December 21, 2009
STATUS OF STATE EMPLOYEE UNION LAWSUITS OVER 2003 LAYOFFS
By: John Moran, Principal Analyst
You asked for the status of the two lawsuits filed against the state of Connecticut over the 2003 layoff of approximately 2,500 state employees and a brief summary of the legal proceedings to date.
In the state and federal lawsuits state employee unions argue the state violated the constitutional rights of the unionized state employees by singling them out for layoffs. The state maintained the layoffs were due to the state's budget crisis and that the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on other means of labor-related cost savings.
Both lawsuits are still pending. At both the state and federal level, the courts dismissed the state's motions to dismiss the cases for lack of jurisdiction. The state argued it had sovereign immunity and the courts did not have jurisdiction over the issue.
At the federal level, the state appealed the decision rejecting the motion to dismiss to the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. At the state level, the state appealed the decision rejecting the motion to the Connecticut Supreme Court and lost.
These decisions clear the way for the legal cases to proceed at the trial level, both state and federal. The final outcome may still be months or even years away.
In the federal case, the State Employees Bargaining Agents Coalition alleged the defendants, then-Governor John Rowland and then-Office of Policy and Management Secretary Marc Ryan violated the constitutional rights of approximately 3,000 unionized state employees when they ordered their layoffs in late 2002 (due to a later agreement with higher education unions, the actual layoff number was reduced to 2,500).
The complaint alleges that the defendants wrongfully singled out union employees for lay off, motivated by the desire to retaliate against political opponents (State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, et al. v. John G. Rowland, et al. 494 F.3d 71 (2007)). The union cited statements Gov. Rowland made that his “natural enemies have been the unions.” The union complaint also noted that the one union that endorsed Rowland for governor, the Connecticut State Police Union, did not receive any layoff notices, although law enforcement officers in other state agencies did.
The state made the argument that the governor had no choice but to order layoffs since the state had a budget crisis and the administration and the unions could not come to terms on a cost savings agreement.
The issue at hand in the motion to dismiss was whether the unions failed to establish proper subject matter jurisdiction because the defendants had legislative immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity.
In the ruling, the district court stated that legislative immunity would require some connection to legislative action and the layoffs were issued by executive order. Further, the court found “before invoking the authority to modify a budget under CGS § 4-85(b)(2) (the statute that is triggered when the General Fund deficit is more than 1%), the governor was required to furnish not only a report, but also his plan to prevent the deficit.” Since nothing in the record showed Rowland had taken these steps, District Court Judge Alfred Covello ruled he could not find the governor's actions gained legislative immunity.
As for Eleventh Amendment immunity, the district court found a claim against a state or its officials is barred by the Eleventh Amendment if it includes back-pay or retroactive benefits. But it denied the motion because “the amended complaint alleges unconstitutional job terminations, that is, an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective, the Eleventh Amendment presents no bar to the extent the action seeks prospective injunctive relief against the defendants in their official capacities.”
Judge Covello issued his decision on January 18, 2006. On July 10, 2007, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Covello's analysis and upheld his rejection of the motions to dismiss (State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, et al. v. John G. Rowland, et al. 494 F.3d 71 (2007)).
The issues at hand in the state case (Conboy v. State of Connecticut, 292 Conn 642 (2009)) were very similar to the federal case, but as applied to state law. The unions argued that the employees were terminated because of “anti-union animus” and “in retaliation for activity protected by federal and state guarantees of freedom of speech and association.” State law provides that any employer, including the state, who disciplines or discharges an employee because the employee exercised his or her first amendment rights, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution “shall be liable to such employee for damages caused by such discipline or discharge . . .” (CGS § 31-51q).
The state's motion sought to dismiss the case based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The state argued that statute protecting freedom of speech and association does not waive the state's sovereign immunity from suit.
In the Superior Court's ruling that rejected the motion to dismiss, the judge cited a state Appellate Court case (Skinner v. Angliker, 15 Conn. App. 297, 544 A. 2d 246 (1988)) in which a similar motion to dismiss was also rejected by the courts in a case invoking the same statute (CGS § 31-51q).
“[I]t is a well established principal in our state that the defense of sovereign immunity is inappropriate where the legislature, by appropriate legislation, consents to being sued. . . . [T]he case before us is one of first impression. The controlling issue on appeal is whether the legislature intended § 31-51q to constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity . . . In this case, it is abundantly clear that General Statutes 31-51q does waive the sovereign immunity by its expressed terms” (Skinner v. Angliker).
Judge Marshall Berger also ruled that CGS § 31-51q's language regarding the courts, costs, and reasonable attorneys' fees clearly indicates the legislature intended to allow plaintiffs in these cases to sue in Superior Court (Conboy v. State, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3177).
Upon appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court decision.
Attorneys for both sides say that months ago they agreed on a detailed stipulation of the facts in the federal case (the facts are basically the same for both federal and state cases). Both David Golub, the attorney for the unions, and Daniel Klau, the attorney for the state, say the stipulation means the discovery phase of the case is finished and this avoids the complication and cost of having to depose officials, including the current and former governors, and related court filings.
Currently, federal Judge Covello is considering a motion to certify the case as a class action, a move the state consents to.
Both sides expect to file motions for summary judgment within 30 days of the judge ruling on the class action certification. Each side usually has time to respond to the other's motion, then the judge will decide whether oral arguments are needed. The case will take many months, possibly a year, before there is a decision at the district court level.