Miko v. Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities

Decision Date20 August 1991
Docket Number14193,Nos. 14192,s. 14192
Citation220 Conn. 192,596 A.2d 396
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesWilliam S. MIKO et al. v. COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES et al.

Charles H. Benson, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were David M. Teed, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, Atty. Gen., for appellant in first appeal (named defendant).

Brian L. Smith, Certified Legal Intern, with whom was James A. Trowbridge, Milford, for appellant in second appeal (defendant Nancy Marzan Melendez).

J. Roger Shull, Stratford, for appellees (plaintiffs).

Before SHEA, GLASS, COVELLO, BORDEN and FRANCIS X. HENNESSY, JJ.

GLASS, Associate Justice.

This case involves a claim of housing discrimination brought by the defendant Nancy Marzan Melendez against the plaintiffs, William S. Miko, Joseph Miko and Edward D. Sullivan, as owners of Olive Garden Apartments, an apartment complex in Bridgeport. Melendez filed a complaint with the named defendant, the commission on human rights and opportunities (CHRO), alleging that she had been denied housing, in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1987) § 46a-64a, 1 because she had a child. A hearing officer appointed by the CHRO upheld Melendez' claim and awarded her damages. The plaintiffs appealed, and the trial court, Dean, J., sustained the appeal and vacated the monetary award to Melendez. Melendez and the CHRO now appeal from the judgment of the trial court. 2 We reverse.

After conducting a formal hearing, the hearing officer found the following facts. In August, 1984, the plaintiffs were the owners of the Olive Garden Apartments. On August 24, 1984, Melendez, who had a minor child, telephoned Olive Garden Apartments in Bridgeport to inquire about renting an apartment. She spoke with the manager, Roberto Torres, who informed her that the owners did not rent to families with children. Torres refused to show Melendez an apartment and did not permit her to file an application. Neither the plaintiffs nor Torres inquired about Melendez' financial qualifications at that time. On September 7, 1984, Melendez filed a complaint with the CHRO. The complaint was referred to CHRO investigator Joan Corno. After several failed attempts to conciliate the matter, Corno certified the complaint to a public hearing.

The hearing officer excluded evidence proffered by the plaintiffs relating to the terms of a proposed settlement agreement and relating to Melendez' financial circumstances. In a decision dated March 14, 1989, and mailed to the parties on March 16, 1989, the hearing officer found that the case had not been settled and held that the evidence of the terms of conciliation was properly excluded. On the basis of the facts found at the hearing, the hearing officer concluded that the plaintiffs had discriminated against Melendez, in violation of § 46a-64a, because she had a child, and awarded her damages.

On March 29, 1989, the plaintiffs appealed the decision of the hearing officer to the trial court, claiming that the hearing officer: (1) violated the plaintiffs' right to a fair hearing; and (2) improperly excluded evidence offered by the plaintiffs. On April 26, 1989, the CHRO, on behalf of Melendez, filed a petition for rehearing, limited to the issue of the hearing officer's failure to award interest on the damages. On May 22, 1989, the hearing officer denied the CHRO's request for interest on the damages.

On May 19, 1989, the CHRO had moved in the trial court to dismiss the plaintiffs' appeal, alleging that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the appeal was premature. The trial court, Thompson, J., denied the motion to dismiss, noting that the appeal had been filed on April 13, 1989, within forty-five days of the mailing of the hearing officer's decision on March 16, 1989. The court concluded that General Statutes (Rev. to 1987) § 4-183(b) 3 does not "invalidate a properly filed appeal under circumstances where a party other than the plaintiff files a petition for rehearing." (Emphasis in original.) Thus, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs' appeal was from a final decision and was not premature.

On the merits of the plaintiffs' appeal, the trial court determined that the hearing officer improperly excluded evidence of the proposed terms of conciliation and evidence of Melendez' financial qualifications. The court further determined that the hearing officer's evidentiary rulings prevented the plaintiffs from obtaining a fair hearing. Finally, the trial court concluded that the matter had been conciliated, and sustained the appeal.

