ROBERT CONBOY et al. v. STATE OF CONNECTICUT, SC 17798
Judicial District of Hartford
Sovereign Immunity; Whether General Statutes § 31-51q Contains a Waiver of Sovereign Immunity from Suit; Whether Plaintiff State Employees were Subjected to "Discipline or Discharge" Within the Meaning of § 31-51q when the State Eliminated their Positions. The plaintiffs were among approximately 2800 state employees whose positions were eliminated in 2003. They initiated this action, claiming that they were terminated because of their union membership in violation of General Statutes § 31-51q, which provides in part that "[a]ny employer, including the state . . . who subjects any employee to discipline or discharge on account of the exercise by such employee of rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States Constitution or section 3, 4 or 14 of article first of the Constitution of the state . . . shall be liable to such employee for damages . . . ." The state moved to dismiss the action based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. It argued that although § 31-51q contains an express waiver of sovereign immunity from liability, it does not expressly waive immunity from suit. It further claimed that even if § 31-51q waives immunity from suit, the plaintiffs could not invoke the protections of the statute because they were not subjected to "discipline or discharge" but were instead laid off due to the state's fiscal crisis. The trial court rejected the state's claims and denied the motion to dismiss. With regard to the state's first claim, it noted that in Skinner v. Angliker, 211 Conn. 370 (1989), the Supreme Court determined that "the state waived its immunity in § 31-51q . . . ." The trial court also emphasized that § 31-51q provides that "[i]f the court determines that such action for damages was brought without substantial justification, the court may award costs and reasonable attorney's fees to the employer." It opined that the statute's explicit reference to "the court" indicated that the legislature intended to abrogate sovereign immunity in order to allow plaintiffs to sue directly in the Superior Court. As to the state's second claim, the court decided that it could not resolve on a motion to dismiss the factual dispute of whether the plaintiffs were terminated because of their union status or were laid off due to budgetary considerations. It concluded that because the plaintiffs' complaint contained sufficient allegations to invoke the protections of § 31-51q, it could not grant the state's motion. In this appeal, the state argues that the trial court improperly denied its motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs assert that this appeal was not taken from a final judgment because the state has not raised a colorable claim of sovereign immunity.