St. George v. Gordon

Decision Date01 July 2003
Docket Number(SC 16673)
Citation264 Conn. 538,825 A.2d 90
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesANN ST. GEORGE ET AL. v. ABRAHAM I. GORDON, EXECUTOR (ESTATE OF EDWIN MAK), ET AL.

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Norcott, Katz and Vertefeuille, Js. Anthony F. Slez, Jr., for the appellants (plaintiffs).

Ronald D. Japha, for the appellant (named defendant).

Gregory T. D'Auria, associate attorney general, with whom were Eliot D. Prescott, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, attorney general, and Jane R. Rosenberg, assistant attorney general, for the appellees (defendant Nancy Wyman et al.).

Opinion

VERTEFEUILLE, J.

The plaintiffs and the named defendant, Abraham I. Gordon, executor of the estate of Edwin Mak,1 jointly appeal from the judgment of the trial court dismissing the plaintiffs' complaint and Gordon's cross claim in this action for indemnification brought pursuant to General Statutes § 5-141d.2 The plaintiffs brought this action seeking a declaratory judgment that they should be indemnified by the state for a judgment rendered in their favor in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut against Mak, the former high sheriff for Fairfield County. The trial court granted the motions to dismiss filed by the state defendants; see footnote 1 of this opinion; based on lack of standing and the bar of sovereign immunity. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The trial court's memorandum of decision sets forth the following relevant facts and procedural history. "On March 31, 1999, in consolidated cases brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983,3 the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut found in favor of [Ann] St. George and [Louis] Lewis and against Mak on St. George and Lewis' claims that Mak violated their rights under the first amendment to the United States constitution by taking adverse employment action against them in retaliation for their union organizing activities. [Anthony Slez, Jr.] and [Kevin] Boyle represented St. George and Lewis in their suit against Mak. The office of the attorney general ... initially represented Mak in the case but later withdrew pursuant to § 5-141d (b). On February 15, 2000, judgment was entered in the [federal] case for [St. George and Lewis] in the amount of $301,696.47, which amount included attorney's fees, costs and prejudgment interest. The plaintiffs thereafter filed a claim against Mak's estate, which claim was allowed by the executor, Gordon, in the amount of $301,696.47. The estate, however, is without funds to satisfy the plaintiffs' claim. On September 8, 2000, the plaintiffs, together with Gordon, made a demand for payment on the judgment upon [Wyman] pursuant to § 5-141d (a) and General Statutes § 3-112, which demand has not been paid.4 The plaintiffs commenced this action thereafter on December 14, 2000. On February 26, 2001, Gordon filed a cross claim against the [state defendants], in which he also seeks a declaratory judgment as to whether the estate of Mak, through Gordon as executor, is entitled to indemnification [for] the federal court judgment against Mak.

"On May 15, 2001, the [state defendants] filed these motions to dismiss both the plaintiffs' complaint and Gordon's cross claim. The [state] defendants [moved] to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint on the grounds that (1) the plaintiffs lack standing to bring their claims; (2) their claims are barred by the principles of sovereign immunity; and (3) they have failed to pursue remedies under General Statutes § 4-1415 et seq. The [state] defendants [moved] to dismiss Gordon's cross claim on the ground of sovereign immunity as well as on the ground that he failed to pursue remedies under § 4-141 et seq."

The trial court granted both motions to dismiss. First, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek indemnification under § 5-141d because the statute does not provide any rights for creditors of a state employee. Next, the trial court concluded that Gordon's cross claim was barred by sovereign immunity. This appeal by the plaintiffs and Gordon followed.6 On appeal, the plaintiffs and Gordon contend that the trial court improperly concluded that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred the cross claim.7 We disagree. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

I

The plaintiffs first claim that the trial court improperly concluded that they lacked standing to bring this action for indemnification under § 5-141d and General Statutes § 3-112.8 Specifically, the plaintiffs contend that standing is not one of the five permitted grounds for which an action may be dismissed under Practice Book § 10-31, and, further, that § 5-141d, by necessary implication, gives the plaintiffs standing to make a claim for indemnification. The state defendants counter that a motion to dismiss is proper when a party lacks standing and that the plaintiffs here lacked standing because any right to indemnification pursuant to § 5-141d is vested in the state employee himself or herself, and not in the creditors of that state employee.9 We agree with the state defendants.

