Rockwell v. Rockwell

Decision Date05 December 2017
Docket NumberAC 38512
Parties James W. ROCKWELL, Jr. v. Donate S. ROCKWELL et al.
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals

178 Conn.App. 373
175 A.3d 1249

James W. ROCKWELL, Jr.
v.
Donate S. ROCKWELL et al.

AC 38512

Appellate Court of Connecticut.

Argued September 12, 2017
Officially released December 5, 2017


175 A.3d 1251

James W. Rockwell, Jr., self-represented, the appellant (plaintiff).

Raymond J. Plouffe, Jr., for the appellee (defendant Ian A. Cole).

Lavine, Elgo and Bear, Js.

ELGO, J.

178 Conn.App. 375

In this vexatious litigation action, the self-represented plaintiff, James W. Rockwell, Jr., appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the defendant Attorney Ian A. Cole.1 On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the court (1) improperly bifurcated trial of the issue of probable cause from the issues of malice and damages, (2) violated his right to a jury trial and (3) improperly determined that the defendant had probable cause to prosecute the underlying action. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The genesis of the present dispute is a breach of contract action commenced in 2009 (2009 action) by the plaintiff's former spouse, Donate S. Rockwell (Donate).

178 Conn.App. 376

The 2009 action concerned a written agreement between the plaintiff and Donate (agreement), which states that they "have entered into a joint venture for the purchase of certain securities." Pursuant thereto, Donate agreed to invest $22,104.50 in unspecified securities, which were held in an investment account managed exclusively by the plaintiff.2 The plaintiff, in turn, agreed to "guarantee the total investment amount to [Donate]."3 That notarized

175 A.3d 1252

agreement was drafted by the plaintiff's representative and was signed by the plaintiff and Donate.

At all relevant times, the defendant appeared as legal counsel for Donate in the 2009 action. Following an initial consultation with her, the defendant sent a demand letter to the plaintiff dated December 3, 2008, in which he requested payment of approximately $18,000 that allegedly was due and owing to Donate pursuant to the agreement. The defendant never received a response from the plaintiff.

Seven weeks later, the defendant filed an application for a prejudgment remedy on Donate's behalf. The court, Tyma, J. , held a hearing on that application,

178 Conn.App. 377

which focused in large part on distributions from the investment account made prior to its liquidation in 2007. At that time, the plaintiff4 introduced into evidence certain financial records from Donate's investment account, which he had subpoenaed. In her testimony, Donate acknowledged that, on multiple occasions prior to liquidation, she received distributions to make capital gains tax payments associated with the investment account, including a payment of "$18,000 at one point." Because the relevant provisions of the agreement required the parties to take "into account all prior transactions involving the Investment"; see footnote 3 of this opinion; the plaintiff testified that, in his view, the term "prior transaction" included any distribution from the investment account. He thus argued that the financial records before the court indicated that Donate had received "more than her initial money back." The defendant disagreed, arguing that the distributions in question were not proceeds applicable to the guarantee provisions of the agreement but, rather, were distributions for capital gains taxes on the investment account. The court ultimately denied the application for a prejudgment remedy. In so doing, the court remarked that although the granting of prejudgment relief was not warranted, the breach of contract issue was "appropriate for litigation."

The defendant thereafter commenced the 2009 action against the plaintiff on behalf of Donate. Her one count complaint alleged in relevant part: "On or about March 8, 1994, the [plaintiff], in order to induce [Donate] to invest $22,104.50 in a joint investment with him, guaranteed repayment to [Donate] of her entire investment of $22,104.50.... In reliance upon said guarantee, [Donate] invested with the [plaintiff] the sum of $22,104.50.... The guarantee provided, in pertinent part, that upon complete sale or liquidation of the

178 Conn.App. 378

investment, if the value realized was less than $22,104.50 then the [plaintiff] would pay to [Donate] ‘the entire value of the investment, plus an additional amount sufficient to provide her with the total amount of $22,104.00’ .... The investment was liquidated on or about July 17, 2007 ...." Upon liquidation, the complaint alleged that Donate received $1190.60 in proceeds.

175 A.3d 1253

The complaint further alleged that, one day later, the plaintiff made a "partial payment" of $4000 to Donate in response to her request that he "honor the [agreement]," but thereafter refused to pay the $16,913.90 "balance due [to Donate] under the terms of the [agreement]." Appended to the complaint was a copy of the agreement.

