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Connecticut Supreme Court Focuses On Public Sector Issues – For Now

As published in the September 19, 2011 Connecticut Law Tribune

Labor and employment law is usually a hot topic in the courts. This past ses­sion, the U.S. Supreme Court decided sev­eral important cases affecting employers and employees throughout the country.  In Connecticut, new employment laws are be­ing passed and the state is aggressively en­forcing it wage and hour laws.

Despite all this activity, the Connecticut Supreme Court has remained quiet on the labor and employment law front for the second year in a row. What few cases were decided in this past session mostly focus on the public sector. Below is an overview of Court decisions that affected public and private employers in the state.

Ministerial Exception

The Supreme Court adopted a rule cur­rently followed by most federal circuit courts which declares the court will not in­terfere with a religious institution’s employ­ment decisions which affect clergy. Since a religious in­stitution’s re­ligious beliefs can greatly in­fluence its em­ployment de­cisions, courts are generally wary to intrude.

In Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, the Court laid out a two-part analysis to de­cide whether this “ministerial exception” will apply. First, the court must decide if the employee’s actual job functions classify him/her as a “minister.” Then, the court looks at whether “adjudicat­ing the particular claims and defenses in the case would require the court to intrude into a religious institution’s exclusive right to decide mat­ters pertaining to doctrine or its internal governance or organization.” This exception has wide breadth, as the Court applied it to the plaintiff’s dis­crimination, tort and contract claims. Religious institutions in the state now have more freedom to align their employment decisions with their reli­gious beliefs.

Workers’ Compensation Exclusivity

In Motzer v. Haberli et al., the Supreme Court affirmed that workers’ compensa­tion is meant to be the exclusive remedy for employees injured on the job, save a few rare excep­tions. Here, the plaintiff, an electrician’s apprentice, stuck his fin­ger in a hole to clean out debris at the same time that an­other apprentice drilled into the hole from the other side. The plaintiff lost the tip of his finger and claimed the injury resulted from the lack of adult supervision on the job. Instead of filing for workers’ compen­sation, he brought an action in court.

The court did recognize that there are certain circumstances which may allow an employee to bring a cause of action in court. However, the bar is set high as the plaintiff must show that the employer acted intentionally to cause the injury or intentionally made conditions at the work­place so dangerous that it was almost cer­tain to allow an injury to happen. There was no such showing here. While em­ployees will continue to try to avoid the exclusivity of workers’ compensation, this decision reinforces that their chances of success remain low.

Collecting Attorney Fees

In a decision which may alleviate some of the stress of litigation for public employ­ers, the Supreme Court in Singhaviroj v. Board of Education awarded defendant em­ployer attorneys’ fees under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. If pressed for a confession, many plaintiffs’ lawyers would have to admit to unnecessarily drowning defense counsel in paperwork in order to increase litigation costs and force the de­fendant to settle. Usually, defendants have no redress, as they cannot collect attorneys’ fees under most statutes. However, Section 1983 allows a defendant to collect attorney’s fees if the plaintiff ’s case is found to be friv­olous or baseless. Such a case finally came before the Court.

In this case, the plaintiff ’s original complaint and four subsequent amended complaints were dismissed by the trial court. Each time, the court told the plain­tiff he failed to state specific facts to sub­stantiate his claims. After the fifth dis­missal, the defendant brought an action for the $16,000 in attorneys’ fees incurred defending the four frivolous amended complaints.

The trial court granted defendant $3,000 in fees. The plaintiff appealed. Again the plaintiff lost, and the Supreme Court af­firmed the trial court’s award. While this will not stem the tide of excessive discovery requests and motion practice, it does offer public employers in Connecticut some sol­ace knowing this remedy is available.

Unionized Employees

Employers often struggle with when and how they can communicate with their unionized employees. This issue came to head in Board of Education v. State Board of Labor Relations. A teacher left in the middle of the school year, so the unionized teachers agreed with the administration to split his workload. However, when the workload became more than they antici­pated, they asked their union to intercede.

When an administrator found out about their request, she encouraged the teachers not to go through the union to resolve the issue. The union brought suit, claiming the school violated the law by making a unilat­eral change in employment, and by dealing directly with employees who were repre­sented by the union.

The Supreme Court looked to the federal National Labor Relations Act for guidance. On the one hand it found the school did not make a unilateral change to the conditions of employment in violation of labor law, be­cause the teachers’ hours did not increase so much as to significantly alter their em­ployment conditions.

However, the Court did find the school engaged in unlawful direct dealing with the teachers because even after the ad­ministrator learned the teachers wanted union intervention, she continued to dis­cuss the issue directly with them. So while mid-year changes in workload might be permissible without consulting with the union, avoiding the union on this point is not allowed. This case should remind em­ployers that any attempt to resolve an issue directly with unionized employees is risky, but once the employees ask for union rep­resentation, continuation of direct dealing is foolhardy.

Administrative Remedies

The Supreme Court decided two cases which clarify when a public employee is re­quired to exhaust administrative remedies under a collective bargaining agreement be­fore resorting to state court. In Piteau v. Board of Education, the Court held the plaintiff had to exhaust his administrative remedies first, because his claim for breach of duty of fair representation by the union stemmed from the collective bargaining agreement.

In contrast, in Nyenhuis v. Metropolitan District Commission, the Supreme Court found no exhaustion was required because she had an independent cause of action un­der a state statute. In this case, the plaintiff was a police officer who was arrested for allegedly assaulting a citizen. The charges against her were ultimately dismissed, and she brought a claim in court for economic losses which resulted from her arrest. The Court agreed her claim was not, as the de­fendant argued, stemming from a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and she therefore had the right to bring these claims directly in court.

With several new laws passed in Con­necticut recently, including paid sick leave and protections against gender identity discrimination, employment related litiga­tion is likely to increase over the coming months. However, it may be a while until those issues make their way to the Con­necticut Supreme Court. We look forward to next year’s update.