Attorney General: Christopher R. Adams, Chairman, State Board f Firearms Permit Examiners, Formal Opinion 2007-026, Attorney General State of Connecticut

Attorney General's Opinion

Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal

November 5, 2007

 

 

Christopher R. Adams
Chairman
State Board of Firearms Permit Examiners

505 Hudson Street, 5th Floor
Hartford, CT 06106

 

Dear Chairman Adams:

 

Recently, you requested an opinion regarding whether a conflict of interest exists for a member of the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners (hereinafter the Board) arising from his participation as the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and the supervising officer of the Special License and Firearms Unit of the Department. In light of this litigation, the Board seeks guidance regarding the participation of the plaintiff, Peter Kuck, as a Board member in Board proceedings which usually include the Commissioner of Public Safety as a party.

 

Our opinion is that Mr. Kuck must recuse himself from Board proceedings that involve the same issues or claims asserted in the federal litigation until his lawsuit is resolved.  These issues include the Department’s requirement that permit applicants provide a birth certificate, United States passport or voter registration card and challenges to delays in the Board’s proceedings.

 

Background

 

"[T]he test for administrative disqualification is inherently fact-bound." Transportation General, Inc. v. Dept. of Ins., 236 Conn. 75, 77 (1996). Careful consideration of the factual background in which the disqualification issue has been raised is therefore necessary. Under Connecticut law, no person may receive or possess, carry, or sell or transfer a pistol without certain specified permits. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § § 29-28, 29-33, and 29-35.  These permits are issued by the Department of Public Safety, except for a temporary permit that is issued by local police or municipal authorities. Id.  In the event of the denial, refusal to renew, or revocation of a permit, the aggrieved person may appeal the decision to the Board. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-32b.  The Board hears the appeal de novo and unless the denial, refusal to renew or revocation is for just and proper cause, it can order the permit to be issued, renewed or restored. Id. While the appeal is pending, the issuing authority (either the Department or local official) is required to submit to the Board a written statement setting forth the reasons for its denial, refusal to renew or revocation.  Failure to furnish the statement to the Board and appellant at least ten days before the hearing is cause for the Board to grant the relief requested by the appellant without further proceedings. These proceedings are subject to judicial review pursuant to the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 4-166 et seq.

 

The Board is made up of seven members. Peter Kuck, as well as being a member of the Board, is also its Secretary. As mentioned above, Mr. Kuck has filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court against John A. Danaher, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and Captain Albert J. Masek, Jr., who supervises the Special License and Firearms Unit of the Department. The complaint asserts that the defendants have intentionally abused their authority under state law to issue, renew and revoke pistol permits including delaying and denying the opportunity to be heard on the denial of a pistol permit before the Board. The complaint alleges that the defendants intentionally created a backlog in cases pending before the Board by denying permits based upon illegal and arbitrary requirements and by failing to respond to pending appeals in a timely manner. The complaint seeks both monetary damages and injunctive relief from the defendants.

 

Mr. Kuck alleges in the complaint that he sought renewal of his pistol permit, and it was denied by the Department’s Special License and Firearms Unit because he failed to submit a copy of his birth certificate or passport, as evidence of his United States citizenship or legal residency. Mr. Kuck alleges that the requirement to produce these documents was illegal and he had a clear entitlement to the permit. He further alleges that he filed a timely appeal to the Board and was informed that his appeal would be heard approximately 17 months after it was filed. In addition, Mr. Kuck has also alleged that he has been subject to threatening and harassing conduct by members of the Department’s Special License and Firearms Unit in retaliation for his finding as a member of the Board that some refusals, limitations or revocations were improper.

 

Mr. Kuck has brought this action on his own behalf and as the representative plaintiff for two classes of similarly situated persons. Mr. Kuck seeks to represent a class of plaintiffs consisting of all persons who (1) have had their application for a pistol permit denied, or their application for the permit’s renewal refused or had their permit revoked or otherwise limited; (2) have filed a timely appeal to the Board and (3) were denied or are being denied a reasonable and timely opportunity to be heard. This class could potentially include all persons whose appeals are currently pending before the Board.

 

In addition, Mr. Kuck also seeks to represent a class made up of persons who were required to submit a birth certificate, United States passport or voter registration card in order to have their permit issued or renewed and persons whose permit application or renewal was denied for failure to submit such documents.


Legal Analysis

 

            In general, as explained below, a member of a public board must recuse himself when he is unfairly biased toward a particular party or position, or when he has a conflict of interest because of a direct personal pecuniary interest in the outcome of a case.

