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April 11, 2011

Collateral Estoppel may bar a lawsuit involving essentially the same issues earlier adjudicated in a quasi-judicial administrative hearing

Collateral Estoppel may bar a lawsuit involving essentially the same issues earlier adjudicated in a quasi-judicial administrative hearing
Pisano v NYC Board of Education, 2002 WL 484305, [not selected for publication in the Official reports ], Affd. 303 A.D.2d 735

Sometimes an individual, unsuccessful in one lawsuit, will commence another legal action involving essentially the same issues and parties. However, applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel prevents a party from relitigating an issue which has already been decided by the courts involving the same parties and issues. The Pisano case involves such multiple litigations and illustrates how the court will apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel in case the subsequent litigation involves a challenge to an administrative determination.

In Abiele Contracting, Inc. v New York City School Construction Authority, 91 NY2d 1, the court held that the doctrine may apply to bar relitigating issues decided by administrative agencies if those decisions are "quasi-judicial" in nature. According to the ruling, an administrative agency is quasi-judicial in nature if it is given express statutory authority to act adjudicatively.

In contrast, if an agency only invokes its executive powers under the governing statute in making its determination, it is not exercising "quasi-judicial powers." In Venes v Community School Board, 43 NY2d 520, the Court of Appeals indicated that challenging the administrative agency's decision in court in situations where the agency did not arrive at its decision as a result of its acting in an adjudicative or judicial capacity would not be barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

In this case, a State Supreme Court judge decided the doctrine prevented Sheila Pisano from pursuing this lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education.

This action arose after a medical arbitrator sustained the New York City Board of Education Medical Board's ruling that Pisano's absence from work did not result from her job-related injury. According to the record, Pisano had fallen at work on October 18, 1996. As a result of injuries she alleged she suffered because of her fall, Pisano did not return to work.

After receiving the Medical Board's determination, Pisano asked for, and was granted, an independent evaluation by a medical arbitrator accordance with the provision of the collective bargaining agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the Board. She also authorized the Board of Education Medical Board to release her entire medical file to the medical arbitrator.

Dr. David Kaufman, the medical arbitrator, sustained the Medical Board's decision based on his medical examination of Pisano as well as a review of her available medical records and his conversations with Pisano's personal physician. Dr. Kaufman noted in his report that he had not reviewed all of Pisano's medical records because Pisano "failed to provide the Medical Board with this essential material." His conclusion: the Medical Board therefore acted correctly in not accepting the accident as being the cause of [Pisano's] absence from October 18, 1996 until the present" on the basis of the record before it.

Pisano challenged the arbitrator's determination pursuant to Article 75 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Her argument: the arbitrator's determination "was the result of misconduct by the Board and that the arbitrator failed to examine all of [her] medical records and thus did not conduct a thorough and exhaustive record."

A State Supreme Court justice dismissed Pisano's petition, ruling that the arbitration award was proper notwithstanding her allegations, as the award was "rational and unambiguous."

When Pisano filed second lawsuit based on the Medical Board's determination, the City asked the court to apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel and dismiss her petition. The court granted the City's motion, noting that the Medical Board is an agency within the meaning of 2 NYCRR 353, which provides for medical examinations, the creation of a medical board and the right to a hearing to challenge any adverse findings adopted by the Board.

The court said that "[t]hese procedures demonstrate that the determinations of these agencies are not merely the exercise of any rule-making or policy-making resolutions but are adjudications pursuant to their specific authority to actually decide cases. The court's conclusion: the Medical Board acted in a quasi-judicial capacity and its rulings bar any subsequent proceedings pursuant to the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

In addition, the court rejected Pisano's argument that "the arbitration award should be vacated since [she] was denied her Due Process at the arbitration hearing," noting that a Justice of the Supreme Court already ruled on "the propriety and manner of the arbitration proceeding and found that it fully conformed with the law." Thus, said the court, applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel in this action is appropriate.

The court also commented that "while the [Pisano] apparently did not appear with an attorney when she underwent her medical examinations, she was represented by the Union, which under a collective bargaining agreement with the Board, represents the interests of its members." In addition, said the court, "a party's election to appear without counsel will not invalidate the award of any part of the proceeding in which the right to counsel was not exercised."

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