Connecticut Judicial Branch v. Gilbert

Decision Date26 April 2022
Docket NumberSC 20514
Citation343 Conn. 90,272 A.3d 603
Parties CONNECTICUT JUDICIAL BRANCH v. Germaine GILBERT et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Colleen B. Valentine, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were William Tong, attorney general, Clare E. Kindall, solicitor general, and Matthew Larock, assistant attorney general, for the appellant-cross appellee (plaintiff).

Michael E. Roberts, human rights attorney, for the appellee-cross appellant (defendant Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities).

McDonald, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js.*

ECKER, J.

This case arises from allegations of sexual harassment brought by the named defendant, Germaine Gilbert (complainant), a judicial marshal who is employed by the plaintiff, the Connecticut Judicial Branch (branch). Following a contested public hearing before the defendant Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (commission), the human rights referee (referee) found that the allegations were substantiated and awarded the complainant back pay with interest, emotional distress damages, attorney's fees, and injunctive relief. The branch appealed, and the trial court sustained the appeal in part. The court upheld the referee's determinations that (1) emotional distress damages and attorney's fees were available remedies under the state employment discrimination law then in effect if the complainant was able to establish a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (2018) (Title VII), and (2) the state has waived its sovereign immunity with respect to prejudgment and postjudgment interest awards for civil rights violations, but also determined that (3) the award of emotional distress damages must be vacated because of the complainant's failure to fully comply with the branch's discovery requests in the administrative proceeding, and (4) the injunction reinstating the complainant to her former workplace must be vacated as overbroad and otherwise improper. The branch challenges the first two determinations on appeal; the commission challenges the latter two determinations on cross appeal. We affirm the judgment of the trial court with respect to the Title VII issue, reverse the judgment with respect to sovereign immunity, and remand the case for the referee to conduct a new hearing in damages and, if appropriate, to revisit the injunction reinstating the complainant to her former workplace.

The following background facts and procedural history are relevant. In 2012, the complainant brought a claim with the commission alleging that another judicial marshal, Gordon Marco, subjected her to severe and pervasive sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact, potentially rising to the level of sexual assault, at various times between 2006 and 2012, while she was stationed primarily at the Danielson courthouse. The complainant alleged that the branch discriminated against her on the basis of her gender by, among other things, subjecting her to a hostile work environment, failing to adequately investigate her allegations, and failing to take adequate remedial steps to protect her. The complainant also claimed that the branch had retaliated by altering the conditions of her employment in response to her complaint. Most prominently, she alleged that, beginning in mid-2012, her supervisor, Russell Downer, reassigned her from Danielson, where she had been assigned since 2006, to the Willimantic and Putnam courthouses, each of which was significantly farther from her residence. The complainant sought to hold the branch responsible for the alleged misconduct under three civil rights statutes: (1) Connecticut's employment discrimination statute, the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, General Statutes § 46a-60 ; (2) Connecticut's general antidiscrimination statute, General Statutes § 46a-58 (a), which prohibits any person from depriving any other person of rights secured by law on account of the victim's membership in a protected class; and (3) Title VII, as a predicate to a further violation of § 46a-58 (a).

Following a public hearing before the commission, the referee found that the complainant's allegations were substantiated, a finding that the branch does not contest in the present appeal. The referee awarded the complainant seven days of back pay for the work time she lost while attending the public hearing, as well as prejudgment and postjudgment interest on the back pay award, all pursuant to General Statutes (2012 Supp.) § 46a-86 (b),1 which provides remedies specifically for victims of discriminatory employment practices in violation of § 46a-60.2 The referee also awarded the complainant $47,637 in attorney's fees and $50,000 in emotional distress damages pursuant to § 46a-86 (c), which provides remedies for violations of, among other things, the general antidiscrimination statute, § 46a-58. Finally, the referee granted injunctive relief, including an order that "[t]he [branch] shall give the complainant the option of returning to the Danielson courthouse."

The branch brought an administrative appeal pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183 (a), in which it contended that (1) under this court's holding in Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Truelove & Maclean, Inc. , 238 Conn. 337, 680 A.2d 1261 (1996) ( Truelove ), prior to 2019,3 the commission was not authorized to award attorney's fees and emotional distress damages to victims of employment discrimination under either § 46a-58 (a) or § 46a-60, (2) the award of prejudgment and postjudgment interest against the state under § 46a-86 (b) is barred by the state's sovereign immunity, (3) the referee's award of emotional distress damages also was improper because the complainant refused to provide the branch with her psychological and medical records, allegedly in violation of the referee's discovery orders, and (4) the referee exceeded her legal authority in ordering the branch to reinstate the complainant to her position at the Danielson courthouse.4

The trial court agreed with the branch's third and fourth claims and, accordingly, vacated the award of emotional distress damages and the injunction. With respect to the first claim, the court agreed with the branch that Truelove compels the twin conclusions that § 46a-60 is the exclusive statutory basis for remedying state law employment discrimination claims, and emotional damages and attorney's fees are unavailable for violations of § 46a-60 that occurred before 2019. But the court also determined that those remedies nevertheless remain available to a victim of employment discrimination seeking relief in proceedings before the commission because violations of federal employment discrimination laws—Title VII, in particular—are cognizable under § 46a-58 (a), which, unlike § 46a-60, attaches to a remedies provision that includes economic damages and attorney's fees.5 With respect to the second claim, the trial court disagreed with the branch and concluded that the state has waived its sovereign immunity as to prejudgment and postjudgment interest for civil rights violations.

The branch appealed6 and the commission cross appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal and cross appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-2.7 Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.

IREMEDIES FOR EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION UNDER STATE LAW

The branch's primary claim on appeal is that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the commission may award emotional distress damages and attorney's fees in an employment discrimination action under § 46a-58 (a) and that statute's civil remedies provision, § 46a-86 (c). The branch agrees with the conclusion of the trial court that, under this court's decision in Truelove , the commission may adjudicate state law employment discrimination claims only under the auspices of § 46a-60 (which specifically prohibits employment discrimination) and not under § 46a-58 (a) (which prohibits discrimination more broadly). See Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Truelove & Maclean, Inc. , supra, 238 Conn. at 346, 680 A.2d 1261. The branch contends, however, that the trial court incorrectly concluded that, to the extent that violations of § 46a-60 also run afoul of Title VII, the commission has the authority to address such violations of federal law as a factual predicate of a § 46a-58 (a) claim. The branch's position is that, under federal law, a state administrative agency such as the commission can assist the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in investigating a Title VII employment discrimination claim, but only a court ultimately can resolve the claim on the merits and award damages and attorney's fees. We are not persuaded.

A

Whether the commission has the authority to identify violations of Title VII and to award damages for those violations under state law presents a legal question that we review de novo. See id., at 345, 680 A.2d 1261. To the extent that the issue requires us to interpret the commission's enabling statutes and the state antidiscrimination laws that the commission is responsible for enforcing, we accord deference to the agency's formally articulated interpretation of those statutes when that interpretation is both time-tested and reasonable. See, e.g., Longley v. State Employees Retirement Commission , 284 Conn. 149, 166, 931 A.2d 890 (2007). To the extent that the question requires us to interpret Title VII, some deference is likewise owed to the EEOC's reasonable interpretations of the federal law. See, e.g., Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Commercial Office Products Co ., 486 U.S. 107, 115, 108 S. Ct. 1666, 100 L. Ed. 2d 96 (1988) ("[I]t is axiomatic that the EEOC's interpretation of Title VII, for which it has...

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