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State has stonewalled lawsuit on Malloy Seaside decision for years

One of the significant quirks of justice in Connecticut is that you can't sue the state without getting permission first — from the state.

This is because the state has not generally waived its sovereign immunity, and the only way to bring a lawsuit is to get approval first from the Connecticut claims commissioner.

I know. It's crazy. But if you want to know just how crazy, ask Mark Steiner, the developer who has been trying to buy and rehabilitate Seaside, the state-owned abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium in Waterford, for longer than many Connecticut high school students have been alive.

Steiner's last attempt was through the state's expensive and, four years later, still-failed process to create a park. Steiner was one of two developers to submit proposals to create an inn within a new park out of the dilapidated historic buildings. Both proposals were rejected earlier this year.

Steiner is still doggedly pursuing, though, his now years-old claim against the state, saying former Gov. Dannel Malloy broke a valid contract to sell Seaside for $8 million, including a $250,0000 deposit Steiner made on the deal.

This should have moved to state courts a long time ago, where Steiner should have the right to pursue his claim that the state broke the contract without cause. This is America, right?

Instead it has bogged down with the claims commissioner, who has had motions for summary judgment from both sides, Steiner and the attorney general, representing the state, since February.

I read the motions now awaiting decision by the commissioner. The bar is very low. The claimant only has to prove he "could" — not should or would — prevail for the complaint to proceed to court. It seems to me a first-year law student wouldn't need to spend much more than an hour on this.

Claims Commissioner Christy Scott, who was appointed by Malloy in 2016, as the claim against his Seaside decision was already safely on ice, told me last week she expected to get to the Seaside case soon, maybe within a month. I wonder how long it would take her to get to the street if her house were on fire?

She blamed a heavy backlog of cases, which, curiously, was a complaint about the office at the time she was appointed. She also cited the two parties in the Seaside case for dragging out the process so long, before the final motions for judgment began their long wait for her decision, back when February snows were still falling.

All it really requires from her is a thumbs-up or -down.

It should be easy, it would seem to me, for a judge or jury to find in Steiner's favor, if they were ever allowed to hear the case.

After all, Malloy essentially broke the contract in plain sight, calling an election-eve news conference, standing alongside Senate candidate Democrat Betsy Ritter, saying he was canceling the sale of the property in Ritter's district and would make it a park instead.

One reason why Steiner should prevail in a lawsuit is that the contract Malloy practically ripped up in front of television cameras had provisions requiring him to notify the buyer if he was believed to be at fault and give him time to fix whatever was said to be wrong. Malloy didn't.

Not only was there no notification, but my reading of the arguments before the claims commissioner is that the governor had no legal reason to break the contract. An ill-conceived political ploy — Ritter lost — is not grounds for breaking a contract.

Steiner told me he has spent $360,000 on legal fees so far, trying to get his day in court. His only remedy would be damages, since a court would not reinstate the contract so that he could proceed with a purchase.

The mess that is Seaside, which, Steiner claims, as surplus property was illegally declared a park, has fallen in the lap of Gov. Ned Lamont, the fourth governor to inherit the issue, as the landmark buildings continue to deteriorate.

Alas, Lamont so far has not emerged as Connecticut's fixer.

I fear for the future of these architectural wonders recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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