Supreme Court correctly applied the Doctrine of Collateral Estoppel based on the hearing officer's determinations as to the reasons for the employee's termination
Johnson v Department of Educ. of City of N.Y., 2018 NY Slip Op 01179, Appellate Division, Second Department
Linda C. Johnson sought to recover damages for alleged unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of age and unlawful retaliation in violation of Administrative Code of the City of New York §8-107. Supreme Court granted the New York City Department of Education's motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a) to dismiss Johnson's complaint.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court's determination.
The Department of Education of City of New York had filed disciplinary charges pursuant to §3020-a of the Education Law against Johnson alleging "absenteeism, failure to prepare lesson plans, and verbal abuse and corporal punishment of students." Rejecting Johnson's defense that the main reason the charges were brought against her was "personality," in that the administration did not like her "for personal reasons," and that the administration failed to offer her remediation because it did not want "to deal with her," the New York State Department of Education's Hearing Officer sustained most of the specifications, and Johnson's employment was terminated by the New York City Department of Education. The Hearing Officer found that there was no evidence that certain members of the administration had treated Johnson unfairly, or that she was "targeted or discriminated against because of her personality or for any other reason."
The Appellate Division explained that the findings of a hearing officer after a hearing pursuant to Education Law §3020-a are entitled to collateral estoppel effect and, in this context, collateral estoppel applies if " the issue sought to be precluded is identical to a material issue necessarily decided by the administrative agency in a prior proceeding; and  there was a full and fair opportunity to contest this issue in the administrative tribunal."
However, cautioned the Appellate Division, a termination of employment for cause does not necessarily preclude the possibility of termination being motivated by unlawful animus. Indeed, a court or a jury could find that the plaintiff's employment was terminated for discriminatory reasons, even if there were other, and legitimate, reasons for terminating the individual's employment.
Where such "mixed motives" are involved, a plaintiff need only demonstrate that discrimination was one of the motivating factors for the defendants' conduct. Accordingly, said the court, "even where the reason for termination is legitimate, the plaintiff may state a cause of action based upon allegations of disparate treatment or that the explanation for the termination of the plaintiff's employment was pretextual.
In Johnson's case the Appellate Division decided that the reasons advanced for the termination of the Johnson's employment were not pretextual, and that her termination was not motivated by age discrimination, explaining that "[t]he Hearing Officer further found that there was no evidence that [Johnson] 'was targeted or discriminated against because of her personality or for any other reason.'" Further, noted the Appellate Division, the reason why Johnson "was not offered more remediation efforts" was attributed to Johnson's "resistance to such efforts" by the Hearing Officer.
Thus, concluded the Appellate Division, the Hearing Officer's findings were entitled to collateral estoppel effect and Supreme Court correctly directed the dismissal of so much of Johnson's complaint as alleged unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of age.
The decision is posted on the Internet at: