Friday, January 10, 2014

Preclusion bars an individual from relitigating the findings of a disciplinary hearing officer in a subsequent involving the same parties in a different tribunal


Preclusion bars an individual from relitigating the findings of a disciplinary hearing officer in a subsequent involving the same parties in a different tribunal
USCA, Second Circuit, Docket  Nos. 11- 1234 (L), 11-1618 (XAP)

An employee [Plaintiff] was dismissed from his position after a disciplinary hearing conducted pursuant to Civil Service Law §75. He subsequently sued his former employer alleging, among other things, that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 USC 1983.

One of the issues addressed by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the civil rights action was the question of whether the §75 disciplinary hearing officer’s finding that there was a sufficient and legitimate basis for Plaintiff’s termination precluded* the Plaintiff from relitigating those issues in federal district court.

The Circuit Court said that State law governs the preclusive effects of a state administrative agency’s quasi-judicial findings in a federal court and New York courts give quasi-judicial administrative fact-finding preclusive effect where there has been a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue. This, said the court, applies to findings made by administrative officers after conducting §75 disciplinary hearings.

As is the case with respect to a prior judicial finding of fact, in order to have preclusive effect over a subsequent fact-finding or legal analysis, the prior administrative determination must have resolved the identical issue and the issue must have been actually and finally decided in the prior administrative adjudication.

The appointing authority had adopted the recommendations of the hearing officer, which became the official decision of the agency and Plaintiff decided not to challenge the determination by appealing the decision to a state court or to the responsible Civil Service Commission

However, even if an identical issue was necessarily decided in the prior proceeding, issue preclusion does not apply unless there was a full and fair opportunity for the party against whom preclusion is sought to contest the decision now said to be controlling.** The Court then noted that Plaintiff’s civil rights claims were not considered in the course of his §75 hearing*** and thus that decision did not did not preclude the jury from finding discriminatory conduct on the part of the employer in Plaintiff’s federal civil rights action.

The issue decided by the hearing officer after the §75 hearing concerned the appointing authority’s articulated basis for seeking to terminate Plaintiff. The hearing officer’s ultimate conclusions was that Plaintiff had committed disciplinable misconduct and was incompetent were guided by the particular legal framework and standards applicable in §75 proceedings.

Turning to Plaintiff’s civil rights complaint, the Circuit Court explained that the §75 framework differs substantially from the legal framework for state and federal employment discrimination law applicable to Plaintiff’s federal jury trial.
 
Although the hearing officer’s findings and conclusions concerning the charges of alleged misconduct and incompetence for purposes of §75 filed against Plaintiff precluded him from arguing otherwise at trial, they are not preclusive of any findings that the jury could have made in the course of its deliberations with respect to Plaintiff’s allegations of unlawful discrimination on the part of his former employer being the reason for his termination.

Therefore, in the course of deciding Plaintiff’s §1983 claims regarding whether the appointing authority terminated Plaintiff for legitimate or illegal reasons, the jury was required to accept the hearing officer’s finding that Plaintiff had failed to perform satisfactorily, if at all, some of his duties and responsibilities.
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The bottom line: Applying these principles to this case, the Circuit Court conclude that the jury was precluded from finding that Plaintiff had not actually engaged in the conduct charged against him in the §75 hearing.

As to Plaintiff’s civil rights action, the jury found in his favor and awarded him $304,775 in back pay.

* Essentially preclusion bars the relitigation of the same issue that was the basis of a finding or verdict in an action involving the same parties in subsequent lawsuits involving the same parties.

** In contrast, citing Leventhal v. Knapek, 266 F.3d 64, the Circuit Court said that there is no preclusion in the event there was no “final decision” both because the parties settled before the hearing officer had taken all of the evidence and because the appointing authority had not adopted any recommendation of the hearing officer.

*** The decision notes that Plaintiff “never expressly argued to the hearing officer that he was treated adversely” within the meaning of 42 USC 1983.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/2013a850-216d-4ede-93b6-36484b07172f/4/doc/11-1234_complete_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/2013a850-216d-4ede-93b6-36484b07172f/4/hilite/
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Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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