Hunte v. Blumenthal

Citation680 A.2d 1231,238 Conn. 146
Decision Date23 July 1996
Docket NumberNo. 15356,15356
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
PartiesAlan HUNTE et al. v. Richard BLUMENTHAL, Attorney General, et al.

Thomas P. Mullaney III, Glastonbury, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Jane S. Scholl, Associate Attorney General, with whom were Kristine D. Ragaglia, Assistant Attorney General, and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General, for appellees (defendants).


PETERS, Chief Justice.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether, pursuant to General Statutes §§ 4-165 and 5-141d, 1 foster parents qualify as "employees" of the state and are, therefore, eligible for defense and indemnification in a wrongful death action brought by the estate of a foster child. The plaintiffs, Alan and Dawne Hunte, brought an action against the defendants, the state of Connecticut and the attorney general for the state of Connecticut, 2 seeking a declaratory judgment to determine their statutory rights to defense and indemnification. On the basis of stipulated facts, the trial court held that the plaintiffs did not qualify as state "employees" and therefore were not entitled to relief. The plaintiffs appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). We reverse the judgment of the trial court.

The underlying facts are undisputed. At all times relevant to this case, the plaintiffs were foster parents licensed by the state. On October 15, 1990, the department of children and youth services (department) 3 placed with the plaintiffs Lisa Sledgeski, a minor under the protection of the department pursuant to an order of temporary custody. On July 7, 1991, Lisa drowned in a swimming pool accident at the plaintiffs' home. Subsequently, Lisa's estate brought a wrongful death action against the plaintiffs. That action is now pending.

The plaintiffs sought to have the state provide defense and indemnification in the wrongful death action. Their claim is predicated on §§ 4-165 and 5-141d. The state denied the plaintiffs' request on the ground that they were independent contractors rather than "employees" as required under the statutes. Opinions, Conn.Atty.Gen. No. 93-013 (June 14, 1993). The plaintiffs then brought the present action for declaratory relief. 4 The trial court ruled for the state, holding that the plaintiffs were not entitled to protection under §§ 4-165 and 5-141d because they were not state "employees" as that term is defined in General Statutes § 4-141. 5

The plaintiffs appeal from the judgment of the trial court. They claim that, because the department retained the right to exercise broad control over their actions as foster parents, the state had effectively entered into an employer-employee relationship with them. The state, to the contrary, contends that the plaintiffs enjoyed a great degree of autonomy and independent judgment and, therefore, were properly characterized as independent contractors and not employees. 6 We agree with the plaintiffs that, at the time of Lisa's death, 7 they were "employees" of the state as that term is used in §§ 4-165 and 5-141d and thus are entitled to defense and indemnification.

In so deciding, we are mindful of the difficult choices that confront the state when it removes a child from an unhealthy environment and places that child in a foster home. The state has the double onus of taking a child from his or her natural parents, and of ensuring that the chosen foster parents provide adequate attention, support and guidance. We also recognize that insofar as our decision increases the state's financial responsibility to foster parents, it may tend also to increase the state's burden in providing this invaluable service. We further recognize that the state may find it reasonably advantageous to promulgate extensive foster care regulations rather than to engage in more expensive monitoring techniques. Sensitivity to the beneficence of the foster care program and the necessity of detailed regulations, however, does not permit us to ignore well established legal principles regarding the employer-employee relationship.


Our review of the judgment of the trial court in favor of the state is, under the circumstances of this case, plenary. The trial court rendered its judgment on the basis of the parties' stipulation of facts, and that stipulation informs the issue on appeal as well. Rich-Taubman Associates v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, 236 Conn. 613, 618, 674 A.2d 805 (1996). The determination of legal principles that govern the uncontested facts of a party's employment status is a question of law. See Spring v. Constantino, 168 Conn. 563, 574, 362 A.2d 871 (1975); Darling v. Burrone Bros., Inc., 162 Conn. 187, 195, 292 A.2d 912 (1972).

