Schoonmaker v. Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., (SC 16785).

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Citation265 Conn. 210,828 A.2d 64
Decision Date05 August 2003
Docket Number(SC 16785).
PartiesWILLIAM SCHOONMAKER ET AL. v. LAWRENCE BRUNOLI, INC., ET AL.

Borden, Norcott, Palmer, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js. Timothy Brignole, with whom was Juri Taalman, for the appellants-appellees (plaintiffs).

John C. Fitzgerald, Jr., for the appellees-appellants (defendants).

Opinion

NORCOTT, J.

This appeal1 arises out of an action brought by the plaintiff employees2 against the named defendant, Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., and certain of its officers,3 wherein the plaintiffs alleged that, with respect to three separate public works construction projects at the Oliver Wolcott School in Torrington (Wolcott School), the University of Connecticut in Storrs (UCONN), and the Cedarcrest Hospital in Newington, the defendants had failed to pay the plaintiffs the proper prevailing wages and fringe benefits in accordance with General Statutes § 31-53,4 and overtime wages as required by General Statutes §§ 31-53, 31-76c5 and 31-76g.6 The plaintiffs sought to recover, pursuant to General Statutes § 31-72,7 double damages, costs and attorney's fees on the unpaid wages claims. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants had failed to post the current prevailing wage rates as required by General Statutes § 31-55.8

The plaintiffs also brought actions against the defendants for wrongful termination of the plaintiffs' employment. These wrongful discharge actions alleged that the defendants violated General Statutes §§ 31-51m,9 31-51q10 and 31-69b.11

The defendants interposed the following special defenses: (1) that some or all of the plaintiffs' causes of action were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, General Statutes § 52-596;12 (2) that the claims arising out of the UCONN project for three of the plaintiffs, William Berlepsch, Miro Tanski and Michael Gianelli, were barred by the doctrine of accord and satisfaction, and that those plaintiffs released the defendants from any liability for labor claims arising out of that project; and (3) that all of the plaintiffs' claims were barred because each plaintiff, prior to instituting the action, already had assigned his claim to the state department of labor (department). Lawrence Brunoli, Jr., and Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., also filed counterclaims against William Schoonmaker alleging malicious prosecution, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A jury returned verdicts in favor of the six plaintiffs on their prevailing wage claims, and awarded them damages.13 The jury also concluded that the defendants' failure to pay the plaintiffs the proper prevailing wages was a result of the defendants' bad faith, arbitrariness and unreasonableness. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the defendants on the plaintiffs' wrongful discharge claims. Finally, the jury returned verdicts for the plaintiffs on the defendants' counterclaims.14

Numerous postverdict motions followed. Both the plaintiffs and the defendants filed motions to set aside the verdict and for a new trial. The trial court also concluded that the plaintiffs' claims arising out of the Wolcott School project had been assigned by them to the department. Accordingly, the court substantially reduced the plaintiffs' verdicts by the amounts awarded for the Wolcott School claims. The court granted the plaintiffs' motions, pursuant to § 31-72, to double the verdicts and awarded them attorney's fees in the amount of $39,750. Finally, the court partially granted the defendants' motions for attorney's fees incurred in defending the plaintiffs' wrongful discharge claims. The court awarded the defendants $12,000 in attorney's fees.

On appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court improperly: (1) concluded that the plaintiffs had assigned their claims arising out of the Wolcott School project to the department, thereby extinguishing their rights and interest in those claims; (2) determined when the plaintiffs' causes of action had accrued under, and the tolling of, the applicable statute of limitations, thereby resulting in an insufficient jury award; (3) refused to instruct the jury that, upon a finding that the defendants had violated § 31-53 (f) by failing to keep proper employee work and wage records, the burden of proof shifted to the defendants to disprove the plaintiffs' claims of lost wages; (4) concluded that there was no evidence to support the plaintiffs' wrongful discharge claims and, therefore, that the defendants were entitled to attorney's fees for the defense of those claims; (5) determined the amount of attorney's fees that were to be awarded to the defendants for defense of the wrongful discharge claims; (6) refused to award interest to the plaintiffs on the jury awards for their lost wages; and (7) reduced the amount of the attorney's fees that the plaintiffs were awarded.15

In their cross appeal, the defendants claim that the trial court improperly deviated from the plaintiffs' contingency fee agreement in its award of attorney's fees to the plaintiffs. The defendants also claim that the trial court improperly refused to set aside, pursuant to the doctrine of accord and satisfaction, the verdicts for Berlepsch, Tanski and Gianelli for claims arising out of the UCONN project.

