The principal issue in this appeal is whether an insurance company that is obligated to pay for the repair of a motor vehicle is a "customer" under General Statutes § 14-63(b),
The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. On June 9, 2003, a 1999 Toyota Avalon XLS (vehicle), owned by Byron Speckmann and insured by AMEX, was damaged in an accident. Speckmann chose the plaintiff to repair the vehicle, and on June 9, 2003, the plaintiff issued a "visible damage quotation" estimating the repair costs to be $13,572.63. Speckmann brought the vehicle to the plaintiff for repair on June 17, 2003, and, on that date, signed a "motor vehicle repair estimate/waiver" that was drafted by the plaintiff and contained both a "waiver of advance estimate" (waiver) and an "authorization of additional repairs" (authorization). The waiver permitted the plaintiff to work on the vehicle without providing an advance estimate of repair costs, and authorized "reasonable and necessary cost[s] to remedy the problems complained of up to a maximum of $8,000."
On June 20, 2003, AMEX appraised the vehicle through its agent, Complete Appraisal Service, LLC (Complete), which estimated the cost of the repair to be $3954.21. The plaintiff and AMEX subsequently failed to reach an agreement about the necessary cost of repairs. On June 27, 2003, the plaintiff sent AMEX a "Notice of Temporary Termination of Repairs," and halted repair of the vehicle, without Speckmann's consent, due to numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact Complete for a supplemental appraisal.
Thereafter, Complete issued a supplemental appraisal of the vehicle on July 1, 2003, which estimated the cost of repairs to be $7929.48.
On July 31, 2003, the plaintiff provided AMEX with a document entitled "Work Bay/Outside Storage Options," which indicated that it had halted all repairs to the vehicle, and outlined storage options and fees pending retrieval of the vehicle.
The plaintiff generated two invoices, both dated August 7, 2003, outlining the charges to AMEX concerning the vehicle. One invoice detailed the total cost of parts and labor for repairs that had been done to the vehicle, in the amount of $2697.85.
On November 24, 2003, AMEX filed a complaint with the department, claiming that the plaintiff had: (1) overcharged for repairs; (2) failed to obtain an authorization to perform repairs on the vehicle; (3) overcharged for towing and storage; and (4) refused to provide an invoice in which all charges were accounted for. The complaint resulted in an investigation by the dealers and repair division of the department. In the complaint investigation report (report), dated August 31, 2004, the department investigator referenced § 14-65g (a), and wrote that the department "is questioning the charges that are not related to remedy the problems complained of." The report specifically focused on the plaintiff's invoice for additional charges.
On February 10, 2005, the department sent the plaintiff's attorney a notice
At the department hearing held on February 24, 2005, the plaintiff argued, as a preliminary jurisdictional matter, that an insurance company should be precluded from filing a complaint as a customer, under § 14-63(b), when the licensee's actions giving rise to the complaint concern a vehicle that the insurance company does not own. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that, in such a circumstance, an insurance company should not be considered a customer under § 14-63, because absent ownership of the vehicle, there is no contract between the licensee and the insurance company and, therefore, no consumer relationship. The attorney representing the department indicated that insurance companies previously have filed complaints with the department under § 14-63, and that the department has heard matters arising from those complaints. The department attorney further asserted that, in the present matter, it was the department's contention that AMEX was permitted to file a complaint under § 14-63 as a customer.
The plaintiff appealed from the decision of the department to the trial court, claiming that the hearing officer improperly concluded that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63, and that the plaintiff had violated §§ 14-65g, 14-65i and 14-65j. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that AMEX cannot be a customer because it had no privity of contract with the plaintiff, and that the department's determination with regard to the substantive violations was not supported by the evidence.
The trial court concluded that "an insurance company that pays for, or arranges for, services provided to an insured or claimant by a licensee is a customer permitted to file a complaint under § 14-63," and that the department did not violate any law or exceed its statutory authority in deciding that AMEX was a customer for purposes of § 14-63.
On appeal, the plaintiff renews substantially the same claims that the trial court had rejected, namely, that the trial court improperly concluded that: (1) the department's determination that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63 was permissible; and (2) substantial evidence existed in the record to justify the department's conclusions that the plaintiff had violated §§ 14-65g, 14-65i and 14-65j. We address each claim in turn.
As a preliminary matter, we set forth the appropriate standard of review. "[J]udicial review of the commissioner's action is governed by the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act [(UAPA), General Statutes §§ 4-166 through 4-189], and the scope of that review is very restricted. . . . [R]eview of an administrative agency decision requires a court to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the agency's findings of basic fact and whether the conclusions drawn from those facts are reasonable. . . . Neither this court nor the trial court may retry the case or substitute its own judgment for that of the administrative agency on the weight of the evidence or questions of fact. . . . Our ultimate duty is to determine, in view of all of the evidence, whether the agency, in issuing its order, acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sengchanthong v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 281 Conn. 604, 609, 917 A.2d 942 (2007).
