ABNER v. ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (March 21, 2012)

Thomas Abner had a checkered history in his first 16 years with the Illinois Department of Transportation. He was the subject of several disciplinary measures, including a 30-day suspension for fighting in 2003. A "last chance agreement" he entered into at the time provided that any future, similar conduct would result in his termination. In July 2005, he was involved in a physical altercation with a coworker and supervisor. IDOT gave him notice that he was being terminated for violating its policies against violence in the workplace. After an administrative hearing, an ALJ concluded that Abner had engaged in the altercation and that he had violated IDOT rules, but recommended that he be suspended for 90 days instead of discharged. A state court overturned that decision and reinstated the discharge. Abner never claimed, either at the administrative hearing or in his briefs to the state court, that IDOT discharged him in retaliation for filing a charge of racial discrimination. Three years later, however, Abner filed a federal court complaint alleging retaliatory discharge. Judge Castillo (N.D. Ill.) dismissed the case on the grounds that the state court's holding that he was discharged for cause precluded Abner from litigating that issue in federal court. Abner appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Bauer, Rovner, and Williams affirmed. First, a state court judgment reviewing an administrative finding is entitled to the same preclusive effect as any other judgment rendered by a state court. Second, under Welch, workplace discrimination charges are barred by a state court finding that a discharge was supported by just clause. Illinois applies the rule that a prior judgment precludes the litigation not only of matters actually determined but also matters that could have been raised and determined. Abner could have raised retaliatory discharge as a defense in the administrative and state court proceedings. His failure to do so precludes his federal complaint.