State Marshal Ass'n of Conn., Inc. v. Johnson

Decision Date30 June 2020
Docket NumberAC 42131
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
Parties STATE MARSHAL ASSOCIATION OF CONNECTICUT, INC. v. Erin JOHNSON, Tax Collector of the Town of Canton

Andrew P. Barsom, for the appellant (plaintiff).

James J. Healy, Hartford, with whom were Barbara Curatolo, and, on the brief, Thomas J. Murphy, Hartford, for the appellee (intervening defendant).

Laura Pascale Zaino, with whom, on the brief, was Michael C. Collins, Hartford, for the appellee (named defendant).

DiPentima, C. J., and Elgo and Sullivan, Js.

ELGO, J.

The plaintiff, State Marshal Association of Connecticut, Inc., appeals from the judgment of the trial court dismissing its declaratory action against the defendants, Erin Johnson, the tax collector of the town of Canton (town), and Pullman & Comley, LLC (Pullman).1 On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the court improperly (1) concluded that it lacked standing to maintain the action and (2) denied the plaintiff's motion seeking reargument and reconsideration. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The procedural posture of this case governs our recitation of the facts underlying the appeal. "When a ... court decides a jurisdictional question raised by a pre-trial motion to dismiss, it must consider the allegations of the complaint in their most favorable light. ... In this regard, a court must take the facts to be those alleged in the complaint, including those facts necessarily implied from the allegations, construing them in a manner most favorable to the pleader. ... The motion to dismiss ... admits all facts which are well pleaded, invokes the existing record and must be decided upon that alone." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Traylor v. State , 332 Conn. 789, 792–93 n.6, 213 A.3d 467 (2019).

The plaintiff is a voluntary association that was formed in April, 2017. It is comprised of deputized state marshals who, inter alia, are statutorily authorized to execute, enforce and collect taxes due to municipalities in this state. At all relevant times, Johnson was the duly appointed tax collector for the town.

On May 23, 2017, Johnson executed an engagement letter (contract) prepared by Pullman, a Connecticut law firm. With respect to the "[s]cope of [r]epresentation," the contract states in relevant part: "You have asked us to provide ... assistance relating to the collection of delinquent tax, utility, and similar accounts. These collection efforts are expected to primarily include demand letters and property auctions under [General Statutes] §§ 12-155 and 12-157, but may also include litigation, bank levies, bankruptcy claims, or other mechanisms .... You will retain full discretion over which accounts you choose to refer to [us] for collection. For those accounts, you ... deputize and authorize us to prepare, sign, and serve demands, warrants, notices, bank account inquiries, and similar documents on the [tax] collector's behalf and to endorse and process the payments we receive for you. You agree to recall all warrants given to marshals, all accounts given to debt collection agencies, and otherwise ensure that no third party will be authorized by you to simultaneously attempt to collect the same delinquencies you refer to [Pullman]."2

The plaintiff commenced the present action in December, 2017. Its complaint named Johnson, in her official capacity, as the sole defendant and contained four counts, which sought a judgment declaring that her actions in executing the contract violated the plain language of General Statutes §§ 12-135 (a), 12-155, 12-157, and 12-162 respectively. The salient portions of the plaintiff's complaint allege that the legislature has outlined only three classes of persons who are authorized to collect taxes due to the town: (1) the municipal tax collector; (2) any state marshal; and (3) any constable. The plaintiff thus alleged that Johnson lacked statutory authority to delegate or transfer the power to collect municipal taxes to a third party that does not fall within one of those classes.

Days after that action was filed, Pullman filed a motion to intervene as a defendant due to its status as "a party to the contract at issue," which the court granted. Pullman then filed a motion to dismiss on February 27, 2018, which Johnson joined,3 claiming that the plaintiff lacked standing to maintain the declaratory action. More specifically, the defendants alleged that neither the plaintiff nor any of its members were a party to the contract and had not "suffered any injury from the ... hiring [of Pullman] to provide ... legal advice and assistance." The plaintiff filed an opposition to that motion, claiming that it was both classically and statutorily aggrieved by Johnson's execution of the contract with Pullman. The defendants filed a reply to that opposition.