 

Bias

 

“Public policy requires that members of public boards cannot be permitted to place themselves in a position in which personal interest may conflict with public duty.”  Thorne v. Zoning Commission, 178 Conn. 198, 204 n. 2 (1979). However, members of administrative boards have the benefit of a “presumption of honesty and integrity.”  Petrowski v. Norwich Free Academy, 199 Conn. 231, 238, appeal dismissed, 479 U.S. 802, 107 S. Ct. 42 (1986); see Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47, 95 S. Ct. 1456, 43 L. Ed. 2d 712 (1975). Recusal of an agency adjudicator usually is sought based upon grounds of bias or conflict of interest.

 

It is well established  that "[t]here is a presumption that administrative board members acting in an adjudicative capacity are not biased." Clisham v. Board of Police Commissioners, 223 Conn. 354, 361 (1992).

 

 

To overcome the presumption, the plaintiff . . . must demonstrate actual bias, rather than mere potential bias, of the board members challenged, unless the circumstances indicate a probability of such bias too high to be constitutionally tolerable.  The plaintiff has the burden of establishing a disqualifying interest. In order to prove bias as a ground for disqualification, the plaintiff must show more than an adjudicator's announced previous position about law or policy . . . .  He must make a showing that the adjudicator has prejudged adjudicative facts that are in dispute. 

 

Id. at 362 (emphasis added) (citations and quotation marks omitted).  In implementing this principle, courts have required parties to proceed before an administrative agency where the adjudicator has previously set forth an opinion or position on standards or legal issues that will be part of the proceeding because of the prospect that the parties may convince the adjudicator to change his position.  See e.g., Housing Authority v. Papandrea, 222 Conn. 414, 432 (1992).  Thus, the mere statement by Mr. Kuck that requiring a birth certificate, United States passport or voter registration card in order to secure a gun permit is not legally mandated would not, standing alone, be sufficient grounds to require recusal.  Similarly, Mr. Kuck’s position that a 17 month delay in providing a hearing is not reasonable does not require a recusal. However, bias becomes an issue when adjudicative facts are predetermined. "Adjudicative facts ... are unique to the individual case and require adjudication." Breiner v. State Dental Commission, 57 Conn. App. 700, 707 (2000).  In this matter, Mr. Kuck has gone beyond merely stating a position. In asserting as fact in his federal complaint that delays in proceedings before the Board are due to the improper and intentional conduct of the defendants, Mr. Kuck has prejudged facts that would be at issue when any appellant sought relief from the Board on grounds of undue delay.

 

Equally important, Mr. Kuck has brought suit on his own behalf and on behalf of others seeking to have his position on the impropriety of requiring birth certificate, passport or voter registration documents enforced by the federal court against the Commissioner of Public Safety. By seeking relief for the entire class of appellants with these claims, he has not merely endorsed their position but is advocating for and representing their claims in federal court. This alignment with appellants is more than a predisposition on an issue that can be altered by the presentation of evidence and argument at a Board hearing.  These circumstances indicate a probability of such bias too high to be constitutionally tolerable.

 

Conflict of Interest

 

As with bias, a claim of conflict of interest is one which must overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity that applies to administrative adjudicators.

 

A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.  Fairness of course requires an absence of actual bias in the trial of cases.  But our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness.  To this end no man can be a judge in his own case and no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome.

 

Petrowski v. Norwich Free Academy, 199 Conn. 231, 239 (1986) (quoting In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 137, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955)).  Disqualification is required when an adjudicator has a “direct, personal, pecuniary interest” in the outcome of the proceeding. Id. at 241.  Clearly, Mr. Kuck may not participate in the proceedings on the denial of his own permit. However, Mr. Kuck is also disqualified from participating in other appeals pending before the Board.

 

In regard to other cases pending before the Board, it is important to note that Mr. Kuck has sought monetary damages as well as injunctive relief from the defendants in his federal litigation. In the event that the Board renders decisions in pending appeals that ratify or otherwise support his federal claims, these decisions will assist in Mr. Kuck in securing success in his lawsuit. 1  Mr. Kuck, therefore, has a direct, personal pecuniary interest in the outcome of such cases because Board decisions supporting the allegations he has made in the lawsuit may assist him in his case, and in winning monetary damages for himself.

 

Conclusion

 

Based upon the foregoing, in any case before the Board where the appellant has challenged an adverse decision upon the grounds that the Department of Public Safety has improperly required birth certificate, passport or voter registration documents, Mr. Kuck must recuse himself. Likewise, in any proceeding before the Board in which an appellant challenges delays in the Board’s proceedings, Mr. Kuck must recuse himself.  With Mr. Kuck’s recusal as set forth herein, the Board may proceed with matters pending before it.

Very truly yours,

 

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL

  

 

Henry A. Salton

Assistant Attorney General


1 It is also possible that Mr. Kuck may seek to use decisions of the Board rendered against the Department of Public Safety to preclude litigation by the defendants of some of the central issues of the federal litigation under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. See e.g., Kirkland v. Peekskill, 828 F.2d 104, 107 (2d Cir.1987).

 


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