Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities

Decision Date18 December 2001
Docket Number(AC 17948)
Citation67 Conn. App. 316,786 A.2d 1283
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesTERRY ANN WILLIAMS v. COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES ET AL.

Foti, Landau and Dupont, JS.

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

Charles Krich, with whom, on the brief, was Philip A. Murphy, Jr., commission counsel, for the appellee (named defendant).

Opinion

DUPONT, J.

This case comes to us on remand from our Supreme Court. See Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 257 Conn. 258, 777 A.2d 645 (2001). The plaintiff, Terry Ann Williams, appealed to this court from the judgment of the trial court dismissing her appeal from the decision of the defendant commission on human rights and opportunities (commission) to dismiss her claim of employment discrimination. The plaintiffs complaint to the commission alleged employment discrimination by the defendant employer Shawmut Mortgage Company1 (Shawmut) based on a mental disability in violation of General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (1).2 The trial court determined that the complaint to the commission was untimely pursuant to General Statutes § 46a-82 (e)3 and that the facts of the case did not warrant equitable tolling of the statute of limitations. This court affirmed the decision of the trial court, holding 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.4Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 54 Conn. App. 251, 258, 733 A.2d 902 (1999), rev'd, 257 Conn. 258, 777 A.2d 645 (2001). The commission requested certification to appeal to our Supreme Court, which was granted.5 The Supreme Court reversed our decision, concluding that the 180 day filing requirement imposed by § 46a-82 (e) is not jurisdictional, although it is mandatory and must be complied with in the absence of a showing of waiver, consent or some other equitable tolling doctrine.6 That court remanded the case to us "for a specific determination of the various issues raised in the plaintiffs appeal [to the Appellate Court], namely, whether the untimeliness of the plaintiffs complaint should have been excused on the basis of waiver or equitable tolling." Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, supra, 257 Conn. 289-90. The remand assumes that the plaintiffs complaint was untimely7 and requires this court to determine whether waiver or equitable tolling should apply.

On appeal in this court, the plaintiffs claims are that (1) the commission did not perform an investigation of the timeliness of the complaint8 and (2) the court should have concluded that the facts supported a case for equitable tolling or waiver.9 We conclude that the judgment of the trial court dismissing the appeal should be affirmed.

The following facts and procedural history are necessary for a disposition of this appeal. The plaintiffs complaint to the commission alleges that she was employed by Shawmut beginning in October, 1979. She continued to work at Shawmut until January, 1991. On January 28, 1991, Shawmut issued a written warning to the plaintiff concerning her work performance, which she refused to sign. She worked on January 29, 1991, and called in sick on January 30, 1991. She never returned to work at Shawmut. The plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim alleging work-related stress that began on January 28, 1991. The plaintiff also filed successfully for disability benefits, alleging that she was disabled beginning on January 29, 1991. The plaintiffs complaint states that "[b]eginning in 1989 [she] began to suffer a disabling injury of an adjustment disorder with depressed mood as a result of harassment on the job." The plaintiff did not notify Shawmut concerning the harassment or her mental condition prior to February, 1991. In February, 1991, the plaintiff had several conversations with a supervisor at Shawmut concerning her potential return to work. The plaintiff was offered a different position at her current salary, but she refused and did not want to return under the existing circumstances. On March 22, 1991, Shawmut notified the plaintiff that it had filled her position and that she had been replaced. The plaintiff was told that when she returned from her medical leave, she would be offered a position comparable to her former job. On April 15, 1991, the plaintiff refused an offer of another position at the company at her former pay rate. The plaintiff inquired about other opportunities within the company and was directed to discuss openings with one of the corporation's recruiters. There is nothing to indicate that the plaintiff did so.

