Ruddock v. Burrowes

Decision Date27 January 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15584,15584
PartiesRohan RUDDOCK et al. v. Donnette BURROWES et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Henry D. Marcus, Hartford, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Deborah L. Bradley, for appellees (defendants).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and PETERS, JJ.

PETERS, Associate Justice.

The accidental failure of suit statute, General Statutes § 52-592(a) 1 affords a plaintiff a one year window of opportunity to "commence a new action ... for the same cause" if a prior action "has failed ... to be tried on its merits ... for any matter of form...." The question in this certified appeal is whether a disciplinary dismissal properly may be characterized as a dismissal as a "matter of form." We conclude that the answer to this question depends upon the nature and the extent of the conduct that led to the disciplinary dismissal.

In their original action, as in the present one, the plaintiffs, Rohan Ruddock and his mother, sought to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by the named plaintiff, allegedly as a result of the defendants' negligence or recklessness. The trial court, Hon. Harry N. Jackaway, judge trial referee, acting pursuant to Practice Book § 251, 2 terminated the plaintiffs' action by a disciplinary dismissal arising out of the failure of the named plaintiff's mother and the plaintiffs' attorney to attend a scheduled pretrial conference.

The plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration and recusal. They did not contest the fact of nonattendance at the pretrial conference. Instead, they claimed that: (1) their attorney had been unable to appear in timely fashion because of an unavoidable accident involving his car; and (2) he had tried to communicate his unavoidable delay to court personnel. Denying the plaintiffs' motion, the court exercised the discretion conferred upon it by General Statutes § 52-212(a) 3 and reaffirmed the judgment of dismissal. The plaintiffs acknowledge that, regardless of whether their absence resulted from mistake, inadvertence or excusable neglect, the judgment of dismissal in the original action was a disciplinary dismissal. 4

Thereafter, pursuant to § 52-592(a), the plaintiffs filed a new complaint alleging the same cause of action. In response, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, in which they claimed that the plaintiffs' action was time barred 5 because § 52-592(a) does not permit a new action if the original action was terminated as the result of a disciplinary dismissal. In opposition to the defendants' motion, the plaintiffs not only challenged its legal premise but also filed an affidavit raising again the factual issue of mistake, inadvertence or excusable neglect that they had raised in their motion for reconsideration.

The court, Arena, J., granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, upholding their claim that, as a matter of law, the dismissal of the plaintiffs' original cause of action for disciplinary reasons precluded their subsequent invocation of § 52-592(a). The court reasoned that any other ruling would "frustrate the reasoned dismissal by Judge Jackaway, and [would] permit counsel to ignore the orders of the court by virtue of an overextension of [the statute]." In light of this conclusion of law, the court made no reference in its memorandum of decision to the factual issues raised by the plaintiffs' affidavit. 6 Thereafter, in response to the defendants' motion for clarification, the court ruled that it was immaterial whether the original dismissal had been based "on the plaintiff[s]' failure to appear at one or more than one pretrial." 7

In a per curiam opinion, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Ruddock v. Burrowes, 43 Conn.App. 913, 684 A.2d 282 (1996). In the absence of any indication in the record to the contrary, we may presume that the Appellate Court adopted the reasoning of the trial court, Arena, J. Having granted the plaintiffs' petition for certification, 8 we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court and direct a remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

The procedural posture of this case determines the scope of our review. The court, Arena, J., in ruling on the motion for summary judgment, concluded, as a matter of law, that, because of the disciplinary nature of the dismissal, the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of establishing that they were entitled to invoke § 52-592(a). Unless we affirm this legal conclusion, the unresolved factual issues raised by the plaintiffs' affidavit require us to overturn the summary judgment. "Practice Book § 384 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.... In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.... The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue [of] material facts which, under applicable principles of substantive law, entitle him to a judgment as a matter of law ... and the party opposing such a motion must provide an evidentiary foundation to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Practice Book § 381." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Doty v. Mucci, 238 Conn. 800, 805-806, 679 A.2d 945 (1996); Bruttomesso v. Northeastern Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc., 242 Conn. 1, 5-6, 698 A.2d 795 (1997); Miller v. United Technologies Corp., 233 Conn. 732, 744-45, 660 A.2d 810 (1995); Suarez v. Dickmont Plastics Corp., 229 Conn. 99, 105-106, 639 A.2d 507 (1994).

