Cotto v. United Technologies Corp.

Citation738 A.2d 623,251 Conn. 1
Decision Date12 October 1999
Docket Number(SC 15963)
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

251 Conn. 1
738 A.2d 623


(SC 15963)

Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Argued April 29, 1999.

Officially released October 12, 1999.

Callahan, C. J., and Borden, Berdon, Katz, Palmer, Mcdonald and Peters, JS.1

251 Conn. 2
Karen Lee Torre, for the appellant (plaintiff)

Edward J. Dempsey, for the appellee (defendant).

Martin B. Margulies and Philip D. Tegeler filed a brief for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. as amici curiae.



This case concerns the applicability of General Statutes § 31-51q2 to a private workplace dispute involving the placement of American flags at

251 Conn. 3
employee workstations. The principal issue is whether the statute provides any protection for infringement of an employee's rights of free speech and association at a private workplace. The secondary issue is whether, under the circumstances of this case, the employee has alleged facts in his complaint that are sufficient to demonstrate an infringement of his constitutional rights within the confines of the statute. We conclude that, although § 31-51q provides private workplace protection against the impairment of constitutional rights, the complaint presently before us does not allege a cognizable impairment of such rights. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court

The plaintiff, Gonzalo Cotto, filed a two count complaint against the defendant, Sikorsky Aircraft, Division of United Technologies Corporation,3 seeking damages for his wrongful discharge, both as a statutory claim under § 31-51q and as a common-law claim under Sheets v. Teddy's Frosted Foods, Inc., 179 Conn. 471, 474, 427 A.2d 385 (1980). These claims arose out of the plaintiffs discharge from employment by the defendant following the plaintiff's refusal to display an American flag at his workstation. The trial court, after granting the motion of the defendant to strike the complaint in its entirety, rendered a judgment in favor of the defendant.

The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court only with respect to the denial of his statutory claim for relief. The majority of that court, Dupont, J., and Daly,

251 Conn. 4
J., concluded, contrary to the view of the trial court, that the statute encompassed free speech claims at the workplace.Nevertheless, it affirmed the judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs refusal to display the flag did not qualify as the kind of conduct protected by the statute. Cotto v. United Technologies Corp., 48 Conn. App. 618, 632, 711 A.2d 1180 (1998). In a concurring opinion, Judge Hennessy agreed with the trial court's narrower reading of the statute. We granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to appeal to this court.4

The opinion of the Appellate Court recites the relevant background. "The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he was employed on a full-time basis by the defendant for approximately twelve years. The relevant portions of other allegations of the plaintiffs complaint are ... as follows: `On or about April 22, 1991, the defendant, acting through [its] management personnel, distributed American flags to employees in the plaintiffs department and it was expected that all employees would display American flags at their workstations. The plaintiff declined to display the American flag and further gave his opinion on the propriety of coercing or exerting pressure on employees to display the American flag. As a result of the plaintiffs refusal to display the American flag and as a direct and proximate result of his comments with respect to displaying the flag, he was subjected to threats and harassment from his coworkers. Said threats and harassment were directed toward him by his coworkers with the full support and

251 Conn. 5
encouragement of the defendant. The plaintiff's refusal to display the American flag and his expression of his opinion regarding the company's policy that employees must display the American flag at their workstations were absolutely protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article First of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut. Subsequent to the plaintiff's suspension from employment, he was permanently discharged from employment on or about May 16, 1992, on account of the plaintiffs aforementioned behavior and expression of opinion, all of which were constitutionally protected. The defendant's act of discharging the plaintiff from employment violated the plaintiffs rights pursuant to ... § 31-51q, as the plaintiff's refusal to display the American flag and his expression of opinion regarding the same did not substantially or materially interfere with his bona fide job performance or the working relationship between him and the defendant.'" Id., 620-21

To determine whether the plaintiff has stated a valid cause of action, we must decide two questions. First, as a matter of statutory construction, does § 31-51q provide any remedy for an alleged impairment of constitutional rights of free speech at a privately owned workplace? We conclude that the statute does provide such a remedy under the proper circumstances. Second, as a matter of statutory application, does the statute provide a remedy for the employer conduct alleged to have occurred in the present case? We conclude that the statute has no application to the facts alleged in the complaint presently before us. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.



To determine whether the conduct of private employers is within the scope of § 31-51q, we turn to well

251 Conn. 6
established principles of statutory construction. "Statutory construction is a question of law and therefore our review is plenary.... [O]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature.... In seeking to discern that intent, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) General Motors Corp. v. Dohmann, 247 Conn. 274, 286, 722 A.2d 1205 (1998); Connecticut National Bank v. Giacomi, 242 Conn. 17, 32, 699 A.2d 101 (1997); United Illuminating Co. v. New Haven, 240 Conn. 422, 431, 692 A.2d 742 (1997)

Section 31-51q creates a statutory cause of action for damages against "[a]ny employer" for "any employee" who has been subjected "to discipline or discharge on account of the exercise by such employee of rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States Constitution or section 3, 4 or 14 of article first of the Constitution of the state...." On its face, the statute extends the protection of federal and state constitutional rights in two respects. It provides coverage for private employees as well as for governmental employees, and it imposes liability on private employers as well as governmental employers.5 What is at issue is whether, in so doing, it provides coverage for an employee's exercise of constitutional rights on private property, namely at a private employer's workplace.

Our point of departure must be the language of the statute itself. The statute identifies, as the class of those

251 Conn. 7
subject to a damages action, "[a]ny employer, including the state and any instrumentality or political subdivision thereof...."

Read literally, the language employed by the legislature unconditionally includes private employers as well as public employers within the terms of the statute. The phraseology of expressly "including" governmental employers is not readily transmuted into the manifestation of an intention of impliedly "excluding" private employers. The use of the word "any" at the outset of the statutory language reenforces its natural reading to encompass rights at a private workplace. Had the legislature meant to confine the statute to the conduct of governmental actors, as the defendant urges us to conclude, the legislature presumably could have done so directly, by adding "public" or "governmental" before "employer." To read the statute as limited to governmental actors requires either the deletion of words that the statute contains or the addition of a word that it does not contain. That is not a preferred method of statutory analysis.6

251 Conn. 8
The remainder of § 31-51q confirms the legislature's intent to provide coverage for the exercise of constitutional rights at a private as well as at a public workplace. Having granted a right of recovery for a constitutional claim, the statute limits that right with a proviso, stating that such a claim is not actionable if the activity "substantially or materially interfere [s] with the employee's bona fide job performance or the working relationship between the employee and the employer...." The legislature's manifest concern for the special needs of the workplace is at least as relevant in the private workplace as it is in the public workplace. When reading a statute, "we must consider the statute as a whole ... reconciling its separate parts in order to render a reasonable overall interpretation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities v. Truelove & Maclean, Inc., 238 Conn. 337, 349, 680 A.2d 1261 (1996); Waterbury Petroleum Products, Inc. v. Canaan Oil & Fuel Co., 193 Conn. 208, 232, 477 A.2d 988 (1984) (presumption of purpose behind every sentence, clause or phrase).

Construing § 31-51q to encompass the infringement of constitutional rights at the private workplace, as the statute literally reads, is entirely consistent with the purpose of the statute. The statute plainly was intended to protect the first amendment and related state constitutional rights of working men and women. As a remedial statute, § 31-51q...

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