Priore v. Haig, SC 20511

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtMcDONALD, J.
Citation344 Conn. 636,280 A.3d 402
Parties Thomas PRIORE v. Stephanie HAIG
Docket NumberSC 20511
Decision Date07 September 2022

344 Conn. 636
280 A.3d 402

Stephanie HAIG

SC 20511

Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Argued January 10, 2022
Officially Released September 7, 2022*

280 A.3d 405

Eric D. Grayson, Greenwich, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Richard W. Bowerman, with whom, on the brief, was Michael G. Caldwell, for the appellee (defendant).

Robinson, C. J., and McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js.


344 Conn. 638

This certified appeal requires us to determine whether a public hearing on a special permit application before a town's planning and zoning commission

344 Conn. 639

is a quasi-judicial proceeding such that public statements made during the hearing are entitled to absolute immunity. The plaintiff, Thomas Priore, brought this defamation action against the defendant, Stephanie Haig, seeking to recover damages for injuries that he claims to have sustained as a result of the defendant's allegedly defamatory statements about the plaintiff made during a hearing before the Greenwich Planning and Zoning Commission. The plaintiff appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which affirmed the trial court's judgment, concluding that the defendant's statements were entitled to absolute immunity. Priore v. Haig , 196 Conn. App. 675, 695, 712, 230 A.3d 714 (2020). On appeal, the plaintiff contends that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the defendant's statements were entitled to absolute immunity because the hearing before the commission was not quasi-judicial and the statements

280 A.3d 406

concerning the plaintiff were not relevant to the subject matter of the commission's hearing. We agree with the plaintiff that the public hearing was not quasi-judicial in nature and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The record and the Appellate Court's opinion set forth the facts and procedural history; see id., at 677–83, 230 A.3d 714 ; which we summarize in relevant part. In "2015, the plaintiff, through a limited liability company, purchased a property located at 15 Deer Park Meadow Road in Greenwich .... The property is part of a private subdivision known as the Deer Park Association ...." Id., at 677, 230 A.3d 714. After purchasing the property, the plaintiff intended to demolish the existing house and build a new house. In addition to constructing the new house, the plaintiff agreed to replace an inaccessible sewer line that ran through the middle of his property and serviced a number of up-line users. Through an easement that the plaintiff agreed to grant, the new sewer

344 Conn. 640

line would be available to other members of the association for access and repairs.

As part of the process for obtaining the commission's approval to construct the new house and to place the new sewer line on his property, the plaintiff was required to submit an application for a special permit. The plaintiff submitted the application and a final site plan, and, in January, 2016, the commission held a public hearing on the plaintiff's application. The hearing was to be the final hearing concerning the approval of the plaintiff's application. The primary issue to be addressed at the hearing was the location of the new sewer line. The record is silent as to whether the plaintiff attended the hearing.

The plaintiff's engineer, Anthony D'Andrea, attended the hearing and was the first person to address the commission concerning the plaintiff's application. He discussed various aspects of the plan to install the sewer line, including the way in which the installation of the sewer line might affect certain trees still existing on the property. "D'Andrea stated that trees had been ‘removed during the demolition of the house’ and that ... a planting plan would be submitted ‘that [would] include at least twenty [new] trees.’ " Id., at 678, 230 A.3d 714. D'Andrea also stated that the placement of the sewer line would protect the trees in the area, and the goal was to maximize the number of trees that could be preserved.

Thereafter, members of the public were invited to address the commission. The president of the Deer Park Association spoke first and informed the commission, among other things, that "subsequent speakers ... would address the commission about trees that were important to members of the association. According to the president, the trees were important because they ‘provide[d] privacy [and were] part of the character’ of the neighborhood." Id. Michael Finkbeiner, a surveyor

344 Conn. 641

and consulting professional forester retained by a member of the Deer Park Association, next addressed the commission. He stated that certain trees had already been cut down on the plaintiff's property and, "as a result of the plaintiff's representations [in his filings], the commission may have ‘been deceived into thinking [that the trees shown in a topographic survey are] existing trees, but they are no more.’ " Id., at 679, 230 A.3d 714.

Later in the hearing, the defendant, the plaintiff's neighbor to the west, addressed the commission. She explained that she was worried that the plaintiff's proposed "sewer line would impact the health of the trees that she claimed to ‘co-own’ with the plaintiff. She also stated that the plaintiff had been ‘very disrespectful of the neighbors’

280 A.3d 407

" throughout the process. Id. Important to the present appeal, the defendant went on to state that the plaintiff "does have a criminal past. I will not go into the exact details of it, but it's a serious criminal past. He's paid [more than] $40 million in fines to the [Securities and Exchange Commission]." In response, a planning and zoning commission member stated, "[t]hat's not of relevance to the [commission]." The defendant then concluded her remarks by expressing her desire for the commission to provide "real good oversight" of the project "because [the plaintiff] has not been trustworthy in the first dealings with us, and there are many more dealings to go."

D'Andrea again addressed the commission and acknowledged that a drawing of the property submitted by the plaintiff failed to indicate that certain trees had already been cut down. He also claimed, however, that the trees that the plaintiff had removed were present on the property at the time the application was submitted. In response, a member of the commission noted that the drawing the plaintiff had submitted was incomplete because it did not accurately depict the trees. The chairperson of the commission asked D'Andrea to

344 Conn. 642

reconcile the drawing in light of the information that Finkbeiner had submitted. D'Andrea agreed to do so.

The commission adjourned the hearing and "tabl[ed] the decision on whether to approve the application until the plaintiff or his representatives provided it with the clarifications and information that it had requested." Priore v. Haig , supra, 196 Conn. App. at 680, 230 A.3d 714. Thereafter, "the commission ultimately approved the plaintiff's [special permit] application ‘with very little change or requirements from the town ....’ " Id.

The plaintiff commenced this action in October, 2016. In his second revised complaint, sounding in libel per se, libel per quod, slander per se, slander per quod, and defamation, the plaintiff alleged that he had suffered "reputational damage ... in his standing in the community and in his profession" because, during the January, 2016 public hearing, the defendant falsely accused him of prior criminal misconduct and of being untrustworthy. The defendant filed an answer and special defenses, denying the allegations and asserting, among other things, that she was immune from suit for defamation because she made those statements in the course of a quasi-judicial proceeding. The plaintiff moved to strike that defense.

The defendant then filed an objection to the plaintiff's motion to strike and, in the same document, moved to dismiss the plaintiff's action, claiming, among other things, that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's action because the statements she made during the commission's hearing were entitled to absolute immunity. The plaintiff filed an objection to the defendant's motion to dismiss.

In January, 2018, the trial court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss. The trial court reasoned that it did not have jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims because the statements that the defendant made about

344 Conn. 643

the plaintiff at the commission's hearing were entitled to absolute immunity. In reaching this conclusion, the court determined that the commission's hearing on the special permit application constituted a quasi-judicial proceeding. The court also determined that the defendant's statements were pertinent to the subject matter of the hearing because they concerned the plaintiff's...

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