Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities

Citation777 A.2d 645,257 Conn. 258
Decision Date07 August 2001
Docket Number(SC 16249)
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

Borden, Norcott, Palmer, Zarella and Hodgson, JS. Charles Krich, with whom was Philip A. Murphy, Jr., for the appellant (named defendant).

Philip L. Steele, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Kevin D. O'Leary, with whom, on the brief, was Fiona Greaves, for the appellee (defendant Fleet National Bank of Connecticut).

Kathleen Eldergill filed a brief for the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

Robert B. Mitchell, Lisa M. Grasso and David J. Kelly filed a brief for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association as amicus curiae.



The principal issue in this certified appeal is whether the 180 day time requirement for filing a complaint with the named defendant commission on human rights and opportunities (commission) pursuant to General Statutes § 46a-82 (e)1 is subject matter jurisdictional. Following our grant of certification to appeal,2 the commission3 appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court dismissing the disability discrimination complaint filed by the plaintiff, Terry Ann Williams. The Appellate Court determined that because the plaintiff had not filed her complaint within 180 days of the alleged act of discrimination, the commission lacked jurisdiction to entertain the complaint. Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 54 Conn. App. 251, 258, 733 A.2d 902 (1999). The commission claims that the 180 day filing period is not subject matter jurisdictional, but rather, is subject to waiver and equitable tolling. We agree with the commission that the filing period is not jurisdictional. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The plaintiff brought the underlying complaint against her former employer, Shawmut Mortgage Company (Shawmut). The complaint was assigned to a commission investigator and was dismissed for lack of reasonable cause. The plaintiff appealed from the commission's order of dismissal to the trial court. The court, Maloney, J., rendered a stipulated judgment and remanded the matter back to the commission. On remand, the commission dismissed the complaint on timeliness grounds. The plaintiff again appealed to the trial court. The trial court, McWeeny, J., dismissed the plaintiffs appeal, thus affirming the commission's dismissal of the complaint. The plaintiff then appealed from the trial court's judgment to the Appellate Court. Although the commission did not claim, in either the trial court or the Appellate Court, that the 180 day time limit was jurisdictional, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's judgment on the ground that the time limit was subject matter jurisdictional. Id. This appeal followed.

The following facts and procedural history, as stated by the Appellate Court, are relevant to the disposition of this appeal. "The plaintiffs complaint to the commission, dated February 10, 1994, was filed with the commission on February 14, 1994, and alleged that the plaintiff was employed by Shawmut from October, 1979, until January 29, 1991. She was given a written warning about her work by Shawmut on January 28, 1991, worked January 29, 1991, called in sick on January 30, 1991, and never returned to work thereafter. The plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim alleging work-related stress, which she claimed commenced on January 28, 1991. She also claimed disability benefits, alleging a disablement beginning January 29, 1991. After she stopped working, Shawmut advised her on March 22, 1991, that her job had been filled and that she had been replaced. On April 15, 1991, the plaintiff refused an offer of another position at the bank at her former pay rate. She continued to receive a full salary until May 21, 1991. The plaintiff's disability payments ceased on January 30, 1993. The plaintiff began employment with another employer, Colt Firearms, on January 4, 1993. She settled her workers' compensation claim against Shawmut on July 7, 1993 .... The plaintiff received a letter from Shawmut on August 3, 1993, advising her of her federal rights to continue health insurance coverage. The letter noted that her termination of employment date was January 23, 1993. On October 15, 1993, the plaintiff wrote to Shawmut requesting that she be allowed to return to work. Shawmut, by letter dated December 17, 1993, indicated that more time was needed to respond to her request and agreed not to assert a `time based or defense of statute of limitations which might arise after your initial claim letter.'

"The trial court concluded that the employer's agreement as expressed in its letter of December 17, 1993, did not prevent the commission from conducting a review of the timeliness of the plaintiffs complaint and that the doctrine of equitable tolling of the statute should not be invoked to save the plaintiffs complaint from dismissal. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs appeal. "The plaintiff sought an articulation, claiming that the trial court had not determined the issues presented to it. The court articulated its memorandum of decision, and stated that it did not decide whether the 180 day limitation of § 46a-82 (e) was jurisdictional because even if it assumed the time limitation was not jurisdictional and, therefore, subject to the application of the doctrine of equitable tolling, that doctrine should not be invoked on the facts. The court further stated that the timeliness of the claim is not supported by the record, that the plaintiff's claim that she remained an employee of Shawmut from January, 1991, through October, 1993, is not supported by the evidence, and that the commission, on the substantial evidence presented, correctly determined that the plaintiff was not an employee in October of 1993 when she attempted to file a claim to return to work at Shawmut." Id., 252-54.

On appeal to the Appellate Court, the plaintiff argued that "even if her complaint were filed untimely, the commission did not lose jurisdiction and her claim could still be considered because the limitations period should be tolled on equitable grounds, or because Shawmut had waived the defense of the statute of limitations or is estopped from raising it." Id., 254. Without reaching the plaintiffs claims, however, the Appellate Court determined that the time limitation of § 46a-82 (e) was subject matter jurisdictional and, therefore, not waivable or subject to equitable tolling. Id. The court, relying on Angelsea Productions, Inc. v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 236 Conn. 681, 674 A.2d 1300 (1996), determined that § 46a-82 (e) was a mandatory time limitation that deprived the commission of jurisdiction. Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, supra, 54 Conn. App. 255-56.

The commission filed a motion to reargue or for reargument en banc. According to the commission, the Appellate Court had decided an issue that had not been raised in the trial court or briefed by the parties, even though the commission had requested time to brief the jurisdictional issue. The Appellate Court denied the commission's motion. The commission then petitioned this court for certification to appeal from the Appellate Court's judgment, which we granted. See footnote 2 of this opinion. We agree with the commission that the 180 day time requirement for filing a discrimination petition pursuant to § 46a-82 (e) is not jurisdictional but, rather, is subject to waiver and equitable tolling.4


We first address a procedural issue raised by Fleet Bank. Fleet Bank claims that the commission does not have standing to bring this appeal because the commission prevailed at the Appellate Court and, therefore, is not aggrieved. "Because `[t]he issue of standing implicates this court's subject matter jurisdiction,' we address it first." In re Jonathan M., 255 Conn. 208, 217, 764 A.2d 739 (2001).

"Standing is the legal right to set judicial machinery in motion. One cannot rightfully invoke the jurisdiction of the court unless he [or she] 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." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sadloski v. Manchester, 228 Conn. 79, 84, 634 A.2d 888 (1993).

An agency has an institutional interest in decisions that affect its decision-making ability. See Board of Pardons v. Freedom of Information Commission, 210 Conn. 646, 650, 556 A.2d 1020 (1989) ("the board has a legitimate institutional interest in the integrity of its decision-making process"). We previously have held, moreover, that impairment of an agency's ability to carry out its responsibilities constitutes aggrievement for purposes of appeal. See Milford v. Local 1566, 200 Conn. 91, 98, 510 A.2d 177 (1986) ("The court's ruling... clearly undermines the integrity of the administrative procedure employed by the board and calls into question the validity of most of the decisions it has rendered. The ruling therefore directly interferes with the discharge of the board's statutory responsibilities and the board, as a result, has sufficient interest in the controversy to confer standing.").

We conclude that the Appellate Court's decision that § 46a-82 (e) was a subject matter jurisdictional bar to the commission's ability to...

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