"A reviewing court, however, is not required to defer to an improper application of the law. . . . It is the function of the courts to expound and apply governing principles of law. . . . We previously have recognized that the construction and interpretation of a statute is a question of law for the courts, where the administrative decision is not entitled to special deference. . . . Questions of law [invoke] a broader standard of review than is ordinarily involved in deciding whether, in light of the evidence, the agency has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion. . . . Because this case forces us to examine a question of law, namely, [statutory] construction and interpretation . . . our review is de novo. . . . We are also compelled to conduct a de novo review because the issue of statutory construction before this court has not yet been subjected to judicial scrutiny." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Southern New England Telephone Co. v. Cashman, 283 Conn. 644, 649-50, 931 A.2d 142 (2007).
The plaintiff's first claim on appeal is that the trial court improperly concluded that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63. The plaintiff asserts that, although the legislative history of § 14-63 is not dispositive about who constitutes a customer under the statute, a review of General Statutes §§ 14-65a through 14-65k demonstrates that a customer is a person who has privity of contract with a repair shop. The plaintiff further asserts that, according to the term's common usage,
In response, the defendant claims that the text of § 14-63 and its relationship to other statutes demonstrates that "an insurance company that purchases services from a repairer licensee and falls victim to activities prohibited by the dealer/repairer statutes is a `customer' entitled to file a complaint with the [department]. . . ." Although the defendant agrees that the term "customer" is not defined by the relevant statutes and department regulations, it argues that, based on common usage of the term "customer,"
The defendant further asserts that construing AMEX to be a customer under § 14-63 is consistent with the purpose of the statute, namely, "to expose wrongdoing by dealer and repairer licensees and to authorize the [department] to punish and correct such wrongdoing with administrative penalties, including restitution." In addition, the defendant claims that "[i]t would be irrational for the [department] to withhold restitution to a person who actually paid an improper amount for services rendered to a vehicle for lack of ownership because that is precisely the person who has the incentive to file a complaint and expose wrongdoing in the first place." The defendant also contends that, since § 14-65k gives the department the unilateral authority to investigate "any matter under the provisions of sections 14-51 to 14-65j, inclusive," the department "may also take action against any offending licensee based on a complaint filed by an insurance company or any other non-owner of a motor vehicle." We agree with the defendant that the trial court properly concluded that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63.
"The principles that govern statutory construction are well established.
We begin by examining the language of the statute. Section 14-63(b) provides in relevant part: "The Commissioner of Motor Vehicles shall adopt regulations, in accordance with the provisions of chapter 54, establishing (1) a procedure whereby customers of dealers and repairers may file complaints with the Department of Motor Vehicles concerning the operations of and services provided by any such licensees. . . ."
General Statutes §§ 14-65f through 14-65j, all of which relate to the repair of motor vehicles, each use the term "customer." Relying on three of those statutes — specifically, General Statutes §§ 14-65f, 14-65g and 14-65h-the plaintiff claims that, under the facts of this case, AMEX is not a customer because it did not have privity of contract with the plaintiff. The plaintiff argues, rather, that since Speckmann, the vehicle's owner, was the only person listed on the repair contract, only Speckmann had privity of contract with the plaintiff, and, therefore, only Speckmann qualified as a customer under § 14-63. In response, the defendant claims that anyone who pays for a licensee's services should be considered a customer under §§ 14-63 through 14-65k, and contends that this is particularly true for insurance companies when, as in this case, the owner of the vehicle authorized the insurance company to pay for all repairs, thereby giving the insurance company a direct pecuniary interest in ensuring that the licensee follows the relevant statutory provisions. We find both parties' interpretations to be reasonable, thereby demonstrating the ambiguity of the term "customer" under § 14-63, and we are, therefore, permitted to consider extratextual sources in construing it. See General Statutes § 1-2z; Alexson v. Foss, supra, 276 Conn. at 605, 887 A.2d 872.
With respect to extratextual sources, the legislative history of § 14-63(b), which was enacted in 1986 as Public Acts 1986, No. 86-114, does not provide a definitive indication of the intended scope of the term "customer." Similarly, the legislative history for §§ 14-65f through 14-65j provides no meaningful guidance about the intended breadth of the term "customer," as used in those sections and § 14-63(b). What the legislative history does show, however, is that the purpose of §§ 14-63 through 14-65k is to regulate the industry of dealers and repairers, while simultaneously protecting customers of those licensees from unscrupulous business practices.
