Fitzgerald v. City of Bridgeport

Decision Date18 April 2023
Docket NumberAC 45114
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals

Argued October 12, 2022

Procedural History

Action seeking, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the named defendant et al. failed to follow certain civil service provisions in appointing the defendant Rebecca Garcia to the position of assistant police chief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk and tried to the court, Stevens, J.; judgment declaring that the named defendant et al. failed to adhere to the charter and the rules of the defendant Bridgeport Civil Service Commission in appointing the defendant Rebecca Garcia to the position of assistant police chief, from which the defendants appealed to this court. Appeal dismissed; judgment vacated.

James J. Healy, with whom, on the brief, was John P. Bohannon, Jr. deputy city attorney, for the appellants (defendants).

Thomas W. Bucci, for the appellees (plaintiffs).

Bright, C. J., and Suarez and Clark, Js.



The plaintiffs, Brian Fitzgerald, Steven Lougal, and Roderick G. Porter, captains in the Bridgeport Police Department (police department), and Anthony S. Armeno, deputy chief of the police department, commenced this action against the city of Bridgeport (city) and five other defendants,[1] seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that the defendants failed to follow the civil service provisions of the Bridgeport City Charter (city charter) in appointing Captain Rebeca Garcia to the position of assistant police chief of the police department.[2] Following a bench trial, the trial court granted the plaintiffs' request for declaratory relief and declared that the city, Mayor Joseph Ganim, and Chief of Police A.J. Perez failed to adhere to the city charter and rules of the Bridgeport Civil Service Commission (commission) when appointing Garcia to the assistant police chief position on December 18, 2019. The court declined to grant the plaintiffs any injunctive relief.

On appeal, the defendants claim, among other things, that the court erred in concluding that David J. Dunn, the city's personnel director, had not conducted a "proper noncompetitive examination" pursuant to § 211 of the city charter before Garcia was appointed to the assistant police chief position. After oral arguments in this appeal, however, Garcia ceased serving in the assistant police chief position due to her retirement from the police department. In light of this development, the defendants now claim that the appeal is moot and that vacatur of the trial court's judgment is warranted. We agree with the defendants, dismiss the appeal as moot, and vacate the judgment of the trial court.[3]

We begin by setting forth the legal principles at play. "[M]ootness implicates [this] court's subject matter jurisdiction and is thus a threshold matter for us to resolve before we may reach the merits of an appeal." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) CT Freedom Alliance, LLC v. Dept. of Education, 346 Conn. 1, 12, 287 A.3d 557 (2023). "It is a well-settled general rule that the existence of an actual controversy is an essential requisite to appellate jurisdiction; it is not the province of appellate courts to decide moot questions, disconnected from the granting of actual relief or from the determination of which no practical relief can follow." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Feehan v. Marcone, 331 Conn. 436, 486, 204 A.3d 666, cert, denied, ___ U.S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 144, 205 L.Ed.2d 35 (2019). "An actual controversy must exist not only at the time the appeal is taken, but also throughout the pendency of the appeal." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone v. Rocque, 267 Conn. 116,125-26, 836 A.2d 414 (2003).

The plaintiffs disagree with the defendants that this appeal has been rendered moot by Garcia's retirement. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that the case is not moot because the "[t]he court's ruling was not conditioned in any manner on . . . Garcia's occupancy of the position." They maintain that "[t]he sanctity of the civil service system was the paramount issue in the litigation" and that the "court ruled on the manner in which . . . Garcia was appointed to the position."[4]

Although that may be true, the plaintiffs' argument overlooks an important jurisdictional requirement. "An essential prerequisite to the court's jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action is that 'the determination of the controversy must be capable of resulting in practical relief to the complainant.'" State Marshal Assn. of Connecticut, Inc. v. Johnson, 198 Conn.App. 392, 421, 234 A.3d 111 (2020). "When, during the pendency of an appeal, events have occurred that preclude an appellate court from granting any practical relief through its disposition of the merits, a case has become moot." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Emma F., 315 Conn. 414, 423-24, 107 A.3d 947 (2015).

