Otero v. HOUSING AUTHORITY OF BRIDGEPORT

CourtAppellate Court of Connecticut
Citation86 Conn.App. 103,860 A.2d 285
Decision Date16 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. 24023, 24776.,24023, 24776.
PartiesIsabel OTERO v. HOUSING AUTHORITY OF the CITY OF BRIDGEPORT.

Ralph W. Johnson III, Hartford, with whom was Thomas P. O'Dea, Jr., Westport, for the appellant-appellee (defendant).

John T. Bochanis, Bridgeport, for the appellee-appellant (plaintiff).

LAVERY, C.J., and DiPENTIMA and PETERS, Js.

PETERS, J.

General Statutes § 31-290a permits an employee to file a civil action to recover damages from an employer for wrongful discharge if the discharge resulted from the employee's filing of a claim for workers' compensation benefits.1 In this case, a jury found that the employee had failed to prove a claim of wrongful discharge and therefore returned a verdict in favor of the employer. The principal issue in this appeal by the employee is whether the trial court, in its charge to the jury and in its admission of certain evidence, impaired the plaintiff's ability to present her claim. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

From March, 1981, until September, 1996, the plaintiff, Isabel Otero, was employed by the defendant, Housing Authority of the City of Bridgeport, as a maintenance foreperson. Although there had been a dispute between the parties about whether the plaintiff had stolen a toilet from the defendant, the gravamen of her complaint in this case was that, in violation of § 31-290a, the defendant wrongfully had terminated her employment in retaliation for the exercise of her right to receive workers' compensation benefits on an earlier occasion.2 By way of a special defense and a counterclaim, the defendant attributed the termination of the plaintiff's employment to her fraudulent seizure of the toilet owned by the defendant.

The plaintiff's case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. In its answer to a special interrogatory, the jury found that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of wrongful discrimination. The court accepted this verdict and denied the plaintiff's motion to set it aside.

In this appeal, the plaintiff argues that the court should have granted her motion to set aside the verdict because the court improperly (1) charged the jury about the significance of the defendant's allegation that her discharge was based on her theft of a toilet and (2) admitted into evidence her signed statement about the circumstances of her discharge.3 We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

I

The plaintiff contends that the trial court's instructions to the jury created confusion as to the proper legal standard governing wrongful discharge claims under § 31-290a of the Workers' Compensation Act. In particular, the plaintiff asserts that the court precluded the jury from considering the relationship between an accusation that she had stolen a toilet and the defendant's subsequent decision to discharge her from employment. The plaintiff argues that, because this allegedly improper jury instruction was harmful to her case, the court improperly denied her motion to set aside the verdict. We are unpersuaded.

A challenge to the validity of jury instructions presents a question of law. Our review of this claim, therefore, is plenary. Cable v. Bic Corp., 270 Conn. 433, 440, 854 A.2d 1057 (2004); Hartford Courant Co. v. Freedom of Information Commission, 261 Conn. 86, 96-97, 801 A.2d 759 (2002). We must decide whether the instructions, read as a whole, properly adapt the law to the case in question and provide the jury with sufficient guidance in reaching a correct verdict. Marshall v. O'Keefe, 55 Conn.App. 801, 804-805, 740 A.2d 909 (1999), cert. denied, 252 Conn. 918, 744 A.2d 438 (2000).

The following facts are relevant to the resolution of this appeal. The plaintiff presented evidence that she had received workers' compensation benefits from September, 1995, through April, 1996, for an injury to her lower back. In November, 1995, the plaintiff's supervisor rated the plaintiff's job performance as unsatisfactory with respect to certain responsibilities, and noted that "[the plaintiff] has been out almost on a weekly basis due to her back. It's very hard to have someone in the supervisory position [who] is frequently absent. An unfair burden of work is put on others."

The plaintiff claimed that, when she returned to work in April, 1996, her supervisor treated her unfairly by requiring her to walk "excessively," to check lights and windows, to follow up with tenants regarding alleged complaints that often proved to be false, and to avoid going to therapy during working hours. The plaintiff also testified, however, that her supervisor never made her perform duties outside of her job description.

In August, 1996, the plaintiff's supervisor, while looking for a pen and paper to write a message, discovered in the plaintiff's desk a requisition form for a toilet. The plaintiff's supervisor subsequently notified the defendant. A coworker of the plaintiff testified at trial that he had witnessed, and in fact had helped to facilitate, the theft of the toilet by the plaintiff. A security officer testified that he had conducted an investigation of the alleged theft, and had concluded that the plaintiff probably had stolen the toilet.

The manager responsible for hiring and firing employees relied on this investigation in deciding to provide the plaintiff with three options: (1) present evidence to refute the findings of the investigation, (2) resign or (3) face termination. The plaintiff denied the allegations without presenting any evidence, and her employment subsequently was terminated. The plaintiff testified that she believed that her immediate supervisor, who was responsible for initiating the investigation, wanted to get her fired because she had missed work due to her workers' compensation claim.

