Posts tagged with "statute"

Defeating Governmental Immunity: Navigating the Uphill Climb

Lawsuits against the State of Connecticut or its local municipalities are notoriously difficult to pursue from a legal perspective, in large part due to various statutory protections and administrative hurdles put in place by the legislature.  For example, a plaintiff seeking to initiate a personal injury case against her own town must adhere to strict time limitations and procedural requirements in order to have her case successfully get into court and survive the scrutiny of a judge, well before she ever comes close to having a “day in court” before a jury of her peers.

Unless the site of a plaintiff’s injury falls within one of a few narrow exceptions (such as an injury on a “public highway,” which would invoke the protections and mechanisms of Connecticut’s “highway defect statute,” or Connecticut General Statutes Section 13a-149), a plaintiff is entitled only to proceed against a state or municipality under the Political Subdivision Liability Statute (Connecticut General Statutes Section 52-557n).

Section 52-557n, however, contains its own pitfalls for prospective plaintiffs.  The statute provides that a town or political subdivision may be liable for negligent acts of its employees, officers, or agents except if such actions or omissions constitute criminal conduct or willful misconduct, or, significantly, if such negligent acts or omissions require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the job responsibility.

The latter part of this test is key – and is a gold mine for municipalities (and their lawyers) seeking to invoke the governmental immunity doctrine and escape liability for the negligence of its employees, even if such negligence is established by an injured person.  What the provision states, in plain language, is that a town may well be free and clear from liability if the task that was performed negligently was a task that required an exercise of judgment on the part of the town employee.

Take the hypothetical example of a plaintiff who was injured when she slipped on ice on the front steps of City Hall.  The evidence suggests that the maintenance workers either knew or should have known that ice had built up on the steps, that they were expecting the public to be walking in and out of the building, and that someone clearly “dropped the ball” in making sure that the ice was scraped off and that salt or sand was applied generously to the area.  Instead, nothing was done, nothing was scraped, no sand or salt was used, no warning signs were posted, and the ice remained for several business days before this plaintiff came along and fell on her very first visit to City Hall.

Even with these simplified facts (which appear at first blush to be quite damaging to the City), the City will surely investigate the existence of any policy, procedure, and practice of those maintenance workers who were assigned to the front steps of the building.  In this case, the City will attempt to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “judgment” and “discretion” of the City employees were required to be exercised to keep those steps free of snow and ice.  On the contrary, a plaintiff will seek to demonstrate that the actions (or omissions) of the City workers were “ministerial” – that is, the workers had a clear directive to do something (e.g. to clear the ice at certain times, in a certain manner, with no exercise of judgment) and yet they failed to carry out that task, resulting in the plaintiff’s injury.

When the proverbial dust settles, if no clear, articulated policy existed to clear the steps, to inspect the steps on a scheduled basis, or to take preventative measures against ice buildup, a municipal defendant in this instance would likely argue (perhaps successfully) that the maintenance workers were required not to follow any protocol, but only to “use their judgment and discretion” in determining what needed to be kept safe and clear for pedestrian traffic.

An unknowing plaintiff (or perhaps an inexperienced attorney) who advances her case against a town believing that a jury would be shocked if there is no snow removal policy might find herself equally shocked when or if it is determined that any negligence was of a “discretionary” nature and governmental immunity therefore applies, subject to other very narrow legal exceptions not discussed here.

A savvy plaintiff, in discovery and at the very outset of the lawsuit, might request that the town admit, under oath and in writing, to the existence of a clear and articulated policy (even if it is unwritten) with regard to the safety issue which resulted in her injury.  While towns (and their attorneys) are often eager to show that preventative measures are and were in place, in this instance, they may well eliminate – as a matter of law – their own sacred protection of governmental immunity at trial.  With a valid legal admission of a clear and articulated policy, a municipal defendant is effectively hamstrung – it cannot simultaneously admit to the existence of a policy and directive while claiming that its employees were simply exercising their own judgment.  Dramatically and emphatically, the curtain of governmental immunity draws away, paving the way for a plaintiff to reach the eyes and ears of a jury.