In their operative complaint, the plaintiffs confined their request for relief to declaratory and prospective injunctive relief. After alleging that the city, the commission, Ganim, Perez, and Dunn failed to follow both the city charter and the rules of the commission in appointing Garcia to said position, the plaintiffs prayed for relief "barring . . . Garcia from serving in the position of assistant police chief until further order of the court" and "declaring . . . the appointment of . . . Garcia to the position of assistant police chief . . . null and void. . . ."[5] They did not seek damages or any other relief beyond declaratory and injunctive relief. Moreover, the court denied the plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief on the ground that "such relief is only available through a quo warranto action under General Statutes § 52-491, and none of the plaintiffs have asserted the requisite qualifications to assert a quo warranto claim." Although the plaintiffs sought broad declarations, including a declaration mandating that the assistant chief of police position be filled pursuant to the classified service provision of the city charter; see footnote 5 of this opinion; no such order was entered by the trial court. Rather, the court's declaratory judgment was limited to a declaration that the city, Ganim, and Perez failed to adhere to the city charter and the rules of the commission when appointing Garcia to the position of assistant police chief. The plaintiffs did not cross-appeal the court's denial of injunctive relief or the scope of the court's declaratory judgment.

In light of the nature of the relief at issue in this appeal, Garcia's retirement makes it impossible for this court to grant any practical relief to the plaintiffs. An opinion from this court reviewing the trial court's judgment declaring unlawful Garcia's appointment would amount to an advisory opinion. It is well established, however, that this court does "not render advisory opinions. . . . [W]here the question presented is purely academic, we must refuse to entertain the appeal." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Redding Life Care, LLC v. Redding, 331 Conn. 711, 737,207A.3d493 (2019). We, therefore, conclude that this appeal has become moot and must be dismissed.

That brings us to the question of vacatur. The equitable remedy of vacatur is rooted in this court's supervisory authority; State v. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, 308 Conn. 140, 143, 60 A.3d 946 (2013); and is commonly employed in circumstances when a judgment, unreviewable because of mootness, is likely to spawn legal consequences. See Private Healthcare Systems, Inc. v. Torres, 278 Conn. 291, 303, 898 A.2d 768 (2006). Our courts generally have followed the federal courts' approach in determining when vacatur is appropriate; see In re Emma F., supra, 315 Conn. 430; and our Supreme Court's decision in State v. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, supra, 308 Conn. 143-44, sheds some light on that approach. In Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, the defendant hospital appealed from a judgment of the trial court requiring it to comply with a subpoena duces tecum issued by the claims commissioner. Id., 142. This court affirmed the trial court's judgment, and the hospital filed a petition for certification to appeal with our Supreme Court, which was granted. Id. After the certification petition was granted, the underlying case was settled and the state no longer sought to enforce the subpoena. Id. Our Supreme Court concluded that those events rendered the appeal moot and, sua sponte, dismissed the appeal. Id.

Our Supreme Court also vacated the judgments of this court and the trial court. Id., 143. The court determined that vacatur was appropriate because the hospital "was not responsible for the mootness of its . . . appeal" and because the judgments, which were now unreviewable, "may have preclusive effects against the hospital in subsequent litigation." Id. In reaching this conclusion our Supreme Court looked to United States Supreme Court case law, which explains that vacatur of a mooted case" 'clears the path for future relitigation of the issues between the parties and eliminates a judgment, review of which was prevented through happenstance.'" Id., 143, quoting United States v. Munsing-wear, Inc., 340 U.S. 36, 40, 71 S.Ct. 104, 95 L.Ed. 36 (1950). Our Supreme Court observed that vacatur is the" 'ordinary practice'" in the federal courts but that they have limited vacatur in settled cases. State v. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, supra, 308 Conn. 144-45. Nevertheless, the court determined that the settlement in that case did not preclude vacatur because the legal principles warranting that limitation were not present in that case because the hospital did not voluntarily forfeit its...

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