Our evaluation of the plaintiff's claim of instructional error must take account of two facts of record. First, the only claim for wrongful discharge that the plaintiff presented in this case was that she had lost her employment because of the defendant's displeasure with her collection of workers' compensation benefits.4 Second, the only issue that the jury decided was that the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.5

It is undisputed that the court was required to instruct the jury, and did instruct the jury, in accordance with the rules that govern claims of retaliatory discharge that were prescribed in Ford v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Connecticut, Inc., 216 Conn. 40, 53-54, 578 A.2d 1054 (1990), and McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-805, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). These rules mandate a three step analysis of the plaintiff's case. "The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving by the preponderance of the evidence a prima facie case of discrimination. In order to meet this burden, the plaintiff must present evidence that gives rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.... If the plaintiff meets this burden, the burden then shifts to the defendant to rebut the presumption of discrimination by producing evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.... If the defendant carries this burden of production, the presumption raised by the prima facie case is rebutted, and the factual inquiry proceeds to a new level of specificity.... The plaintiff then must satisfy her burden of persuading the fact-finder that she was the victim of discrimination either directly by persuading the court [or jury] that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Ford v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 216 Conn. at 53-54, 578 A.2d 1054.

With respect to the jury's allegedly improper finding that the plaintiff had failed to satisfy her initial burden of proof, the plaintiff argues that the court confused the jury by its instruction that proof that she was innocent of the charge of theft alone was not sufficient to prove her wrongful discharge in this case. We disagree. The plaintiff maintains that the court confused the jury when, at the outset of its instructions, it stated: "This case is not about whether [the plaintiff] misappropriated, stole, or did not steal the toilet. It's focused on the discharge and the reasons for the discharge." Later, the plaintiff notes, the court further stated that, in deciding whether the plaintiff had met her initial burden of proof, the jury should focus "on the reasons for discharge and why they discharged, and that's what you're dealing with. So you're not deciding whether she did or did not steal a toilet. It is evidence for you to consider as far as the overall case is concerned, but if you decide she didn't steal the toilet, that doesn't mean she wins the case."

To prevail on this appeal, the plaintiff must show a relationship between the charge to which she objects and the jury's finding that she did not prove a prima facie case. On its face, the plaintiff's objection appears to implicate the second rather than the first step of the Ford test.6 Because the jury did not reach the second step, any alleged defect with regard to the court's charge concerning the second step is harmless, as long as the court properly instructed the jury with regard to the plaintiff's burden of establishing a prima facie case. See Pagano v. Ippoliti, 245 Conn. 640, 651-52, 716 A.2d 848 (1998) (noting that even where there is error, it is harmless where it does not affect result). Accordingly, we address the plaintiff's claim as a challenge to the court's instructions regarding the plaintiff's burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination.

The first step for a plaintiff seeking to recover under the three part Ford test is to establish, by a...

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8 cases
  • Eagen v. Comm'n on Human Rights & Opportunities
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • 22 Mayo 2012
    ...to § 31-290a, for the discharge of employees after they file for workers' compensation benefits; see Otero v. Housing Authority, 86 Conn. App. 103, 108-109, 860 A.2d 285 (2004); and in whistle-blower claims for retaliation brought pursuant to General Statutes § 31-51m (b), for the discharge......
  • Eagen v. Comm'n on Human Rights & Opportunities, No. 33241.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • 22 Mayo 2012
    ...to § 31–290a, for the discharge of employees after they file for workers' compensation benefits; see Otero v. Housing Authority, 86 Conn.App. 103, 108–109, 860 A.2d 285 (2004); and in whistle-blower claims for retaliation brought pursuant to General Statutes § 31–51m (b), for the discharge ......
  • Ruiz v. Dunbar Armored, Inc., No. CV 03-040 42 13 S (CT 7/19/2005)
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • 19 Julio 2005
    ...if the discharge resulted from the employee's filing of a claim for workers' compensation benefits." Otero v. Housing Authority, 86 Conn.App. 103, 104, 860 A.2d 285 (2004). "In setting forth the burden of proof requirements in a §31-290a action, [the court looks] to federal law for guidance......
  • Williams v. BLACK ROCK YACHT CLUB, No. 25150.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • 5 Julio 2005
    ...169, 172, 804 A.2d 1011 (2002); see also Kalams v. Giacchetto, 268 Conn. 244, 249, 842 A.2d 1100 (2004); Otero v. Housing Authority, 86 Conn.App. 103, 111, 860 A.2d 285 (2004). Additionally, we note that "[e]vidence is admissible if it is relevant to the issues raised in the pleadings. Conn......
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