To decide whether foster parents are "employees" within the meaning of §§ 4-165 and 5-141d, we must begin with the language of the statutes. Herbert S. Newman & Partners v. CFC Construction Ltd. Partnership, 236 Conn. 750, 756, 674 A.2d 1313 (1996). Section 4-165 provides in relevant part that "[n ]o state officer or employee shall be personally liable for damage or injury, not wanton, reckless or malicious, caused in the discharge of his duties or within the scope of his employment." (Emphasis added.) Section 5-141d provides in relevant part that "[t]he state shall save harmless and indemnify any state officer or employee ... from financial loss and expense arising out of any claim, demand, suit or judgment by reason of his alleged negligence ... if the officer [or] employee ... is found to have been acting in the discharge of his duties or within the scope of his employment and such act or omission is found not to have been wanton, reckless or malicious." (Emphasis added.)

Construed together, these two statutes protect state employees acting within the legitimate scope of their employment from personal liability for negligence. "The manifest legislative intent expressed by chapter 53 [of which § 4-165 is a part] is that an employee is immune where and because the state may be sued, and that the state may be sued in instances where a private person would be liable. See [General Statutes] § 4-160(a). This would include the vicarious liability of a private person for the acts of his employees arising out of the scope of their employment under the doctrine of agency or respondeat superior." Spring v. Constantino, supra, 168 Conn. at 571, 362 A.2d 871. Section 5-141d similarly evinces the legislature's intent that the state indemnify and defend any officer or employee sued for negligent conduct occurring in the course of his or her employment.

Although the plaintiffs are not "officers" under §§ 4-165 or 5-141d, they contend that they are entitled to protection under these statutes as "employees." Both §§ 4-165 and 5-141d refer to § 4-141 for the definition of the term "employees." 8 Section 4-141, in turn, provides that the term "employees" includes "every person elected or appointed to or employed in any office, position or post in the state government, whatever his title, classification or function and whether he serves with or without remuneration or compensation...."

Whether foster parents are entitled to defense and indemnification as state "employees" under §§ 4-165 and 5-141d depends, therefore, on a proper interpretation of § 4-141. We are guided by settled principles of statutory construction that assist us in ascertaining the intent of the legislature. Petco Insulation Co. v. Crystal, 231 Conn. 315, 321, 649 A.2d 790 (1994). "The legislative intent is to be discerned by reference to the language of the statute, its legislative history and surrounding circumstances, the policy the [statute] was designed to implement, and the statute's relationship to the existing legislation and common law principles governing the same subject matter. Ambroise v. William Raveis Real Estate, Inc., 226 Conn. 757, 764, 628 A.2d 1303 (1993)." Glastonbury Volunteer Ambulance Assn., Inc. v. Freedom of Information Commission, 227 Conn. 848, 854, 633 A.2d 305 (1993).

Neither the language of § 4-141 nor the legislative histories of §§ 4-141, 4-165 or 5-141d illuminate the definitional boundaries of the term "employees." We are mindful that §§ 4-165 and 5-141d are in derogation of sovereign immunity and therefore must be strictly construed. Spring v. Constantino, supra, 168 Conn. at 570, 362 A.2d 871. Strict construction does not, however, abrogate the manifest policy motivating these statutes, namely, the protection of state employees from liability for negligent acts that occur in the course of employment. Id., at 571, 362 A.2d 871. Strict construction does not preclude us from recognizing groups or persons who, in accordance with recognized tenets of statutory construction, legitimately fall within the definition of the term "employees."

"In the absence of guidance from the language of the statute or the legislative history, we look to common law principles.... It is assumed that all legislation is interpreted in light of the common law at the time of its enactment." 9 (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Keeney v. Old Saybrook, 237 Conn. 135, 162, 676 A.2d 795 (1996); cf. Bourgeois v. Cacciapuoti, 138 Conn. 317, 320 84 A.2d 122 (1951) ("[w]e have, in [workers'] compensation cases, uniformly given to the term ['employee'] its common-law definition"). The trial court applied the common law "right to control" test and concluded that because the state's control did not extend to "the social, emotional, educational, and parental relationship" between foster parent and child, the "[p]laintiffs [had] not proven that they [were] employees." 10 We agree with the state that the trial court invoked the proper test. We conclude, however, that the trial court...

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