Workers’ Compensation Board Findings Not Entitled to Collateral Estoppel Effect in Sexual Harassment Case

In a recent decision (Sloth v. Constellation Brands), the Western District of New York declined to give collateral estoppel effect to the findings of the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB).

Plaintiff alleged that she was subjected to sexual harassment at work.  The WCB denied her benefits, finding in part that she made false statements.  On February 19, 2013, the court denied defendants’ motion for reconsideration, and held that the WCB finding did not preclude plaintiff’s discrimination claims.

In its most recent decision, the court again denied defendants’ motion for reconsideration.

The apparently exasperated court explained:

For the third, and what should be the final time, I deny defendants’ request to adopt the findings of the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, and conclude that those findings preclude the plaintiff from proceeding on her remaining state law claims of employment discrimination in this pending case. I have clearly and extensively explained on two occasions, on June 8, 2012, and February 19, 2013, why the findings of the WCB will not be given preclusive effect in this action.

For defense counsel’s benefit, and in the interest of clarity, I will review once more some of the reasons I have previously given for not affording preclusive effect to the findings of the WCB. Initially, and perhaps most importantly, the decision of whether or not a prior finding should be given preclusive effect is discretionary with the court. The term “discretionary” means “left to discretion or individual judgment.” …

[C]ollateral estoppel is not appropriate in this case because there is no identity of issue between the findings of the Workers’ Compensation Board and the issues presented here. That point has been clearly explained on multiple occasions. It is black letter law that collateral estoppel may only be invoked when, inter alia, the issue sought to be precluded is identical to the issue previously litigated. I explained in my previous decisions why the issues presented to the WCB were not identical to the issues presented here.

The court further noted that, during the workers’ compensation proceedings, defense counsel highlighted to the workers’ compensation judge that the two issues – workers compensation and employment discrimination – were “entirely” different, and subject to different statutes and standards of proof.

Thus:

[A]t least prior to these proceedings, defendants’ counsel was in agreement with this court that discrimination issues were “entirely” different from workers’ compensation issues and were subject to different statutes and different standards of proof. In this second motion for reconsideration, counsel has not addressed why its previous representations that the issues presented to the WCB and the EEOC are “entirely” different should be ignored.

Additionally, the court rejected defendants’ reliance on the New York Court of Appeals’ February 13, 2013 decision in Auqui v. Seven Thirty One Limited Partnership.

This was particularly so in light of the Court of Appeals’ decision this month to vacate its earlier Auqui decision (which I wrote about here):

Even more damaging to the defendants’ reliance on the Auqui decision is the fact that the New York State Court of Appeals has recently vacated the decision cited by the defendants, and has now decided that because there was an insufficient identify of issues between the findings made by the Workers’ Compensation Board and the issues litigated in the claimant’s subsequent personal injury litigation, collateral estoppel would not preclude the plaintiff from litigating issues regarding the extent and/or duration of his injury or disability. Echoing language used in my previous decisions in this matter, the Court of Appeals in the most recent Auqui decision recognized that “[w]hether collateral estoppel should be applied in a particular case turns on general notions of fairness” and that the doctrine of collateral estoppel is “a flexible doctrine [that] is applied more flexibly in the context of the determinations of administrative agencies.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). The Court of Appeals then explained why the issues litigated before the Workers’ Compensation Board and the plaintiff’s personal injury action were not sufficiently similar such that collateral estoppel would apply. Just as the Auqui court in its most recent decision found that there was no identity of issues between the issues decided by the WCB and the issues presented in the state court personal injury litigation, I find that there is no identity of issue between the findings made by the WCB in plaintiff’s compensation case and her discrimination claims made here in support of her State law cause of action.

In addition to clarifying that workers’ compensation findings are not necessarily entitled to preclusive effect in an employment discrimination case, this decision includes an important practice point, namely, that courts have little patience for litigants who appear to ignore prior court orders and/or who advocate positions at odds with those previously taken.