On appeal, the CHRO claims that the trial court: (1) improperly exercised jurisdiction over the appeal; (2) applied the incorrect standard of review to the decision of the CHRO hearing officer; (3) applied the incorrect legal standard to a claim of overt discrimination; and (4) improperly ruled that evidence relating to the terms of the proposed conciliation agreement should have been admitted by the hearing officer. 4 The plaintiffs claim on appeal that the hearing officer improperly excluded evidence of Melendez' financial qualifications to rent. 5 We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case to that court with direction to dismiss the plaintiffs' appeal and to make and enter a decree enforcing the decision of the hearing officer.

I

The CHRO first claims that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' appeal from the administrative decision, because the CHRO subsequently filed a timely petition for rehearing. The trial court concluded that it had jurisdiction, reasoning that § 4-183(b) "permits a party aggrieved by an agency's decision to either file an appeal of that decision or a petition for rehearing within the specified period." (Emphasis added.) The court concluded that the statute does not "invalidate a properly filed appeal" where a party other than the appellant files a petition for rehearing. We agree with the trial court.

A reviewing court should indulge every presumption in favor of the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. See LeConche v. Elligers, 215 Conn. 701, 709-10, 579 A.2d 1 (1990); Demar v. Open Space & Conservation Commission, 211 Conn. 416, 425, 559 A.2d 1103 (1989). Where the legislature has granted the Superior Court jurisdiction over timely appeals from final decisions of administrative agencies under § 4-183, a subsequent petition for rehearing, however timely, filed by a different party, does not terminate the court's jurisdiction.

General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 46a-94a states that appeals from the final decision of a hearing officer of the CHRO shall be "in accordance with section 4-183" of the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (UAPA). General Statutes §§ 4-166 through 4-189. As of the date relevant to agency proceedings on Melendez' complaint, § 4-183(b) provided, in pertinent part, that appeals under the UAPA "shall be instituted by filing a petition in superior court ... within forty-five days after mailing of the notice of the final decision of the agency or, if a rehearing is requested, within forty-five days after mailing of the notice of the decision thereon." Contrary to the claim of the CHRO, the timing of the plaintiffs' appeal complied with the requirements of § 4-183(b).

The CHRO relies heavily on a decision of the Appellate Court construing § 4-183(b). See Connecticut Natural Gas Corporation v. Department of Public Utility Control, 1 Conn.App. 1, 467 A.2d 679 (1983). In Connecticut Natural Gas Corporation, the plaintiff timely filed for rehearing, then filed a timely appeal to the trial court after the rehearing decision was rendered. Id., at 2, 467 A.2d 679. The issue before the Appellate Court was whether, under § 4-183(b), the plaintiff's appeal was timely, where the appeal was filed within forty-five days of the decision on the rehearing petition. Id. The Appellate Court concluded that the appeal was timely, based on both the language and purposes of the statute. Id., at 3, 467 A.2d 679. The court determined that a central purpose of the UAPA was to prevent piecemeal appeals by requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies and finality of administrative action. Id. Finally, the court noted the benefit of allowing a litigant to assess the need for an appeal in light of the rehearing results. Id.

Where one party complies with the requirements of § 4-183(b) by filing a timely appeal, judicial economy and fairness dictate allowing that appeal to remain within the court's jurisdiction. In this case, the plaintiffs' appeal was timely. In contrast to Connecticut Natural Gas Corporation, the plaintiffs' appeal was filed first and, therefore, jurisdiction vested in the trial court. The plaintiffs had exhausted their administrative remedies and appealed in accordance with statutory requirements. Where, as in the present case, an issue unrelated to the appeal is raised on rehearing by a party other than the appellant, there is no benefit to allowing the appealing party to assess the rehearing results, and the danger of piecemeal appeals is diminished.

The CHRO does not contend that the original hearing decision was not final, but, rather, that a petition for rehearing has the effect of "suspending the finality of the decision and extending the time for appeal." We do not read § 4-183(b) to oust, in this way, the trial court of properly obtained jurisdiction. Neither the language nor the purpose of § 4-183(b) is contravened by finding jurisdiction in the present case. The trial court properly concluded that it had jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' appeal.

II

The CHRO next claims that the trial court failed to apply the proper standard of review to the decision made by the CHRO. The trial court's review is governed by the UAPA, which limits the scope of judicial review of administrative agency decisions. See Connecticut Light & Power Co. v. Department of...

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