MacDermid, Inc. v. Leonetti, 19077.

Decision Date26 November 2013
Docket NumberNo. 19077.,19077.
Citation79 A.3d 60,310 Conn. 616
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesMacDERMID, INC. v. Stephen J. LEONETTI.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

John R. Horvack, Jr., Waterbury, with whom, on the brief, was John L. Cordani, Jr., for the appellant (plaintiff).

Kathleen Eldergill, Manchester, for the appellee (defendant).

ROGERS, C.J., and NORCOTT, PALMER, ZARELLA, EVELEIGH and McDONALD, Js.

NORCOTT, J.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether the doctrine of absolute immunity, which affords protection against certain claims relating to the commencement and prosecution of a cause of action, shields an employer who has brought an action against a former employee from a counterclaim by that former employee alleging that the employer's cause of action is in retaliation for the former employee's decision to exercise his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31–275 et seq., in violation of General Statutes § 31–290a.1 The plaintiff, MacDermid, Inc., appeals 2 from the trial court's denial of its motion to dismiss the counterclaim brought by the defendant, Stephen J. Leonetti. Specifically, the plaintiff asserts that the trial court improperly applied the factors set forth in Rioux v. Barry, 283 Conn. 338, 350–51, 927 A.2d 304 (2007), and incorrectly determined that absolute immunity did not bar the defendant's claim of employer retaliation. We disagree and, therefore, affirm the trial court's decision denying the plaintiff's motion to dismiss.

“Because in this appeal we review the trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss, we take the facts to be those alleged in the complaint, construing them in a manner most favorable to the pleader.” Beecher v. Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut, 282 Conn. 130, 132, 918 A.2d 880 (2007). We derive our summary of the facts alleged in the defendant's counterclaim and the relevant procedural history from our recent opinion in Leonetti v. MacDermid, Inc., 310 Conn. 195, 76 A.3d 168 (2013), and from the record in the present appeal. The defendant worked for the plaintiff “for twenty-eight years until he was discharged in early November, 2009. Five years earlier, in June, 2004, the [defendant] sustained a lower back injury during the course of his employment. The [defendant] timely filed notice of a workers' compensation claim related to this injury on April 14, 2005. The parties stipulated to the [Workers' Compensation Commissioner (commissioner) ] that the injury suffered by the [defendant] was a compensable injury.

“At the time that the [plaintiff] informed the [defendant] that he would be discharged from his employment, the [plaintiff] presented the [defendant] with a proposed termination agreement [agreement]. Article II of the agreement signed by the parties provides that the [defendant] agreed to release the [plaintiff] from [inter alia] ‘any and all ... workers' compensation claims....'

Article III of the agreement provides that, in consideration ‘for the agreements and covenants made herein, the release given, the actions taken or contemplated to be taken, or to be refrained from,’ the [defendant] would be paid twenty-seven weeks ‘severance pay, determined solely upon the [defendant's] current base salary,’ which amounted to $70,228.51, within thirty days of the [defendant's] receipt of the properly executed agreement....

Article III of the agreement also provided that [the defendant] understands that the payments and benefits listed above are all that [the defendant] is entitled to receive from [the plaintiff].... [The defendant] agrees that the payments and benefits above are more than [the plaintiff] is required to pay under its normal policies, procedures and plans.’ ...

Article IV of the agreement ... contained a clause stating in part that [the defendant] acknowledges that he has been given a reasonable period of time of at least thirty (30) days to review and consider this agreement before signing it. [The defendant] is encouraged to consult his or her attorney prior to signing this agreement.’ ... “The [defendant] did not want to release his preexisting workers' compensation claim relating to the 2004 injury by signing the agreement. He consulted with his attorney, who contacted the [plaintiff's] counsel and requested that the [plaintiff] remove from the agreement the language that could operate to release the [defendant's] workers' compensation claim. The [plaintiff] refused to modify the language of the agreement. The [defendant's] counsel [thereafter] wrote a letter to the [plaintiff's] counsel asserting that the release language of article II of the agreement ‘really has no effect without the [c]ommissioner's approval’ and scheduled an informal hearing before [the] ... commissioner for January 8, 2010. The [plaintiff's] counsel did not attend the informal hearing.... Nothing was resolved on January 8, and on January 27, 2010, the hearing was rescheduled for March 1, 2010.