The legislative history concerning the enactment of §§ 14-65f, 14-65h and 14-65i, for example, which were enacted in 1975 as Public Acts 1975, No. 75-550, shows that the legislature's concern was regulating the automobile repair industry, protecting consumers, and reducing the overall number of complaints filed with the department. Speaking before the House
Broadly interpreting the term "customer" under § 14-63 to include insurance companies, which are contractually obligated to pay for repairs made by licensees, better serves the purpose of the statute than narrowly construing the term not to include such companies. When an insurance company is obligated to pay for repairs to a vehicle under the terms of a policy, that company has a direct pecuniary interest in ensuring that a licensee repairer complies with its statutory obligations set forth in §§ 14-65f through 14-65j, as those provisions are aimed, in large part, at preventing unwarranted or hidden costs to licensees' customers. An insurance company, therefore, has an incentive to file a complaint under § 14-63 when it discovers a licensee's violation of §§ 14-65f through 14-65j. In contrast, the vehicle's actual owner has minimal incentive to file a complaint under § 14-63, because the insured is not paying for the cost of repairs made to the vehicle.
A broad interpretation of the term "customer" under § 14-63 is further buttressed by the fact that it is harmonious with various dictionary definitions of the term, which, as discussed previously in this opinion,
Moreover, we presume that the legislature was aware of the fact that licensees often conduct business dealings with insurance companies when repairing vehicles. "[I]t is now well settled that testimony before legislative committees may be considered in determining the particular problem or issue that the legislature sought to address by the legislation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Hatt v. Burlington Coat Factory, 263 Conn. 279, 314, 819 A.2d 260 (2003). While testifying before the joint standing general law committee concerning House Bill No. 8187, which led to the enactment of §§ 14-65f, 14-65h and 14-65i, George Emanuel, who represented the Service Councils of Connecticut and the Auto Body Association of Greater Hartford, testified: "We deal mostly with insurance companies as far as automobile body repairing." Conn. Joint Standing Committee Hearings, General Law, Pt. 3, 1975 Sess., p. 1256. On the basis of this testimony, it is reasonable to presume that the legislature not only was aware of this fact, but also that insurance companies may, therefore, be subjected to the same unscrupulous practices as would the owner of a vehicle or any other customer of a repairer licensee.
Finally, although not entitled to any special deference in the present case, the past practice of the department also provides support for a broad construction of the term "customer" under § 14-63.
As we have explained, an insurance company's dealings with a licensee need not constitute the business of insurance in order for the company to be a customer under § 14-63. Next, the plaintiff properly asserts that an insurance company is precluded, pursuant to General Statutes § 38a-354 (b),
We conclude, therefore, that when an insurance company is obligated under the terms of an insurance policy to pay for the cost of a licensee's repairs to a vehicle, the company does not need to have privity of contract with the licensee in order to be a customer under § 14-63.
In the present matter, we conclude that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63 because AMEX was obligated to pay for the repairs to Speckmann's vehicle under the terms of an insurance policy. Accordingly, the trial court properly upheld the department's determination that AMEX was a customer under § 14-63.
The plaintiff next claims that the trial court improperly concluded that substantial evidence in the record supported the department hearing officer's determination that the plaintiff violated §§ 14-65g, 14-65i and 14-65j. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that the hearing officer's conclusions were clearly erroneous based on the evidence presented at the hearing. We address the plaintiff's claim with respect to each statutory violation in turn.
As a preliminary matter, we revisit the appropriate standard governing judicial review of an agency's decision. "[J]udicial review of the commissioner's action is governed by the [UAPA] and the scope of that review is very restricted. . . . [R]eview of an administrative agency decision requires a court to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the agency's findings of basic fact and whether the conclusions drawn from those facts are reasonable. . . . Neither this court nor the trial court may retry the case or substitute its own judgment for that of the administrative agency on the weight of the evidence or questions of fact. . . . Our ultimate duty is to determine, in view of all of the evidence, whether the agency, in issuing its order, acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sengchanthong v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, supra, 281 Conn. at 609, 917 A.2d 942.
"The substantial evidence rule governs judicial review of administrative fact-finding under the UAPA. [See] General Statutes § 4-183(j)(5) and (6). An administrative finding is supported by substantial evidence if the record affords a substantial basis of fact from which the fact in issue can be reasonably inferred. . . . The substantial evidence rule imposes an important limitation on the
The plaintiff first contends that the department hearing officer improperly concluded that it violated § 14-65g, based on a determination that the plaintiff "charged for items that were not necessary or reasonable to repair the problems complained of, as contemplated by the waiver of advance estimate." Specifically, the plaintiff argues that the terms "necessary" and "reasonable" in § 14-65g (a) are vague, and, therefore, that a licensee's charges are not limited to parts and labor related directly to the repair of the vehicle. The plaintiff further asserts that the hearing officer's interpretation of the terms "necessary" and "reasonable" was unwarranted, because they have never been subject to judicial or administrative scrutiny. Finally, the plaintiff claims that there is no provision in § 14-65g (a) that limits charges to parts and repairs on a vehicle.