The court heard argument on the motion to dismiss on April 23, 2018. In its subsequent memorandum of decision, the court concluded that the plaintiff was not aggrieved, stating in relevant part: "[T]he plaintiff's argument centers on its members' status as one of three classes authorized to collect taxes: tax collectors, marshals, and constables. Because [Pullman] does not fall under one of these three categories, the plaintiff maintains that it has a ‘concrete and equitable interest’ to bring the present action. Specifically, the plaintiff points to the language of the contract entered into by the defendants to show that marshals could potentially have their assigned warrants to collect recalled by Johnson, thus causing an injury which confers standing. However, the plaintiff does not allege that any member has suffered such an injury as a result of the contract. Additionally, the plaintiff does not allege that any of its members ever acted on behalf of a tax collector in [the town] previously, or had the expectation of doing so going forward, which might show a colorable potential for injury. Rather, the facts as alleged demonstrate that the plaintiff is in the same position currently as it would be if Johnson decided to pursue the other two options statutorily available under § 12-135 (a), that is, handling collections personally in her capacity as tax collector or by utilizing a constable. Consequently, the plaintiff has not alleged a unique harm suffered. It has no interest distinguishable from that of the general public, and thus, lacks standing." (Footnotes omitted.) The court therefore rendered judgment dismissing the plaintiff's action.

In its memorandum of decision, the court did not distinctly address the plaintiff's claim of statutory aggrievement. As a result, the plaintiff filed a motion seeking reargument and reconsideration on that basis, which the court summarily denied. The plaintiff then sought an articulation of the court's reasoning for that denial, which the court also denied. This appeal followed.4

I

On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the court improperly determined that it lacked standing to maintain the present action. We disagree.

It is well established that "a party must have standing to assert a claim in order for the court to have subject matter jurisdiction over the claim. ... 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. ... Standing ... is not a technical rule intended to keep aggrieved parties out of court; nor is it a test of substantive rights. Rather it is a practical concept designed to ensure that courts and parties are not vexed by suits brought to vindicate nonjusticiable interests and that judicial decisions which may affect the rights of others are forged in hot controversy, with each view fairly and vigorously represented." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Zak , 259 Conn. 766, 774, 792 A.2d 66 (2002). "Where a party is found to lack standing, the court is consequently without subject matter jurisdiction to determine the cause." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) J.E. Robert Co. v. Signature Properties, LLC , 309 Conn. 307, 318, 71 A.3d 492 (2013).

"When standing is put in issue, the question is whether the person whose standing is challenged is a proper party to request an adjudication of the issue ...." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Long , 268 Conn. 508, 531, 847 A.2d 862, cert. denied, 543 U.S. 969, 125 S. Ct. 424, 160 L. Ed. 2d 340 (2004). "Because standing implicates the court's subject matter jurisdiction, the plaintiff ... bears the burden of establishing standing." Seymour v. Region One Board of Education , 274 Conn. 92, 104, 874 A.2d 742, cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1016, 126 S. Ct. 659, 163 L. Ed. 2d 526 (2005) ; see also Browning v. Van Brunt, DuBiago & Co., LLC , 330 Conn. 447, 460, 195 A.3d 1123 (2018) (party seeking exercise of jurisdiction in its favor bears burden to allege facts demonstrating that it is proper party to invoke judicial resolution of dispute). Our review of the question of the plaintiff's standing is plenary. 5

See Weiss v. Smulders , 313 Conn. 227, 239, 96 A.3d 1175 (2014).

The sole plaintiff in the present case is an association comprised of state marshals. Accordingly, our analysis begins with the question of associational standing.

In the seminal case of Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Commission, 432 U.S. 333, 97 S. Ct. 2434, 53 L. Ed. 2d 383 (1977), the United States Supreme Court articulated a three part test to determine whether an association possesses standing to maintain an action. It held that "an association has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members when: (a) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose; and (c) neither...

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