“On January 26, 2010, the [plaintiff] sent the [defendant] a letter stating that, unless the [defendant] signed the unmodified agreement within the next ten days, [the plaintiff] would withdraw its offer of $70,228.51 in severance pay. The [defendant] signed the agreement on February 2, 2010, and the commissioner found that the [defendant] did so because he did not wish to forfeit his severance pay. After the [plaintiff] received the signed agreement from the [defendant], it paid [him] the $70,228.51. At that time, the commissioner had not approved the agreement as a ‘voluntary agreement’ or stipulation as defined in [General Statutes] § 31–296.3

“A formal hearing was held several months later to determine the enforceability of the language in article II of the agreement that dealt with the release of the [defendant's] workers' compensation claim. Specifically, the parties asked the commissioner to determine as follows: (1) [w]hether a signed termination agreement between [an] employer and [an] employee can effectively waive the parties' rights and obligations set forth in the [act] ... absent approval of the agreement by a [commissioner]; and (2) [i]f the termination agreement does not waive the parties' rights and obligations set forth in the [act]—whether the [c]ommissioner would issue an order that the termination agreement be entered as a full and final stipulation of the [defendant's] workers' compensation claim against the [plaintiff].’

“The commissioner ... found that, without approval by a commissioner, the agreement did not effectively waive the parties' rights and obligations under the act ... [and] that the agreement should not be approved as a full and final stipulation of the [defendant's] workers' compensation claim.” (Emphasis in original; footnote added.) Id. at 199–202, 76 A.3d 168. The plaintiff appealed from the commissioner's decision to the Workers' Compensation Review Board (board), which affirmed the commissioner's decision. Id. at 203, 76 A.3d 168. Thereafter, the plaintiff appealed from the decision of the board to the Appellate Court 4 and filed the present action in Superior Court alleging civil theft, fraud, unjust enrichment, and conversion, premised on the defendant's admission that he never intended to release his workers' compensation claim. In the present action, the plaintiff seeks, inter alia, rescission of the agreement, return of the $70,228.51 it paid the defendant under the agreement, and damages. In response, the defendant filed a counterclaim alleging that the plaintiff violated § 31–290a by initiating the present action solely in retaliation for the defendant's exercise of his rights under the act. In his counterclaim, the defendant seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, costs, and attorney's fees. Thereafter, the plaintiff moved to dismiss the defendant's counterclaim, arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over that claim because the act of filing an action is protected by the doctrine of absolute immunity.

The trial court noted that the “question of whether a claim of retaliation under [the act] may be asserted as a result of [an action] brought by an employer against a former employee ... appears [to be] a matter of first impression.” The trial court then identified the competing interests at issue, namely, the public policy of encouraging unfettered access to the courts to seek redress for grievances and the right of a former employee to pursue his statutorily protected rights under the act. Guided by the analysis set forth in Rioux v. Barry, supra, 283 Conn. at 350–51, 927 A.2d 304,5 the trial court concludedthat: (1) “the purposes of absolute immunity are equally applicable to the present counterclaim as [they are] to defamation and other torts to which absolute immunity has been applied”; (2) “the actual impact, in terms of a chilling effect, is de minimis and will potentially arise only in those circumstances where an employer brings an action against an employee who has also made a claim for benefits under the act; (3) “the very broad and remedial nature of the act,” which “reflects the public policy of this state that employees be able to seek redress under the statutory provisions of the act without fear of reprisal or retaliation” weighs heavily against the application of absolute immunity in the present case; and (4) the act's focus on the retaliatory motive of the employer rendered the statutory claim of retaliation under § 31–290a “more akin to an abuse of process claim [which is not barred by absolute immunity], than, for example a defamation or tortious interference claim [which are barred by absolute immunity].” 6 Thereafter, the trial court concludedthat the defendant's retaliation counterclaim was not barred by absolute immunity and, accordingly, denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss. This appeal followed. See footnote 2 of this opinion.

On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly applied Rioux v. Barry, supra, 283...

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