The plaintiff continued on full salary until May 21, 1991, and was eligible for partial salary through July 31, 1991. In July, 1991, the plaintiff submitted a claim for long-term disability, and her application was approved. Following the approval of her long-term disability claim, the plaintiff began to receive $1384.96 a month in disability payments retroactive to January, 1991, the date that she discontinued employment at Shawmut. The disability payments expired on January 30, 1993, and Shawmut's insurance carrier told the plaintiff that to receive payments beyond that period, she would have to provide medical evidence that she was unable to work at any occupation. During the period of her absence from Shawmut, the plaintiff also received $2233.08 a month in employment compensation. The plaintiff settled her workers' compensation claim against Shawmut on July 7, 1993, and received an additional $17,000 in compensation.

On January 4, 1993, the plaintiff commenced employment with another employer, Colt Firearms. On August 3, 1993, Shawmut notified the plaintiff by letter of her federal rights to continue health insurance coverage. The letter noted a termination of employment date of January 23, 1993. On October 15, 1993, the plaintiffs attorney inquired about the termination and requested the plaintiff's return to work at Shawmut. On November 3, 1993, Shawmut's managing counsel sent a letter to the plaintiff stating that a response would be provided once the necessary factual research was completed. In a letter dated December 17, 1993, Shawmut's managing counsel wrote to the plaintiffs attorney, stating: "I am writing to confirm our agreement with respect to Shawmut's consideration of the claim you are asserting on behalf of your client, Terry Williams. As we discussed, my schedule has precluded my review of the various files which Shawmut maintains in this matter. Consequently, Shawmut agrees that it will not assert any time based or defense of statute of limitations which might arise after your initial claim letter."

The plaintiff filed a complaint with the commission on February 10, 1994, alleging employment discrimination on the basis of mental disability in violation of § 46a-60 (a) (1). On or about September 20, 1994, the commission dismissed the complaint because there was "no reasonable possibility that further investigation [would] result in a finding of reasonable cause inasmuch as it was determined that the facts are not likely to show that [the plaintiff was] terminated by respondent."

The plaintiff appealed from the dismissal to the Superior Court. The plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the commission ignored the standard of review set forth in General Statutes § 46a-83 and that it improperly applied a standard of "reasonable likelihood" to a review after the initial complaint was filed rather than the "reasonable possibility" standard as stated in General Statutes § 48a-83 (b). On February 6, 1995, the Superior Court rendered a stipulated judgment that remanded the matter to the commission "with direction to reinstate the complaint of the plaintiff and for further proceedings in accordance with the law."

On June 6, 1996, the commission issued a notice of final agency action, stating that it was dismissing the complaint on the basis of a finding of no reasonable cause due to lack of jurisdiction. On October 17, 1996, the commission rejected the plaintiffs request for reconsideration. On November 14, 1996, the plaintiff filed an appeal from the commission's decision to the Superior Court. On November 13, 1997, the trial court dismissed the appeal.

According to § 46a-82 (e), a complaint of employment discrimination "must be filed within one hundred eighty days after the alleged act of discrimination...." (Emphasis added.) One hundred and eighty days preceding the filing date would set August 14, 1993, as the statutory cutoff date for alleged acts of discrimination for complaints filed on February 10, 1994, the date on which the plaintiff filed. The 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 should not be invoked on the particular facts in this case to save the plaintiffs complaint from dismissal pursuant to § 46a-82 (e).10 We must now determine whether the doctrine of equitable tolling applies.

The standard of review for appeals from a decision of the commission is well settled. "Judicial review of an administrative agency decision requires a court to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the agency's findings of basic fact and whether the conclusions drawn from those facts are reasonable.... This so-called substantial evidence rule is similar to the sufficiency of the evidence standard applied in judicial review of jury verdicts, and evidence is sufficient to sustain an agency finding if it affords a substantial basis of fact from which the fact in issue can be reasonably inferred.... [I]t imposes an important limitation on the power of the courts to overturn a decision...

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    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
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    ..."waiver, consent, or estoppel, that is, as an equitable principle to excuse untimeliness." Williams v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 67 Conn.App. 316, 320 n.9, 786 A.2d 1283 (2001).9 The issue of whether the time limitation in § 52–582 was a substantive or procedural matter so......
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