Comm. on Human Rights and Opportunities v. Bd. of Educ. of the Town of Cheshire 270 Conn. 665 (2004)

Connecticut Supreme Court

August 31, 2004

The Connecticut Supreme Court tackled the issue of whether pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 48a-58(a), the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (“CHRO”) has the jurisdictional authority to address a student’s claim of racial discrimination against school personnel and the local school board on the basis of discrete course of allegedly discriminatory conduct by the school principal in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-15c and § 46a-58(a). In a long and thoughtful decision, the Court finds that by implication, CHRO shares concurrent jurisdiction with the state Board of Education over such discrimination claims.

Ballard, a Cheshire high school student, filed a complaint with CHRO against the Cheshire Board of Education and the principal of Cheshire High School alleging racial discrimination. The complaint was substantiated primarily by two allegations of misconduct. The first was an incident wherein the principal suspended only Ballard, an African American student, after he and a friend were involved in a physical altercation with a Caucasian student. The principal’s disciplinary action violated school policy mandating that all those who participate in fights are to be suspended. The other incident involved the principal’s ongoing failure to take action after Ballard made multiple reports alleging continued racial discrimination by the white student.

Ballard filed a complaint with CHRO but the presiding administrative referee granted the board of education’s motion to dismiss. After CHRO appealed, the superior court dismissed the appeal with regard to the student on the basis of mootness. Both parties appealed; CHRO challenging the dismissal of the student’s appeal and the defendants challenging the trial court’s decision that CHRO had jurisdiction over the complaint. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal as to the student and affirmed the judgment that CHRO had jurisdiction over the student’s complaint.

Prior to addressing the principal jurisdictional issue, the court discusses the questions of whether the trial court’s remand to CHRO was a final judgment for purposes of the court’s appellate subject matter jurisdiction and whether the appeal was moot as to Ballard. With regard to the issue of mootness, the court found that despite the student not having filed his own separate appeal and his lack of formal participation in CHRO’s appeal, the student’s appeal was not moot because CHRO could grant compensatory damages under § 46a-86(c) as a remedy for discrimination in violation of § 46a-58(a). On the issue involving the finality of the remand, the court relies on the statutory language in § 4-183 (j) and concludes that because the remand was issued pursuant to §4-183 (j) it is a final judgment for purposes of appeal, irrespective of the nature of the remand and the administrative proceedings that are expected to follow. In doing so, the court overruled its prior holding in Morel v. Comm’r. of Public Health, 262 Conn. 222 (2002) and rejects dictum in Lisee v. CHRO, 258 Conn. 533 (2001) both of which asserted the proposition that only those remands based on erroneous administrative rulings, requiring further administrative proceedings, and not those based on incomplete rulings requiring further evidentiary findings, were final judgments.

After undergoing a careful analysis of relevant statutes and comparing their language and legislative histories, the court concludes that the legislature intended that CHRO has the broad authority to handle claims of distinct discriminatory conduct by school personnel and local school boards. In support of its conclusion, the court points to the broad language of § 46a-58(a), specifically that which indicates the protection of “any” person against deprivation of “any rights, privileges or immunities.” The court also finds evidence of the legislature’s intent to vest broad authority in CHRO within the legislative history of § 46a-58(a). The court finds most noteworthy those amendments providing for the expansion of the statute to include additional basis discrimination including sex, blindness, physical disability, religion and national origin, and those that granted CHRO the authority to investigate and prosecute complaints and to award damages.

The court further determines that the legislature did not intend that the state board be the exclusive remedial agency through which to address student claims of discriminatory conduct of school officials. The court rejects the defendants’ various claims that the state board has exclusive jurisdiction; 1) pursuant to §§ 10-4b and 10-15 [1], 2) because the specific provisions of § 10-15c prevail over the general provisions of § 46a-58, 3) due to the legislature’s silence following CHRO’s own rulings that it lacked jurisdiction over such matters, and 4) because the state board possesses special expertise in public school issues. In refuting these claims, the court highlights the absence of any specific language in § 10-15c or § 10-4b conferring exclusive jurisdiction to the state board, a lack of focus in the statutory authority on individual claims of discrimination, and a history of the state board’s lack of enforcement power. In response to the defendants’ last two claims the court emphasizes the unreliability of legislative silence in determining intent due to its ambiguity and the expertise that CHRO possesses in discrimination claims.

The court emphasized the narrow applicability of its holding to claims that allege discrete acts of discriminatory conduct. It thereby refutes the dissent’s prediction that the ruling will invite individual claims based on violations of those rights protected under Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1 (1996). The court describes the discrimination in the Sheff case as involving “systemic racial isolation” distinguishing it from the “discrete acts of discriminatory conduct” alleged in the present case. On a separate issue, the court does not believe that its ruling will render the state board’s jurisdiction redundant, citing both the doctrine of election of remedies and various reasons why a individual complainant may prefer to pursue a complaint with the state board instead of the CHRO, including the state board’s ability to address systemic problems.

The case may be accessed by going to the state Judicial Branch website

(Erin Duques, Legal Intern)

[1] § 10-15c prohibits acts of discrimination that may interfere with a child’s equal opportunity to participate in public school activities, programs and courses of study. § 10-4b provides a set of remedies for violations of those proscriptions against discrimination as set forth in § 10-15c.

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