October 2, 2018

Seeking to dismiss a lawsuit on the basis of collateral estoppel, also know as issue preclusion


Seeking to dismiss a lawsuit on the basis of collateral estoppel, also know as  issue preclusion
Razzano v RemsenburgSpeonk Union Free Sch. Dist., et al., USCA, Second Circuit, Docket 17-775-CV

Janice Razzano, acting pro se,* appealed a federal district courtʹs ruling in favor of  the RemsenburgSpeonk Union Free School District [District] dismissing her complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §1983, and the New York State Human Rights Law.

The district court, in an oral ruling dismissing the Razzano's petition and subsequently clarified its decision, explaining that a New York State Appellate Divisionʹs decision precluded Razzanoʹs complaint ʺunder the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel."

The Circuit Court initially considered the following components of the lower court's decision.

I. Failure to Prosecute - The Circuit Court explained that a district court may dismiss an action "[i]f the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with [the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] or a court order" and reviews Rule 41(b) dismissals for abuse of discretion. Although review for abuse of discretion ʺsuggests great deference,ʺthe Circuit Court said it recognizes that ʺdismissal is a harsh remedy and is appropriate only in extreme situations" and in reviewing a Rule 41(b) dismissal, consider the following five factors:

(1) the duration of the plaintiffʹs failure to comply with the court order;

(2) whether plaintiff was on notice that failure to comply would result in dismissal;

(3) whether the defendants are likely to be prejudiced by further delay in the proceedings;

(4) a balancing of the courtʹs interest in managing its docket with the plaintiffʹs
interest in receiving a fair chance to be heard; and

(5) whether the judge has adequately considered a sanction less drastic than
dismissal.

In this instance the Circuit Court said it could not make a determination concerning the application of Rule 41(b) by the district court as the record was   incomplete and the district court was better situated than the Circuit Court to develop the record and assess the propriety of dismissal in the first instance.

II. Collateral Estoppel (Issue Preclusion) - Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, bars the re-litigation of an issue that was previously decided, regardless of whether the two lawsuits are based on the same cause of action.
The district court had invoked the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata to support its dismissal of Razzano's action but the Circuit Court again noted "record deficiencies."

Although the §3020-a proceeding resulting in Razzanoʹs termination was ʺan administrative adjudication that must be given [issue] preclusive effect,ʺissue applies only if ʺ(1) the identical issue necessarily was decided in the prior action and is decisive of the present action, and (2) the party to be precluded from relitigating the issue had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action.ʺ The District, as the party asserting issue preclusion, ʺbears the burden of showing with clarity and certainty what was determined by the prior judgment,ʺthe Appellate Division's decision** is given issue preclusive effect ʺonly if it is quite clear that this requirement has been met.ʺ

Addressing the application of the doctrine of res judicata, the Circuit Court said that New York uses a ʺtransactional approachʺsuch that ʺonce a claim is brought to a final conclusion, all other claims arising out of the same transaction or series of transaction are barred.ʺ

In rejecting Razzanoʹs termination challenge, the Appellate Division held that the hearing officer ʺproperly rejected [Razzanoʹs] defense that the disciplinary proceedings were retaliatory in natureʺand that the ʺevidence of specific incidents of inappropriate, unprofessional, or insubordinate conduct . . . demonstrate[d] a separate and independent basis for the action takenʺ such that ʺa defense under Civil Service Law §75-b cannot be sustained.ʺ

The Circuit Court found that Razzanoʹs state court ʺclaimʺwas her CPLR §7511 petition challenging the §3020-a hearing officerʹs decision. Razzanoʹs defense to the disciplinary charges was that they were retaliatory in violation of Civil Service Law § 75-B(2)(a), a State "Whistleblower Statute but Razzano did not assert the claims she raised in her federal district court complaint with respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 USC 1983, and New York State's Human Rights Law for which she sought monetary damages, equitable relief, and attorneyʹs fees and costs.

As it appeared that neither the administrative hearing officer nor the Appellate Division had the power to rule on the discrimination claims, as Razzano had not raised them in the disciplinary proceeding or in her petition challenging the decision the Circuit Court concluded that dismissal on res judicata grounds was unwarranted.

The Circuit Court vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the matter to the lower court "for further proceedings consistent with this order."

* An individual acts "pro se" by serving as his or her own attorney in a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding.

** Razzano v Remsenburg-Speonk UFSD, 41 N.Y.S.3d 72

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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