TRINITY CHRISTIAN SCHOOL v. COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES et al., SC 19884

Judicial District of New Britain

 

      Employment Discrimination; Whether Trial Court Properly Dismissed Administrative Appeal taken by Religious Institution from Agency’s Interlocutory Order on Finding that Religious Institution not Immune from Employment Discrimination Suit.  Andrea Sokolowski filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) alleging that Trinity Christian School (the school) discriminated against her in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act by terminating her employment as a teacher at the school on the basis of her sex, her marital status and her pregnancy.  The school is a religious ministry which is owned, controlled and operated by Trinity United Methodist Church.  The school moved that the CHRO complaint be dismissed, claiming that it enjoyed statutory immunity from the complaint under General Statutes § 52-571b (d), which provides that "[n]othing in this section shall be construed to authorize the state or any political subdivision of the state to burden any religious belief."  CHRO denied the school’s motion to dismiss, and the school appealed to Superior Court pursuant to General Statutes § 4-183.  CHRO moved to dismiss the administrative appeal, claiming, among other things, that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the appeal because the CHRO ruling denying the school’s motion to dismiss was interlocutory and because CHRO had yet to render a “final decision” in the matter as contemplated by § 4-183 (a).  The plaintiff opposed the motion, contending that the CHRO ruling was immediately appealable because, under § 52-571b (d), it had a colorable claim to a right to be free from the action.  The trial court granted the motion to dismiss on concluding that the plaintiff could not make a colorable claim that § 52-571b (d) afforded it immunity from suit.  In so deciding, the court determined that neither the language of the statute nor the rules of statutory construction provided a basis for determining that § 52-571b (d) conferred statutory immunity on religious institutions.  Moreover, the court observed that the common law ministerial exception to the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes, which § 52-571b (d) has not displaced, no longer provides immunity from suit but, instead, acts as an affirmative defense.  The school appeals, claiming that the trial court wrongly dismissed its administrative appeal for lack of jurisdiction on determining that § 52-571b (d) does not give the school a colorable claim to immunity from Sokolowski’s employment discrimination claim.