Following a period of discovery, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that "[t]he total amount withdrawn by [Donate] from the Investment was $45,495.90, an amount in excess of the amount [the plaintiff] guaranteed she would receive from the Investment." The court, Hiller, J. , denied that motion.

A jury trial was held in 2010, at which both the plaintiff and Donate testified. In addition, the jury was presented with documentary evidence from both parties. When the trial concluded, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.5 The court then rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff in accordance with that verdict.

In 2013, the plaintiff, now self-represented, commenced the present vexatious litigation action. His complaint alleged in relevant part that the defendant, in his capacity as legal counsel to Donate, "commenced and prosecuted" the 2009 action "without probable cause and with malicious intent to unjustly vex and trouble the

178 Conn.App. 379
plaintiff]." His prayer for relief sought compensatory damages and treble damages pursuant to General Statutes § 52–568. In his answer, the defendant denied the substance of those allegations. The defendant also filed a special defense, in which he averred in relevant part that "[t]here was probable cause to commence the underlying suit to determine the meaning and effect of disputed contractual guarantee language ...." On December 2, 2014, the plaintiff filed a certificate of closed pleadings with the trial court, in which he claimed a jury trial.

A jury was selected and a trial was scheduled for May, 2015. On the first day of trial, the plaintiff filed a request for a one week continuance, which the court denied. At that time, the court, Stevens, J. , explained to the plaintiff that "[t]his trial date has been outstanding for a significant period of time. You have proceeded to pick a jury which is now ready to proceed, and if this case is going to be continued ... it probably will have to be continued for a month or two in order to accommodate the scheduling."

The court then turned its attention to the defendant's "motion to bifurcate the issue of probable cause for trial to the court," in which the defendant argued that the issue of whether probable cause exists is always a question of law for the court to decide. In denying that request, the court noted that "the most prudent and effective use of judicial resources and economy is for the case to be tried to the jury and then for the court to address the issue as it may be presented by the parties at the end of the evidence."

The court then asked the plaintiff which witness he would be calling first. When the plaintiff stated that his first witness would not be present that day, the court responded: "Well, if they're not going to be here today then we can't hear them today, so what witness are

[178 Conn.App. 380

you going to call next? They'll have to appear tomorrow. And if they are not going to be here this week then they will not be heard because this case is not going to be continued to accommodate

175 A.3d 1254

an absent witness in this case in light of the scheduling issues that I've already articulated." When the plaintiff indicated that "[t]he other witnesses that I subpoenaed are not here," the court stated: "Well again, Mr. Rockwell, I appreciate that you are representing yourself, but in order for this case to proceed you're going to put on some evidence. Now either you're going to have to testify, you're going to have somebody else to testify, we're going to have to hear some evidence. ... This case has been scheduled for some time to start today. You were aware of the fact that this case was scheduled to start today some time ago, and as a result you are required to do what you need to do in order to have witnesses here." When the court then asked who the first witness would be, the...

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    ... ... a vexatious litigation action against a litigant is a purely ... objective one" ); see also Rockwell v ... Rockwell, 178 Conn.App. 373, 390 (2017) (same); ... Hebrew Home & Hosp., Inc. v. Brewer, 92 Conn.App ... 762, 768 ... ...
  • Rockwell v. Rockwell
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    • March 31, 2020
    ...its conclusion that Cole had probable cause to commence the 2009 action. The judgment was affirmed on appeal. Rockwell v. Rockwell , 178 Conn. App. 373, 400, 175 A.3d 1249 (2017), cert. denied, 328 Conn. 902, 177 A.3d 563 (2018).In April, 2016, the plaintiff commenced the present action aga......
  • Elwell v. Kellogg
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • August 8, 2023
    ... ... Although we ordinarily review the ... bifurcation of a civil trial under an abuse of discretion ... standard; see Rockwell v. Rockwell, 178 Conn.App ... 373, 385, 175 A.3d 1249 (2017) ("[w]hen a trial court ... exercises its discretion to bifurcate a civil ... ...
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    ... ... law would have believed that probable cause existed to ... prosecute" the underlying action. Rockwell v ... Rockwell, 178 Conn.App. 373, 391, 175 A.3d 1249 (2017), ... cert. denied, 328 Conn. 902, 177 A.3d 563 (2018) ... ...
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