An injured person seeking legal assistance as against the state or a municipality faces a virtual hornet’s nest of obstacles and legal entanglements.  A trusted, informed advocate is essential to place such a claim in the best possible legal position.  The invitation is open to consulting with attorneys at our firm who are experienced in this type of civil litigation.

If you have questions regarding any personal injury matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

NYC Expands Law to Ensure Employers Provide Adequate Accomodations to Pregnant Employees

According to Day Pitney LLP, on January 30, an expansion to the New York City Human Rights Law to include pregnancy discrimination will go into effect. Under the new law, NYC employers with four or more employees will have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women and those who suffer medical conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Examples of reasonable accommodations listed in the bill include assistance with manual labor, bathroom breaks, disability leave for a reasonable period of time arising from childbirth, breaks to facilitate increased water intake and periodic rest breaks for those who stand for long periods of time.

The Legislative Intent section of the bill suggests that when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation in order to maintain a healthy pregnancy, it generally is not reasonable for the employer to place that employee on an unpaid leave of absence. Although the New York City Commission on Human Rights and the New York courts have not yet interpreted or applied this new law, the Legislative Intent section suggests that employers may have a duty to accommodate pregnant employees with medical restrictions by providing such employees modified job duties, assistance to perform certain job duties or alternative job duties.

An employer is required to provide such accommodations that would permit the employee to perform the “essential requisites of the job,” unless (i) the employer is unaware that the employee is pregnant, has given birth or has a related medical condition; (ii) providing the accommodation will result in an undue hardship for the employer; or (iii) the employee would not be able to perform the essential requisites of the job even with the accommodation.

NYC employers will be required to provide written notice of these new pregnancy and childbirth accommodation rights to new employees at the start of their employment and to existing employees within 120 days of the law’s effective date of January 30, 2014. In addition to providing each individual employee with written notice of these rights, employers also should post in a conspicuous location the poster provided by the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The poster is available here.

Employees who believe their employers have violated the new law will have the ability to file a claim with the New York City Commission on Human Rights or pursue a private right of action in court without first exhausting administrative remedies. Remedies for violating the law include back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees and costs.

Credit: Basil Sitaras

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Recent Decision Suggests Educational Support Orders May Not Be Applied Retroactively

A recent case decided by the Connecticut Appellate Court, suggests Educational Support orders entered pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 46b-56c may not be entered retroactively.  In Kleinman v. Chapnick, 131 Conn. App. 812 (2011), the parties had two children who were over the age of eighteen and enrolled as full-time college students.  During the divorce proceedings, the parties’ older daughter was a senior and their younger daughter was a freshman.  In February 2010, after the parties entered into a final agreement on custody and visitation, a two day trial ensued regarding financial issues.

As part of its decision, the Court ordered the husband to pay 100 percent of the statutory expenses for the education of the parties’ younger daughter beginning with the 2010-2011 school year.  As the Court did not enter an order with respect to the 2009-2010 school year, the wife filed a Motion to Clarify, Correct and/or Reargue.  The Court subsequently heard the wife’s motion, but declined to change its position.

On appeal, the Connecticut Appellate Court found that the husband made voluntary payments for the 2009-2010 school year that exceeded his statutory obligation under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-56c.  More importantly, however, the Court held that Section 46b-56c contains no language authorizing retroactive application, pointing out that various provisions contained within the statute suggest that it is intended to apply prospectively only.  In a footnote, the Court further explained that child support orders cannot be retroactive, and an order for post-majority educational support is in fact an order for child support for college education.

Should you have any questions regarding educational support in the context of divorce proceedings, please feel free to contact Attorney Michael D. DeMeola.  He practices out of the firm’s Westport office and can be reached by telephone at (203) 221-3100 or email at mdemeola@maylaw.com.