Sentner v. Board of Trustees of Regional Community Colleges

Decision Date09 June 1981
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Robert E. Walsh, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were Thomas P. Clifford III, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Carl R. Ajello, Atty. Gen. and Bernard F. McGovern, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellant (defendant).

Paul B. Zolan, Hartford, with whom, on the brief, were Robert L. Hirtle, Jr., and Marianne D. Smith, Hartford, for appellee (plaintiff).


BOGDANSKI, Chief Justice.

In this case the trial court determined that the only defendant, the board of trustees of Regional Community Colleges (board), had acted on the basis of insufficient evidence in terminating the plaintiff's employment. The court ordered the defendant to reinstate the plaintiff as a tenured professor at Manchester Community College. This appeal followed.

In his complaint, the plaintiff made the following allegations. He began teaching for the Connecticut Community College system in the fall of 1969 as an assistant professor at Greater Hartford Community College. He continued in this position until August 1973, when he was appointed to the same position at Manchester Community College, where he continued to teach through the academic year 1976-77. In March 1974, the president of Manchester Community College recommended that the plaintiff's contract not be renewed after the 1974-75 year. The plaintiff appealed that recommendation. In August 1975, a hearing committee determined that the evaluation of the plaintiff did not follow the procedures set by the board. On September 15, 1975, the board of trustees, an official agency of the state of Connecticut, directed that the plaintiff be employed on a standard appointment at Manchester Community College, or at another community college. The plaintiff remained an assistant professor at Manchester Community College during 1975-76. On April 14, 1976, he received a letter from Dr. Ronald Denison, president of Manchester Community College. The letter said that Denison intended to recommend that the board of trustees not renew the plaintiff's contract. Hearings were held to determine the fairness and validity of the procedures used to evaluate the plaintiff. The complaint further alleged that those hearings, which concluded July 28, 1977, were unfair, violated the personnel policies of the board, and violated the fourteenth amendment of the United States constitution by denying the plaintiff due process, and that the plaintiff had suffered irreparable harm for which he had no adequate remedy at law.

By way of relief, the plaintiff requested full back pay and an order directing the defendant to continue the plaintiff's employment with tenure.

The defendant demurred asserting that it, as an agency of the state, is immune from suits to which the state has not consented, and that the plaintiff had not alleged state consent to the action. The demurrer was overruled.

After trial, the court concluded: (1) that the plaintiff had achieved tenure under the defendant's procedures; (2) that the plaintiff's tenured status and procedural due process require an adequate and full hearing before the defendant may dismiss the plaintiff; (3) that the evidence before the defendant could not sustain the decision to dismiss the plaintiff; (4) that the provisions of the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act do not provide a legal remedy to the plaintiff; (5) that the plaintiff does not have an adequate legal remedy; and (6) that without equitable action the plaintiff would suffer irreparable harm.

On this appeal the defendant raises three issues: (1) whether sovereign immunity shields the board of trustees of regional community colleges, as an entity, from this suit; (2) whether the conclusion that the plaintiff had achieved tenure was supported by the evidence; and (3) whether the court erred in ruling that the defendant improperly dismissed the plaintiff.


We have long recognized the common-law principle that the state cannot be sued without its consent. Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 623, 376 A.2d 359 (1977); Textron, Inc. v. Wood, 167 Conn. 334, 339, 355 A.2d 307 (1974). We have also recognized that because the state can act only through its officers and agents, a suit against a state officer concerning a matter in which the officer represents the state is, in effect, against the state. Horton v. Meskill, supra; Textron, Inc. v. Wood, supra; Baker v. Ives, 162 Conn. 295, 297, 294 A.2d 290 (1972); Murphy v. Ives, 151 Conn. 259, 262, 196 A.2d 596 (1963); Anderson v. Argraves, 146 Conn. 316, 320, 150 A.2d 295 (1959). Therefore, we have dealt with such suits as if they were solely against the state and have referred to the state as the defendant. Anselmo v. Cox, 135 Conn. 78, 79-80, 60 A.2d 767, cert. denied, 335 U.S. 859, 69 S.Ct. 132, 93 L.Ed. 405 (1948); Rusch v. Cox, 130 Conn. 26, 34, 31 A.2d 457 (1943). 1 In view of our practice of not distinguishing between suits against the state and those against state officers representing the state, we reject the defendant's argument that sovereign immunity imposes a stricter bar to a suit that names as the sole defendant the board of trustees of regional community colleges than to a suit which names the board members.


