June 9, 2021

Applying the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel to prevent repetitious litigation of disputes which are essentially the same

In this proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78 the Appellate Division reviewed a determination of the Respondent finding a substantiated allegation of physical abuse of a patient by the employee [Petitioner].

Respondent had received a report that Petitioner had abused or neglected an individual under his care. Following an investigation, Respondent found the report of physical abuse to be substantiated as a category three offense and denied subsequent request to amend Respondent's report to unsubstantiated and the matter was referred for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge [ALJ].

In addition, the Appointing Authority [Employer] served Petitioner with a notice of discipline charging him with seven specifications of misconduct and/or incompetence in connection with this incident.

Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement in effect between Employer and Petitioner's union, a disciplinary hearing was conducted before an arbitrator [Arbitrator] in December at which Employer was represented by Respondent. In January 2020, the Arbitratorissued a written decision finding Petitioner guilty of certain charges and acting unprofessionally and failing to comport himself as a supervisor, but charges specifically finding that Petitioner's other act of alleged physical abuse were "not deemed to be physical abuse" of the service recipient. The Arbitrator then imposed a penalty of a 10-day suspension without pay.

After the disciplinary arbitration hearing had occurred but prior to the Arbitratorrendering his decision, a hearing was held before the ALJ on Petitioner's request to amend the "abuse finding." During the course of this hearing, Petitioner's attorney informed the ALJ of the parallel arbitration hearing and, after the hearing before the ALJ concluded, notified the ALJ of the Arbitrator's January 2020 decision and contended that "under principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel, the finding of physical abuse should be amended to unsubstantiated."

Ultimately the ALJ issued a recommended decision, concluding that the Arbitrator's decision was not entitled to preclusive effect and that the Employer had established by a preponderance of the evidence that Petitioner had committed the physical abuse alleged. Respondent subsequently issued a final determination incorporating the ALJ's recommended decision in its entirety.

Petitioner then commenced this CPLR article 78 proceeding seeking to annul the Respondent's determination, contending that the ALJ was precluded from rendering a decision under the doctrines of res judicataand collateral estoppel and that the determination was not supported by substantial evidence.

The Appellate Division agreed with Petitioner that the ALJ "erred in not giving preclusive effect to the Arbitrator's determination that [Petitioner's] conduct did not constitute physical abuse.

The court explained that "The underlying purpose of the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel is to prevent repetitious litigation of disputes which are essentially the same," citing Matter of Anonymous v New York State Justice Ctr. for the Protection of People with Special Needs, 174 AD3d 1007.

The Appellate Division noted that Respondent did not dispute that it was in privity with Employer via its representation of Employer in the arbitration proceeding and, as such, had a full and fair opportunity to litigate before Arbitrator. Rather, Respondent contended that the issue decided by the Arbitrator was not the identical issue before the ALJ. The Appellate Division said that it found Respondent's argument in this regard "unpersuasive."

Pointing out that the Arbitrator and the ALJ both reviewed the same videos of the underlying incident and Petitioner's interview, the Appellate Division fund that while both the Arbitrator and the ALJ both agreed that Petitioner had restrained the service recipient, the Arbitrator concluded that Petitioner's conduct did not constitute physical abuse, the same factual issue the ALJ later confronted.

The Appellate Division found that the ALJ "was precluded under the doctrine of collateral estoppel" from rendering a later contrary determination as to whether [Petitioner] physically abused the service recipient in the course of the incident. Accordingly, the court granted Petitioner's application, annulled the Respondent's determination and remitted the matter to Respondent "for the purpose of amending the findings to indicate the report as unsubstantiated."

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision. 

 

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