Administrative Law – Appeals from Workers’ Compensation Review Board
Authored by: Justin R. Bengtson
Bassett v. Town of East Haven, 219 Conn. App. 866 (2023). Generally speaking, the Workers’ Compensation Act requires employers to compensate employees for injuries suffered while working, regardless of fault. This recent Appellate Court opinion affords an opportunity to examine a unique fact pattern where benefits were denied even though the claimant was working at the time he was injured. In July 2018, the plaintiff was employed by the Town of East Haven as a supervisor in a youth program sponsored by the town. The program employed teenagers and was charged with the mission of “cleaning up areas of town to improve quality of life.” Employees of the program picked up garbage around town at beaches, schools, roads, and anywhere else within the town that needed attention. On the day of his injury, the plaintiff was picking up garbage at an elementary school when he picked up a “smallish brown sphere with paper wrapped around it and foil stuck on it.” The brown sphere turned out to be an explosive device. The plaintiff, who smoked cigarettes and carried a lighter with him, lit the wick on the brown sphere which instantly exploded, causing catastrophic and life-altering injuries. The plaintiff submitted a claim for workers’ compensation benefits to the Town of East Haven, which the town disputed. The commissioner heard evidence on three occasions, and dismissed the claim, concluding that lighting the explosive device was not within the plaintiff’s job duties, and that the injuries sustained did not arise out of his employment. Notably, the commissioner based the decision, at least in part, on an assessment of the plaintiff’s credibility related to his testimony as to the reason he lit the wick with his cigarette lighter. The commissioner’s finding was affirmed by the Compensation Review Board. The plaintiff appealed the board’s affirmation of the commissioner’s decision, arguing that the board erred in finding that lighting the wick did not arise out of his employment. The plaintiff argued that he lit the device in an attempt to disarm it before placing it in a bag full of garbage which was incidental to fulfilling his employment obligations, therefore his injury should be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. The Workers’ Compensation Act exists to compensate employees for injuries sustained in the course of their employment by imposing a form of strict liability on employers. Injuries sustained by workers in the course of employment must occur (1) within the period of employment, (2) at a place the employee may reasonably be, and (3), while the employee is reasonably fulfilling the duties of the employment or doing something incidental to it. The Appellate Court affirmed the Compensation Review Board’s decision, upholding the Court’s refusal to disturb factual findings made by the commissioner, especially those that rely on credibility determinations. A commissioner’s factual findings cannot be set aside if the findings are supported by evidence and are not inconsistent with the law. This case illustrates a unique factual scenario where although the employee was injured while on the clock, yet his injuries are not compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act – Implicating the Entrepreneurial Aspect of a Professional’s Business
Authored by: Megan Kittler
Holland v. Aspen Dental Management, Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, 2023 WL 3836619 (May 30, 2023). The plaintiff brought, among other causes of action, claims for allegation violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (“CUTPA”) and dental malpractice against the defendant, a dental clinic, arising from the treatment he received there. The defendant moved to strike the plaintiff’s CUTPA claims on the ground that they failed to allege facts sufficient to support a CUTPA violation because they merely repeated the allegations contained in the dental malpractice counts. The court held that to plead a legally sufficient CUTPA claim against a health care provider, a plaintiff must allege facts that implicate the entrepreneurial or commercial aspects of the profession separate from the medical competency of the health care provider. The court found that the plaintiff’s CUTPA allegations adequately implicated the entrepreneurial aspect of the dental clinic’s business when the plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s business strategy was to design and implement sales, billing, marketing, and/or other policies that targeted unsophisticated clients, gained their trust, and convinced them to purchase unnecessary dental services and expensive dental products. The court reasoned that these factual allegations do not go to the standard of care or competence of the dental services that were performed, but rather demonstrated how the defendant, allegedly in an unscrupulous and deceptive manner, obtained its business revenue. In coming to this conclusion, the court also recognized that the plaintiff specifically alleged what business tactics the defendant used to carry out its strategy, which included pressuring, directing, or otherwise causing employees to employ aggressive and dishonest sales tactics such as falsely diagnosing patients to sell customers unnecessary products and services.
Breach of Contract – Interlocutory Appeals of Anti-SLAPP Motions to Dismiss
Authored by: Peter Sabellico
Pryor v. Brignole, 346 Conn. 534 (2023). The plaintiff, an attorney, brought a lawsuit against the defendants, who were his former employer, as well as the owner, manager, and principal of the law firm. In 2015, the law firm brought a civil action against the plaintiff and another law firm, but resolved the same in 2018, and, as part of that resolution, the settlement agreement contained a non-disparagement clause as to the plaintiff. Three months later, the plaintiff was arrested and charged with assault in the third-degree, and with risk of injury to a child. Thereafter, the defendants sent an anonymous letter with an arguably sensationalistic heading to various news outlets and persons, and the letter itself stated the factual basis for the charges against the plaintiff, identified the plaintiff, and opined his conduct was a matter of public concern. The plaintiff then brought an action against the defendants for breach of the non-disparagement provision of the settlement agreement. The defendants moved to dismiss the action as a SLAPP suit pursuant to General Statutes § 52-196a, contending that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claims were based on the right of free speech in connection with a matter of public concern, and that the plaintiff was unable to show he would prevail on the merits of his claim. The trial court denied the special motion to dismiss. The defendants appealed, but the appeal was dismissed by the Appellate Court for lack of an appealable final judgment. Upon a subsequent appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court determined that the state’s anti-SLAPP statute affords a defendant a substantive right to avoid litigation on the merits, and a denial of special motion to dismiss was an appealable final judgmentif a colorable claim that a trial court’s denial placed that right at risk. In the case at bar, the Supreme Court determined that, in light of persuasive authority at least superficially supporting such an argument, the activity at issue in the plaintiff’s complaint—sending letters to various news outlets and persons concerning the arrest and prosecution of an attorney—could be considered conduct furthering communication in a public forum on a matter of public concern. Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court’s denial of the defendants’ colorable special motion to dismiss under § 52-196a constituted an appealable final judgment, and reversed the decision of the Appellate Court.