"(T)he principle of sovereign immunity ... has ... been modified and adapted to the American concept of constitutional government where the source of governmental power and authority ... rests in the people themselves(,) who have adopted constitutions creating governments with defined and limited powers and courts to interpret these basic laws. The source of the sovereign power of the state is now the constitution which created it." Horton v. Meskill, supra.

In a constitutional democracy sovereign immunity must relax its bar when suits against the government complain of unconstitutional acts. Horton v. Meskill, supra, 172 Conn. 624, 376 A.2d 359; Simmons v. Parizek, 158 Conn. 304, 306-307, 259 A.2d 642 (1969). The plaintiff alleged that he had tenure at a state institution and that the defendant denied him a fair hearing on the cause for its termination of his employment. Under the allegations of the complaint, the defendant's right to such a hearing is mandated by the due process clause of the constitution. Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 92 S.Ct. 2694, 33 L.Ed.2d 570 (1972).

Relying upon Rogan v. Board of Trustees for the State Colleges, 178 Conn. 579, 424 A.2d 274 (1979), the defendant argues that sovereign immunity bars this suit because the plaintiff has not joined his requests for injunctive relief and back pay to a prayer for a declaratory judgment. 2 The plaintiff does not urge us to abrogate the doctrine of sovereign immunity or to overrule Rogan. Instead, without success, he tries to characterize his suit as a request for a declaratory judgment.

In the event that a declaratory judgment action should decide that certain acts of state officials violated the constitution, we presume that the officials would accede to that decision. Horton v. Meskill, supra, 172 Conn. 627, 376 A.2d 359. Simultaneous or subsequent injunctive relief would therefore be redundant; Spector Motor Service, Inc. v. Walsh, 135 Conn. 37, 41, 61 A.2d 89 (1948); because declaratory relief controls state activity no less completely than injunctive relief.

We continue to approve of the declaratory judgment as a proper and adaptable vehicle for relief in matters concerning the operations of government. Nevertheless, the view of declaratory relief which we expressed in Horton does not require the automatic dismissal of a suit which seeks to remedy an unconstitutional state act merely because the suit neglects to request declaratory relief. Such dismissals would trap the unwary. Furthermore, trial courts can avoid undue interference with governmental functions by tailoring injunctive relief and scrupulously weighing the equities. Bahramian v. Papandrea, --- Conn. ---, ---, --- A.2d ---- (42 Conn. L.J., No. 44, pp. 1, 3) (1981); Bassett v. Atwater, 65 Conn. 355, 362, 32 A. 937 (1895). To afford the state an opportunity both to minimize disruption to government and to comply voluntarily, a court may suspend the effective date of an injunction which it grants. Gregory v. Crain, 291 Ky. 194, 163 S.W.2d 289 (1942). Thus, we overrule Rogan to the extent it maintained that sovereign immunity invariably barred suits against the state for prospective injunctive relief of alleged constitutional violations unless such suits also requested declaratory relief. 3 In the present case the prospective injunctive relief granted by the trial court avoided undue interference with governmental functions and, thus, does not require reversal.


The trial court's revised memorandum of decision states that on September 15, 1975, the board of trustees of regional community colleges 4 directed Dr. Cyril Charles, the executive director of regional community colleges, to appoint the plaintiff on a standard appointment for the year 1975-76. 5 The court found that this action by the defendant conferred tenure upon the plaintiff. The applicable personnel policies adopted by the board of trustees on November 16, 1970, provide that "(t)enure will be attained upon the completion of a maximum of six years of full-time service and the renewal of an individual's contract for the seventh year." Personnel Policies for the Professional Employees of the Regional Community College System § B I.B. 2. The plaintiff completed his sixth year of service at the end of the 1974-75 year. By directing that he receive a standard appointment for 1975-76, the defendant renewed his contract for the seventh year. The defendant concedes that the plaintiff completed seven years of service.

Nevertheless, the defendant argues that the trial...

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