We begin by setting forth the standard of review that governs our analysis of this issue. The issue of standing implicates subject matter jurisdiction and is therefore a basis for granting a motion to dismiss. Practice Book § 10-31(a). "[I]t is the burden of the party who seeks the exercise of jurisdiction in his favor ... clearly to allege facts demonstrating that he is a proper party to invoke judicial resolution of the dispute." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. McElveen, 261 Conn. 198, 210, 802, A.2d 74 (2002); Steeneck v. University of Bridgeport, 235 Conn. 572, 579, 668 A.2d 688 (1995). Because a determination regarding the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction raises a question of law, our review is plenary. Lawrence Brunoli, Inc. v. Branford, 247 Conn. 407, 410, 722 A.2d 271 (1999); Doe v. Roe, 246 Conn. 652, 660, 717 A.2d 706 (1998).

The plaintiffs' claim that lack of standing cannot be raised by a motion to dismiss is clearly without merit. Pursuant to the rules of practice, a motion to dismiss is the appropriate motion for raising a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Practice Book § 10-31 (a) provides in relevant part: "[A] motion to dismiss shall be used to assert (1) lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter...." Because a lack of standing deprives the court of subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court properly entertained the state defendants' motion to dismiss.

"This court has had many opportunities to determine what constitutes standing. Standing is the legal right to set judicial machinery in motion. One cannot rightfully invoke the jurisdiction of the court unless he has, in an individual or representative capacity, some real interest in the cause of action, or a legal or equitable right, title or interest in the subject matter of the controversy." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Gay & Lesbian Law Students Assn. v. Board of Trustees, 236 Conn. 453, 466, 673 A.2d 484 (1996); accord Presidential Capital Corp. v. Reale, 231 Conn. 500, 504, 652 A.2d 489 (1994).

In order to determine whether a party has standing to make a claim under a statute, a court must determine the interests and the parties that the statute was designed to protect. See Steeneck v. University of Bridgeport, supra, 235 Conn. 579. "Essentially the standing question in such cases is whether the ... statutory provision on which the claim rests properly can be understood as granting persons in the plaintiff's position a right to judicial relief." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 500, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 45 L. Ed. 2d 343 (1975). The plaintiff must be within the zone of interests protected by the statute. United Cable Television Services Corp. v. Dept. of Public Utility Control, 235 Conn. 334, 345, 663 A.2d 1011 (1995).

The fact that the plaintiffs in the present case seek only declaratory relief does not relieve them of the obligation to establish standing in order to maintain an action in the court. See Steeneck v. University of Bridgeport, supra, 235 Conn. 578-79. "It is a basic principle of our law ... that the plaintiffs must have standing in order for a court to have jurisdiction to render a declaratory judgment." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 578.

In the present case, we must determine whether the plaintiffs, as judgment creditors of a state employee, are within the zone of interests protected by § 5-141d. That statute provides in relevant part: "The state shall... indemnify any state officer or employee ... from financial loss and expense arising out of any claim, demand, suit or judgment ... if the officer, employee or member is found to have been acting in the discharge of his duties or within the scope of his employment...." General Statutes § 5-141d (a). The language expressly vests any right provided by § 5-141d in the state officer or employee against whom the claim is made or suit is brought. In this case, the statutory rights were vested in Mak as the high sheriff, and now are vested in Gordon in his representative capacity of Mak's estate. We previously stated in our opinion in Hunte v. Blumenthal, 238 Conn. 146, 153, 680 A.2d 1231 (1996), that the "manifest policy motivating [§ 5-141d is] the protection of state employees from liability for negligent acts that occur in the course of employment." Section 5-141d makes no mention of indemnifying third parties or third party creditors of state officers or employees. The plaintiffs are not within the zone of interests that § 5-141d expressly protects. Furthermore, we are not aware of any authority, legislative history or any other evidence, nor have the plaintiffs provided us with any, that demonstrates that the legislature intended to allow a third party creditor to make an indemnification...

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