An arbitrator’s decision upholding an employee’s termination under civil service rules barred, under the doctrine of res judicata, the employee’s subsequent Title VII claims, according to a recent decision by a Florida federal judge in Palmer v. Miami-Dade County, Florida (Case No. 10-23478-CIV-COOKE/TURNOFF (S.D. Fla., April 25, 2011).  The decision sheds light on when Title VII claims are barred by earlier state court proceedings. 

The facts of the case are as follows.  Defendant, Miami-Dade County, employed Plaintiff, Sebrina Palmer, as a police sergeant. On August 22, 2008, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff is an African-American female. Defendant stated, as grounds for her termination, that Plaintiff falsified payroll records. Plaintiff challenged her termination pursuant to Miami-Dade County Code § 2-47, the County's classified civil service hearing process. An arbitrator was appointed.  After a two-day hearing, he wrote a report concluding that Plaintiff violated County rules by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that the payroll documents she submitted were accurate. The arbitrator recommended that Plaintiff's termination be upheld. The County Manager sustained the arbitrator’s decision and confirmed Plaintiff's dismissal. Plaintiff appealed the County Manager's final order to the Appellate Division of the Circuit Court for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida. The Appellate Division, upon review of the entire administrative record, issued a mandate affirming the County Manager's decision. 

Plaintiff subsequently brought suit in federal court, alleging that her termination was racially and sexually discriminatory in violation of Title VII.  Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that Plaintiff’s claim was barred by res judicata, otherwise known as claim preclusion.

The court agreed.  The court began its analysis by noting that the doctrine of res judicata may bar Title VII claims where a state court affirms an administrative agency's decision, and two criteria are met: (1) the state court would grant preclusive effect to the judgment, and (2) the state proceedings comport with the procedural requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.  The court held that the first criterion was met because Florida courts grant preclusive effect to quasi-judicial administrative decisions.  The court held that the second criterion was met because  state proceedings comport with the procedural requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Under Miami-Dade County Rules §§ 2-47 and 2-47.1, a dismissed employee is entitled to notice, an opportunity for a full hearing, compulsory process and representation by counsel before the hearing examiner, with layers of administrative and judicial review.

Turning to Florida law, the court held that the doctrine of res judicata applies if four conditions exist: (1) identity of the thing sued for; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the parties; and (4) identity of the quality in the person for or against whom the claim is made.  When the four identities are present, res judicata attaches to all matters which were or could have been determined.

The outcome of the case turned mainly on the second factor:  Were Plaintiff’s administrative proceeding and her Title VII action the “same” cause of action for res judicata purposes? 

The court held that they were: Plaintiff's administrative proceeding and this federal action consist of the same cause of action for purposes of res judicata analysis under Florida law. “The determining factor in deciding whether the cause of action is the same is whether the facts or evidence necessary to maintain the suit are the same in both actions.” Albrecht, 444 So. 2d at 12. In the administrative proceeding, Plaintiff challenged the propriety of her dismissal. Here, she also argues that Defendant improperly dismissed her. In both proceedings, Plaintiff must proffer evidence regarding her dismissal. In both proceedings, Plaintiff argues that she was subject to disparate treatment, and therefore her dismissal was improper. Thus, the facts and evidence are the same in both causes of action -- Plaintiff must proffer evidence and show facts to support her contention that Defendant improperly dismissed her because it had a discriminatory intent and the County's reasons for dismissing her were pretextual and illegitimate. The court went on to hold that Plaintiff could, and did, litigate the issue of disparate treatment in her administrative proceeding.  Thus, res judicata barred the re-litigation of her claims in U.S. District Court.

But what happens when the opposite situation presents itself, i.e. when a plaintiff litigates her Title VII claim in federal court, and then attempts to litigate a similar discrimination claim under state law? 

According to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals, the state law claim may or may not be barred by res judicata, depending on whether the plaintiff also litigated state law claims in federal court. 

In Andujar v. Nat'l Prop. & Cas. Underwriters, 659 So. 2d 1214 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995), the Fourth DCA held that a federal court’s dismissal on the merits of Title VII claim did not bar a claim arising from the same core of operative facts asserted under the Florida Human Rights Act.  The court reasoned that because the plaintiff did  not allege any state law claims in her first action, and thus did not seek to have the federal district court assert jurisdiction over such claims under its pendent jurisdiction, the federal and state claims were separate and distinct for purposes of federal claim preclusion rules.

Less than a year later, however, the Fourth DCA considered a similar situation in Dalbon v. Women's Specialty Retailing Group, 674 So. 2d 799, 801 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), and reached a different result.  In Dalbon, the plaintiff, in addition to asserting a Title VII claim, had asserted a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which the federal court dismissed on summary judgment.  The federal court subsequently dismissed the Title VII claim after a trial on the merits.  Plaintiff subsequently filed state law claims in state court for negligent misrepresentation and negligent supervision and retention.  On appeal, the Fourth DCA held that the new claims were barred by res judicata. The court reasoned that “[h]aving presented one of her state law claims arising from the termination of her employment to the federal court, plaintiff cannot now attempt to raise new state law claims in state court arising from the same facts and from the same primary rights and duties as were litigated previously.”