Connecticut Office That Decides Who Can Sue State Faces Scrutiny

By DAVE COLLINS | December 4, 2015

Missed deadlines at the office that decides who can sue Connecticut government have sparked discussions among state lawmakers and attorneys about whether the office should be overhauled or even eliminated.

The state attorney general’s office raised concerns last month that the Office of Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. had granted permission to sue the state in some cases after the two-year deadline for him to decide had expired, potentially making those court cases invalid. The attorney general’s office identified about 125 cases still pending after deadlines expired.

For people trying to sue the state for the wrongful death of a loved one or their own injuries, lawyers familiar with the process say the system can delay their day in court and burden them with extra legal proceedings.

State legislators expect to consider reforms in the next legislative session, said state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

“The old adage is justice delayed is justice denied,” Tong said. “To the extent that that is true, we need to make sure people have access to a timely process.”

Vance, who leads the three-person Office of the Claims Commissioner, decides whether the state, which generally has sovereign immunity to lawsuits, should allow certain cases to go to court. Only four other states have a similar process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2013, Vance issued his most high-profile decision rejecting a request to sue the state by Charla Nash, a woman disfigured in a 2009 chimpanzee attack in Stamford. The legislature later upheld the ruling.

Vance said he already has implemented new procedures to avoid missing deadlines.

“No claimant is going to be denied their day in court,” he said.

The attorney general’s review was spurred by Vance missing the two-year deadline to decide a $20 million claim over the 2011 beating death of a 3-year-old girl, Athena Angeles. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were convicted and sentenced to prison.

The girl’s father, Hugo Angeles, is seeking to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Children and Families alleging the agency had received reports of past abuse of his daughter but failed to protect her. The claim with Vance’s office, filed in October 2012, remains pending, after the legislature failed to act on it earlier this year.

Angeles’ lawyer, Robert Reardon Jr., said the process has caused his client “an incredible amount of emotional stress.”

Attorney General George Jepsen’s office said it identified eight cases in which Vance granted permission to sue the state after the two-year deadline had passed. It asked judges in those cases to put them on hold pending expected legislature approval next year.

Vance said most of the cases in which deadlines were missed predate his appointment in 2011, and they represent a small fraction of the 400 cases a year filed with his office. He also cited challenges created by staff turnover and a lack of new technology.

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