Our resolution of the parties' various claims on appeal is set forth in far greater detail in the remainder of this opinion. To summarize, however, we conclude that with respect to the plaintiffs' claims on appeal: (1) the trial court improperly concluded that the plaintiffs had assigned their claims arising out of the Wolcott School project to the department, because the language on the claim forms merely created an assignment for collection; (2) the record is inadequate to permit meaningful appellate review of the plaintiffs' statute of limitations claims; (3) although the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the applicable burden of proof upon a finding of a record keeping violation, that improper instruction was harmless error; (4) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the defendants $12,000 in attorney's fees for the defense of four of the plaintiffs' wrongful discharge claims that the court deemed were frivolous; and (5) the plaintiffs failed to preserve for appellate review the issue of whether the trial court improperly refused to award them interest on their jury awards for their unpaid wages.

With respect to the defendants' claims on their cross appeal, we conclude that the trial court: (1) abused its discretion and improperly deviated from the contingency fee agreement between the plaintiffs and their attorneys in awarding attorney's fees to the plaintiffs; and (2) correctly refused to set aside, pursuant to the doctrine of accord and satisfaction, the verdict for Berlepsch, Tanski and Gianelli for claims arising out of the UCONN project.

By way of background, we note that the jury reasonably could have found the following facts. Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., is a construction company licensed to do business in this state. Lawrence Brunoli, Jr., and Lawrence Brunoli, Sr., are directors and officers of the corporation, with the latter serving as vice president. The plaintiffs were employees of Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., and worked for the defendants on various public works construction projects, which included work at the Wolcott School, UCONN and the Cedarcrest Hospital. At these projects, the plaintiffs engaged in various construction-related tasks, including, but not limited to, heavy equipment operation, masonry and tinsmithing. During the course of the plaintiffs' employment in the mid-1990s, complaints surfaced that the defendants were not properly compensating their workers, including the plaintiffs, in accordance with the prevailing wage requirements of § 31-53 (b). These complaints were investigated by both the Foundation for Fair Contracting in Connecticut (foundation), a private organization, and the department, eventually giving rise to the present action. Additional relevant facts and procedural history will be set forth, with specificity, in the context of the appropriate claim on appeal.

I ASSIGNMENT OF THE PLAINTIFFS' CLAIMS TO THE DEPARTMENT

The first issue in this appeal is whether the trial court improperly concluded that certain language on the department complaint forms constituted a valid and complete assignment of the Wolcott School claims to the department, thereby extinguishing the plaintiffs' right, title and interest in those claims, in the absence of a reassignment of those claims to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs claim that the language on the forms was merely an assignment for collection that did not completely extinguish their interest in those claims. The defendants claim that the trial court properly concluded that the language on the forms was a complete assignment of the Wolcott School claims.

The record reveals the following additional facts and procedural history necessary for the resolution of this claim. The plaintiffs,16 in December, 1995, and January, 1996, filed with the department standard complaint forms entitled "statement of claim for wages." These complaint forms, which were admitted into evidence at trial, alleged nonpayment of prevailing wages and overtime pay at the Wolcott School project. The language at issue is located on the reverse side of the forms, above the claimant's signature, and provides: "I hereby assign all wages and all penalties accruing because of their non-payment, and all liens securing them to the Labor Commissioner of the State of Connecticut to collect in accordance with the law." (Emphasis added.) Gary Pechie, director of the department's wage and workplace standards division, testified about the contents of the form. He testified that the form submitted by the plaintiffs had been last revised in 1994. Pechie testified that the language at issue authorized the...

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