctrine....' " Id., quoting J. Block, "Suits Against Government Officers and the Sovereign Immunity Doctrine," 59 Harv.L.Rev. 1060, 1080-81 (1946). In such instances, the need to protect the government simply does not arise and " 'the government cannot justifiably claim interference with its functions....' " Horton v. Meskill, supra, 172 Conn. at 624, 376 A.2d 359. " 'Where[, however,] no substantial claim is made that the defendant officer is acting pursuant to an unconstitutional enactment or in excess of his statutory authority, the purpose of the sovereign immunity doctrine requires dismissal of the suit for want of jurisdiction.' " Id.

In light of these principles, the dispositive issue faced by the trial court in this case in determining whether to dismiss the action on the grounds of sovereign immunity was whether the defendant had allegedly acted in excess of his statutory authority when he terminated the plaintiff's employment. Although we have recognized the legal principle that sovereign immunity does not apply to suits against state officials acting in excess of their statutory authority, we have never had occasion actually to apply that doctrine. This case presents the first opportunity to do so. We begin with a discussion of the standard for appellate review of a trial court's dismissal of a complaint for lack of jurisdiction.

"[T]he doctrine of sovereign immunity implicates subject matter jurisdiction and is therefore a basis for granting a motion to dismiss." Amore v. Frankel, 228 Conn. 358, 364, 636 A.2d 786 (1994). "When a [trial] 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."...

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