The arguments of the parties in this court do not fully reflect the law governing summary judgments. Understandably, the defendants reiterate the argument, on which they prevailed in the trial court, that disciplinary dismissals are never "a matter of form" for the purposes of § 52-592(a). They do not address the factual issues raised by the plaintiffs' affidavit. The plaintiffs, in turn, argue for a more nuanced consideration of the underlying circumstances of the disciplinary dismissal. Their argument 9 appears to assume, however, that, without any findings of fact, we should accept the accuracy of the representations contained in their affidavits to Judge Jackaway and Judge Arena. 10 Neither argument is persuasive.

Whether § 52-592(a) categorically excludes disciplinary dismissals from the class of dismissals that properly may be characterized as arising from "any matter of form" is a question that lies at the intersection of two principles firmly established in our law. On the one hand, in a long line of cases, we have held that § 52-592(a) is remedial in nature and, therefore, warrants a broad construction. See, e.g., Lacasse v. Burns, 214 Conn. 464, 470, 572 A.2d 357 (1990); Isaac v. Mount Sinai Hospital, 210 Conn. 721, 728, 557 A.2d 116 (1989); Broderick v. Jackman, 167 Conn. 96, 97, 355 A.2d 234 (1974); Ross Realty Corp. v. Surkis, 163 Conn. 388, 393, 311 A.2d 74 (1972); Baker v. Baningoso, 134 Conn. 382, 387, 58 A.2d 5 (1948); Johnston v. Sikes, 56 Conn. 589, 591-92 (Superior Court 1888). Apparently acceding in our assessment of its intent, the legislature, over the years, repeatedly has broadened eligibility for the relief afforded by the statute. Broderick v. Jackman, supra, at 97-99, 355 A.2d 234. On the other hand, our decisions also have underscored the importance of trial court caseflow management of crowded dockets. "Caseflow management is based upon the premise that it is the responsibility of the court to establish standards for the processing of cases and also, when necessary, to enforce compliance with such standards. Our judicial system cannot be controlled by the litigants and cases cannot be allowed to drift aimlessly through the system." In re Mongillo, 190 Conn. 686, 691, 461 A.2d 1387 (1983); Gionfrido v. Wharf Realty, Inc., 193 Conn. 28, 32-33, 474 A.2d 787 (1984). In the event of noncompliance with a court order, the directives of caseflow management authorize trial courts, in appropriate circumstances, to take action against either the errant attorney or the litigant who freely chose the attorney. Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 633-34, 634 n. 10, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 1390-91, 1390 n. 10, 8 L.Ed.2d 734 (1962); Gionfrido v. Wharf Realty, Inc., supra, at 33-34, 474 A.2d 787; Thode v. Thode, 190 Conn. 694, 698, 462 A.2d 4 (1983); In re Mongillo, supra, at 692, 461 A.2d 1387; Stanley v. Hartford, 140 Conn. 643, 648, 103 A.2d 147 (1954).

This case requires us, for the first time, to find the proper accommodation between these competing principles. In the absence of further legislative guidance, we conclude that disciplinary dismissals are not excluded categorically from the relief afforded by § 52-592(a).

We already have observed that, in appropriate cases, "a dismissal entered pursuant to [Practice Book] § 251 would not bar a subsequent action brought under the authority of § 52-592." Lacasse v. Burns, supra, 214 Conn. at 471, 572 A.2d 357; Gionfrido v. Wharf Realty, Inc., supra, 193 Conn. at 34 n. 6, 474 A.2d 787. Disciplinary dismissals do not, in all cases, demonstrate the occurrence of misconduct so egregious as to bar recourse to § 52-592. Cf. Skibeck v. Avon, 24 Conn.App. 239, 242-43, 587 A.2d 166, cert. denied, 219 Conn. 912, 593 A.2d 138 (1991). 11 Whether the statute applies cannot be decided in a factual vacuum. 12 To enable a plaintiff to meet the burden of establishing the right to avail himself or herself of the statute, a plaintiff must be afforded an opportunity to make a factual showing that the prior dismissal was a "matter of form" in the sense that the plaintiff's noncompliance with a court order occurred in circumstances...

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