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January 23, 2012

No Second Bite at the Apple Even in Federal Court

On January 17, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit addressed when a state court judgment or a state administrative decision has a preclusive effect on a federal proceeding in Karin White v. City of Pasadena, et al. The Ninth Circuit ruled that White could not maintain her federal lawsuit because of the California principles of issue preclusion stemming from her earlier state lawsuit and administrative hearing. This holding is an expansion of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. City of Loma Linda and reflects the importance of administrative disciplinary appeal decisions in preventing subsequent lawsuits for discrimination.

The City hired White as a police officer in 1996. In 1998, her doctor diagnosed White with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis, which would not limit her job performance.

In 2004, the City terminated White for the fi rst time based on her alleged association with a known drug dealer and her lying about the relationship. Following her termination, White pursued her grievance rights under the applicable MOU. White’s grievance succeeded, and she returned to work as a police offi cer in July 2005.

In December 2005, White filed a lawsuit in state court alleging disability discrimination, disability harassment and violation of her state privacy rights. Following trial, the trial court entered judgment denying White’s discrimination and harassment claims, and awarded damages for her right to privacy claim. Both sides appealed the judgment. The California Court of Appeal upheld the verdicts on the first two claims, and reversed as to the privacy claim because the City is immune under Government Code Section 821.6.

On June 25, 2006, before the first trial, White was shot in the face at her home. A subsequent investigation determined that White had attempted suicide. In August 2007, the City terminated White for false statements she made to the Sheriff’s Department and the police department during the investigation. In 2008, White grieved this second termination arguing that this termination and the investigation were in retaliation for her first lawsuit against the City. After an administrative proceeding, the arbitrator recommended White’s reinstatement. After an independent review of the entire records from the administrative hearing, the City Manager rejected the recommendation and upheld the termination.

White filed a writ of mandamus, which was denied. White appealed this decision, but the California Court of Appeal upheld the City Manager’s decision. White did not seek review the California Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeal’s decision upholding her termination became final on August 25, 2011.

While the fi rst lawsuit was on appeal and the administrative proceeding was pending, White fi led a second and separate lawsuit that was removed to federal court. This lawsuit asserted disability discrimination, disability harassment and retaliation claims, including a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. In November 2008, the district court dismissed this second lawsuit, without prejudice, noting that the pending state proceedings would likely have a preclusive effect. White appealed this determination.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal and held that the state judgment and the state administrative decision had the same preclusive effect in federal court that they would be given in California.

“Claim preclusion” is the doctrine that provides that “a final judgment forecloses successive litigation of the very same claim, whether or not relitigation of the claim raises the same issues as the earlier suit.” (Taylor v. Sturgell (2008) 553 U.S. 880, 892.) “Issue preclusion” bars successive litigation of an issue of fact or law actually litigated and resolved in a valid court determination essential to the prior judgment, even if the issue recurs in the context of a different claim.(Id.)

In California, “issue preclusion” precludes relitigating issues argued and decided in previous proceedings if 1) the proceedings involve identical issues; 2) the issue was actually litigated; 3) the issue was necessarily decided; 4) the previous decision was final and on the merits; 5) it is being used against the same party or someone who is in privity with that party; and 6) application of issue preclusion is consistent with the public policies of “preservation of the integrity of the judicial system, promotion of judicial economy and protection of litigants from harassment by vexatious litigation.” (Lucido v. Superior Court (1990) 795 P.2d 1223, 1225-27.)

California’s claim preclusion doctrine provides that a “valid fi nal judgment on the merits in favor of a defendant serves as a complete bar to further litigation on the same cause of action.” (Slater v. Blackwood (1975) 543 P.2d 593, 594.)

Under California law, an administrative proceeding, if upheld on review or not reviewed at all, will be binding in a later civil action to the same extent as a state court decision if “the administrative proceeding possessed the requisite judicial character. (Runyon v. Bd. of Tr. (2010) 229 P.3d 985, 994.) To make that determination, California considers a number of factors, including 1) the administrative proceeding was conducted in a judicial-like adversary proceeding; 2) witnesses testified under oath; 3) the determination involved the adjudicatory application of rules to a single set of facts; 4) the proceeding was conducted before an impartial hearing offi cer; 5) the parties had the right to subpoena witnesses and to present documentary evidence; and 6) a verbatim record of the proceedings was maintained. (Imen v. Glassford (1988) 247 Cal.Rptr. 514, 518.)

Applying these principles, the Ninth Circuit concluded that White’s first lawsuit precluded her from claim that the City discriminated against her or harassed her based on her disability. The Ninth Circuit also determined that the administrative determination precluded her from arguing that the City did not have an adequate justification for her termination, or that the proffered explanation was a pretext for a retaliatory intent.




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