Employment Discrimination Claims Collaterally Estopped by Findings at 3020-a Hearing, Court Holds

In Ferraro v. New York City Department of Education, 2018 WL 5881663 (2d Cir. Nov. 9, 2018) (Summary Order), the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

In sum, defendant terminated plaintiff, a NYC public school teacher. It brought several counts of incompetency and misconduct against plaintiff. In a hearing pursuant to New York Education Law § 3020-a, the hearing officer, inter alia, sustained most of the charges, determined that plaintiff employment should be terminated, and found that the “record d[id] not support the claim of retaliation or the claim that the observations and ratings were wrongfully motivated.” The state court denied plaintiff’s petition to vacate or modify the 3020-a decision; the Appellate Division affirmed, stating, inter alia, that the “record [did] not include evidence that respondents discriminated against [Ferraro] or retaliated against him when he complained,” and that Ferraro’s “requests for accommodations were largely granted.” Plaintiff then sued in federal court, which dismissed plaintiff’s case. The Second Circuit affirmed.

The court found that plaintiff’s claims were precluded by “collateral estoppel,” which “bars the re-litigation of an issue that was previously decided, regardless of whether the two proceedings are based on the same cause of action.”

It summarized the applicable law:[1]Paragraphing modified, citations omitted, etc.

[Courts] generally give preclusive effect to a state agency’s administrative findings if the state’s courts would do the same. … New York courts afford preclusive effect to administrative determinations … if made in a quasi-judicial capacity and with a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue. … [S]ection 3020-a proceedings satisfy these requirements, and so we give them preclusive effect as to most claims. … However, as to certain federal civil rights claims, including those brought under Title VII and the ADA, there is an additional prerequisite: We give preclusive effect only to a state agency’s findings that have been judicially reviewed. … In addition, for findings from a 3020-a proceeding to preclude re-litigation of an issue, the issue must have been material to the … proceeding and essential to the decision rendered therein. … Our decision in Mazur v. New York City Department of Education, 621 F. App’x 88, 89 (2d Cir. 2015) (summary order), is instructive on this point. There, the DOE brought similar charges against a teacher in a section 3020-a proceeding. Id. The appellant had presented discrimination theories as defenses to the charges, and the hearing officer rejected them, finding that the appellant was subject to discipline for justified reasons. Id. We viewed this finding as sufficiently material and essential to the 3020-a decision so as to preclude re-litigation of the appellant’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,[] the NYSHRL, and the NYCHRL.

Applying the law, the court determined that plaintiff’s claims were barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. It noted, inter alia, that plaintiff “admits that he raised disability discrimination- and retaliation-based defenses in the 3020-a proceeding” and “does not dispute that the hearing officer made findings sufficient to defeat the claims for discrimination and retaliation in this case, nor that—for purposes of his ADA claims—the findings were judicially reviewed.”

Plaintiff contended that he “did not rely exclusively on these defenses” such that “the defenses were not litigated” or “essential to the 3020-a proceedings.” The Second Circuit rejected this argument:

We agree with the district court that these defenses were litigated and resolved in the administrative proceeding. There is no dispute that Ferraro raised these defenses, the hearing officer considered and addressed them, and that, if the hearing officer had credited one or more of the them, Ferraro could have prevailed. Thus, as in Mazur, 621 F. App’x at 89, the issues were sufficiently litigated and essential to warrant preclusive effect.

The court also found that plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate claim would likewise be barred by collateral estoppel. To succeed on such a claim, plaintiff would be required to prove, among other things, that “he could have performed the essential functions of the job at issue if provided reasonable accommodations.”

However:

Here, the 3020-a hearing officer considered Ferraro’s defense that the appellees had provided insufficient accommodations for his disabilities. The hearing officer found the record “devoid of evidence” that any reasonable accommodation would cure the “deficiencies established by the Department,” including Ferraro’s failure to “perform the essential aspect of his job, which is to teach and to provide a valid educational experience for his students.” App’x at 686. As such, the hearing officer made a finding that conclusively precludes Ferraro from establishing a claim for failure to accommodate under the ADA.

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1. Paragraphing modified, citations omitted, etc.