Court Finds That “No Probable Cause” Determination Did Not Preclude Litigation of § 1981 Race Discrimination Claim in Court

In Martin v. City University of New York, 2018 WL 6510805 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 11, 2018), the court, inter alia, rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiff is precluded from litigating his § 1981 claims in the instant action, because plaintiff presented those allegations to the New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which rejected them on the merits.

Here is the relevant law, as summarized by the court:

With respect to employment discrimination claims under § 1981, “when a state agency acting in a judicial capacity resolves disputed issues of fact properly before it which the parties have had an adequate opportunity to litigate, federal courts must give the agency’s fact-finding the same preclusive effect to which it would be entitled in the State’s courts.” Johnson v. Cty. of Nassau, 411 F. Supp. 2d 171, 178 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) (quoting University of Tennessee v. Elliott, 478 U.S. 788, 799 (1986)). A § 1981 claim may be barred “on the basis of an earlier determination by the New York State Division of Human Rights that there was no probable cause to believe that the plaintiff had been discriminated against by his employer.” Sullivan v. NYC Dep’t of Investigation, No. 12 Civ. 2564 (TPG), 2014 WL 1244666, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2014).

SDHR decisions are given preclusive effect when (i) a plaintiff’s current § 1981 claim is sufficiently similar to his claim before the SDHR, and (ii) the plaintiff had an adequate opportunity to litigate his claim in front of the Division. See Sullivan, 2014 WL 1244666, at *3; see generally Kremer v. Chem. Constr. Corp., 456 U.S. 461 (1982) (addressing preclusive effect of SDHR decision). The burden of proving identity of the issue rests on the proponent of collateral estoppel, while the opponent bears the burden of proving that he or she did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue.

Applying the law, the court held that – on the present record, and in light of, e.g., plaintiff’s pro se status – it could not “adequately assess whether Plaintiff was afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate his claim.”

Turning to the merits, however, the court dismissed plaintiff’s discrimination and retaliation claims on substantive grounds.