Employment Discrimination Claims Not Collaterally Estopped By Finding That Teacher Was Fired For “Cause” Under New York Education Law § 3020-a

In Leon v. NYC Dept. of Education, a Summary Order dated May 22, 2015, the Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of plaintiff’s age/disability discrimination, retaliation, and accommodation claims, and held that a finding pursuant to NY Education § 3020-a that a teacher was fired for “cause” does not necessarily preclude a viable claim for (e.g.) discriminatory termination under principles of collateral estoppel.

In this case, the district court held that since the state proceedings “concluded that Plaintiff was dismissed for insubordination and neglect of her duties, not because of unlawful discrimination[,] Plaintiff’s claims, as they relate to her 2011 termination, are collaterally estopped from relitigation in this Court.”

The Second Circuit disagreed.

Here’s the law:

Under New York law, the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars re-litigation of an issue when: (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. The bar can apply even if the tribunals or causes of action differ. Section 3020–a findings are entitled to preclusive effect.

Applying the law, the court explained why the district court’s dismissal was improper:

The District Court erroneously concluded that the Section 3020–a hearing’s “determination that there was cause for [Leon’s] termination precludes [Leon] from making a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation[.]” There is no indication that the Section 3020–a hearing addressed, much less “actually decided,” whether the charges leading to Leon’s termination were driven, even in part, by discriminatory or retaliatory intent. The court’s error thus stems from the faulty assumption that termination for cause necessarily precludes the possibility of termination motivated by unlawful animus. “[T]he hearing officer’s determination that [the plaintiff] had engaged in the charged conduct, and that these violations called for h[er] termination, does not preclude a jury from later finding that [the plaintiff] was also terminated at least in part because of [discriminatory reasons]. The plaintiff could be successful on the [discrimination or retaliation] claims even if the jury were to accept that there were legitimate reasons for terminating h[er], too.”

Likewise the District Court erroneously concluded that the Section 3020–a hearing’s determination “that Plaintiff did not apply for an accommodation for air conditioning from [DOE’s] Medical Bureau” precludes Leon “from alleging a necessary element of her failure to accommodate claim.” While Leon is estopped from challenging the Hearing Officer’s factual finding that she failed to apply to the Medical Bureau for an air conditioning accommodation, Leon also alleges that she informed Defendants of her air conditioning-related health concerns and had filed medical documentation to that effect with the school. The overall adequacy of Leon’s accommodation requests cannot be determined based on the Amended Complaint or documents reasonably viewed as incorporated in it.

Therefore, the court vacated the dismissals of plaintiff’s discrimination, retaliation, and accommodation claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the New York State State Human Rights Law, since those dismissals could not be justified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

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