In response, the defendant contends that a licensee is permitted to charge only for repairs that are reasonable and necessary after obtaining a waiver pursuant to § 14-65g (a). The defendant further claims that the decisions of the department hearing officer and the trial court were proper, as there was substantial evidence that the plaintiff had charged for various storage and administrative items that were not necessary to repair the vehicle. We agree with the defendant.
Section 14-65g (a) provides in relevant part: "A customer may waive his right to the estimate of the costs of parts and labor required by section 14-65f, only in writing in accordance with this section. Such a waiver shall include an authorization to perform reasonable and necessary repairs to remedy the problems complained of. . . ." (Emphasis added.) The plaintiff's vagueness claim lacks merit because the text of the statute is plain and unambiguous in providing that a licensee may charge only for reasonable and necessary repairs to the vehicle, thereby restricting charges to the parts and labor required to make such repairs.
The trial court concluded that substantial evidence supported the department's determination that the plaintiff violated § 14-65g (a), based on the plaintiff having charged for: (1) forty-three days of bay tie-up charges after it had stopped working on the vehicle; and (2) various administrative and miscellaneous duties that did not involve actual repair to the vehicle, including, inter alia, charges for faxing documents, removing the license plate and personal belongings from the vehicle, and driving to the post office.
The plaintiff next claims that the department improperly concluded that it had violated § 14-65i because "the evidence produced at the [department] [h]earing clearly demonstrates that the [p]laintiff maintains signs for every expense charged and has, at all times, complied with the requirements of . . . [§] 14-65i." Specifically, the plaintiff contends that a sign was posted outlining the conditions under which storage charges may be imposed, and that § 14-65i does not require a licensee to post criteria for when storage charges, as opposed to bay tie-up charges, will be imposed.
The trial court concluded that substantial evidence supported the department's determination that the plaintiff violated § 14-65i, based on: (1) the plaintiff not having posted "criteria for the imposition of bay tie-up charges as opposed to storage charges"; and (2) the plaintiff's owner having conceded, during the department hearing, that the plaintiff "does not have a consistent policy as to the imposition of bay tie-up charges." We agree.
Section 14-65i(b) provides in relevant part: "Each motor vehicle repair shop shall post a sign, as required by this subsection, in each area of its premises where work orders are placed by customers. The sign shall state: (1) The hourly charge for labor; (2) the conditions, if any, under which the shop may impose charges for storage, and the amount of any such charges. . . ." (Emphasis added.) The statute clearly provides that if a licensee imposes storage charges, it must also inform its customers of when, and in what amount, such charges will be imposed.
The plaintiff asserts that it did, in fact, satisfy the conditions requirement of § 14-65i by having the following sign posted: "STORAGE CHARGES: If Any Delays Beyond Our Control Or If Not Picked Up Within 48 Hrs. Of Completion."
Finally, the plaintiff contends that the department improperly concluded that "it misstated in writing and charged more for bay tie-up charges than the amount posted on its sign on the premises" in violation of § 14-65j.
Section 14-65j (a) provides in relevant part: "No repair shop shall make any statement to a customer which it knows or should know to be false or misleading. . . ." (Emphasis added.)
The plaintiff specifically claims that it never made a false statement to Speckmann, since it posted a sign listing bay tie-up charges as $20 per hour, and, therefore, charged "$160 for bay tie-up charges per day, computed by multiplying eight hours (a typical workday). . . ." In making this claim, however, the plaintiff failed to mention in its brief that the sign also listed bay tie-up charges as $120 per day, despite the plaintiff's owner admitting this fact while testifying at the department hearing.
The judgment is affirmed.
In this opinion the other justices concurred.
The following language, highlighted in bold font in the original text, also is contained on the "motor vehicle repair estimate/waiver" after the authorization: "Your car is being repaired for you! It is your responsibility to obtain the checks plus your deduct[i]ble. We will not release your car before receiving full payment. This is not a reflection on your credit, but is necessary due to difficulty we have had in securing payment from insurance companies." (Emphasis added.)
"Q. . . . The bay tie-up charge. This is a regular charge that you charge people?
"Q. So, it isn't just this case?
"Q. You charge this on a regular basis?
"Q. And you have a sign?
"A. I have t[w]o signs.
"Q. What is the amount o[n] the sign?
"A. Twenty dollars per hour or one hundred sixt[y] dollars per day.
"Q. What was the sign up at the time that this person was a customer? Or the time that the inspector went in?
"A. Well, that's where the confusion comes in.
"Q. What was the sign that was up at the time that the inspector went in? "A. When the inspector came in it was one hundred twenty dollars per day, twenty dollars per hour. Those two signs.
"Q. Then why did you charge them one hundred sixty dollars?
"A. Because it was on the framing machine. It was twenty dollars per hour. I work ten hour days. It should have been two hundred dollars."