Czeczotka v. State, No. CV 05 4002599 (Conn. Super. 5/30/2006), CV 05 4002599

Decision Date30 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. CV 05 4002599,CV 05 4002599
PartiesGary Czeczotka et al. v. State of Connecticut et al. Opinion No.: 93711
CourtConnecticut Superior Court
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE WHETHER ACTION SHOULD BE DISMISSED BASED UPON SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

CLARANCE J. JONES, JUDGE.

This cases arises from a motor vehicle accident between the two plaintiffs, Gary Czectka1 and Patricia Jackman, and the individual defendant, Ken Perez, who is a Connecticut State Trooper. In their four-count complaint against the defendants, the state of Connecticut and Trooper Perez, the plaintiffs allege the facts as hereinafter articulated. The accident occurred on November 29, 2003, when Czectka, who was driving a truck with Jackman as his passenger, collided with Perez's state police cruiser as Czectka was attempting to make a left turn. At the time, Perez was driving the cruiser in the course of her employment, and she had approached the truck from the rear and was attempting to pass it on the left. Both plaintiffs sustained injuries in the accident.

On January 26, 2005, the plaintiffs filed a four-count complaint. In counts one and two, respectively, Czectka and Jackman allege that the state is liable for the injuries they sustained due to the negligence and carelessness of Perez pursuant to General Statutes §52-556.2 In counts three and four, respectively, Czectka and Jackman allege that Perez is liable to them because she was operating her cruiser in a reckless manner and in excess of her statutory authority as a state police officer. They seek unspecified money damages and double or treble damages pursuant to General Statutes §14-295.

Connecticut State Trooper Keri Perez has filed a motion to dismiss counts three and four on the ground that, in these counts, the plaintiffs are bringing claims for monetary damages against her in her official capacity, and the claims are, therefore, barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The plaintiffs have filed an objection to the motion to dismiss, and a memorandum in support thereof.

Prior to filing their objection, the plaintiffs filed a request to amend in which they ask the court to allow them to amend the complaint to remove the references they make therein to Perez's official capacity and to add language to counts three and four to clarify that they intended to allege their claims against Perez in her individual capacity. Perez filed an objection to the plaintiffs' motion to amend in which she raises the following arguments: the court must consider her motion to dismiss before it rules on the plaintiffs' motion to amend; and the plaintiffs should not be permitted to amend the complaint to allege claims for recklessness against her in her individual capacity because such claims would be barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The plaintiffs counter that the court should consider their request to amend before deciding Perez's motion to dismiss. They contend that they mistakenly used language in their complaint that indicated that they were only suing Perez in her official capacity, when they intended to sue her in both her official and her individual capacity. They argue that this mistake is a misnomer, which they should be permitted to correct by amendment pursuant to General Statutes §52-123.3

In Federal Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Peabody, N.E., Inc., 239 Conn. 93, 100, 680 A.2d 1321 (1996), our Supreme Court determined once the defendant state filed a motion to dismiss a complaint on the ground that it was insufficient to allege a claim that "fits within the parameters of the limited waiver of the state's sovereign immunity," the trial court was required to decide the merits of that motion before it considered the opposing party's motion to amend its complaint. As the court explained, "the doctrine of sovereign immunity implicates subject matter jurisdiction and is therefore a basis for granting a motion to dismiss . . . Whenever the absence of jurisdiction is brought to the notice of the court or tribunal, cognizance of it must be taken and the matter passed upon before it can move one further step in the cause; as any movement is necessarily the exercise of jurisdiction . . .

As noted above, in the present case, the plaintiffs are seeking to amend the allegations of the complaint to change the capacity in which they sued Perez in order to avoid the parameters of Perez's sovereign immunity. Therefore, in accordance with Federal Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Peabody, N.E., Inc., this court must first decide the merits of Perez's motion to dismiss. Perez's motion is premised on her contention that, in counts three and four, the plaintiffs bring their claims against her in her official capacity, and they seek monetary damages. Perez argues that under Connecticut law, the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars claims for monetary damages against state officials who are sued in their official capacities. The plaintiff's only objection to the motion to dismiss is that, in a decision in a related case, the court already determined that Perez cannot rely on the doctrine of sovereign immunity to shield her from liability for this accident. See Kemper Auto & Home Ins. Co. v. State, Superior Court, judicial district of New London, Docket No. CV 04 0569339 (Kemper action). Perez replies that the decision in the Kemper action is distinguishable.

The Supreme Court discussed the principles and the test that applies to the issue raised in Perez's motion to dismiss in Miller v. Egan, 265 Conn. 301, 828 A.2d 549 (2003). As to the former, the court explained that pursuant to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, "[w]e have long recognized the validity of the common-law principle that the state cannot be sued without its consent . . . We have also 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." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 313.

"We have held that a plaintiff seeking to circumvent the doctrine of sovereign immunity must show that: (1) the legislature, either expressly or by force of a necessary implication, statutorily waived the state's sovereign immunity . . . or (2) in an action for declaratory or injunctive relief, the state officer or officers against whom such relief is sought acted in excess of statutory authority, or pursuant to an unconstitutional statute." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 314. Regarding claims for monetary damages, the court specifically noted that, in the absence of a statute that expressly authorizes such claims, "a plaintiff who seeks to bring an action for monetary damages against the state must first obtain authorization from the claims commissioner." Id., 317. See General Statutes §§4-141 through 4-165b.

Moreover, the court expressly clarified that this condition also applies to claims for money damages against state officers acting in their official capacity, stating that, "regardless of whether the plaintiffs have alleged that state officers acted in excess of statutory authority, the plaintiffs must seek a waiver from the claims commissioner before bringing an action against the state in the Superior Court." Miller v. Egan, supra, 265 Conn. 318. On the other hand, "[i]f the plaintiff's complaint reasonably may be construed to bring claims against the defendants in their individual capacities, then sovereign immunity would not bar those claims." Id., 307.

In the present matter, the plaintiffs are only seeking monetary damages, and they do not allege or argue that they sought a waiver from the claims commissioner before bringing their action. Thus, the crucial issue is whether counts three and four may be reasonably construed to allege claims against Perez in her individual capacity.

In Miller v. Egan, supra, 265 Conn. 308, the court explained that "[t]he determination of whether the plaintiff's complaint alleged claims against the defendants in their individual capacities is governed by the test set forth in Spring v. Constantino, 168 Conn. 563, 568, 362 A.2d 871 (1975). In Spring . . . [the court stated that] `[ t]he vital test is to be found in the essential nature and effect of the proceeding.' . . . The court then set forth four criteria to determine whether an action is `in effect, one against the state and cannot be maintained without its consent: (1) a state official has been sued; (2) the suit concerns some matter in which that official represents the state; (3) the state is the real party against whom relief is sought; and (4) the judgment, though nominally against the official, will operate to control the activities of the state or subject it to liability.' Id."

Here, the claims alleged in counts three and four meet the first two criteria in that the plaintiffs bring these claims against Keri Perez, who is a state trooper, and the claims pertain to her conduct while she was operating a police cruiser in the course of her employment. They also satisfy the third criteria in that as was also the case in Miller v. Egan, the plaintiffs never allege that ...

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