In a recent decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court, the court affirmed the Compensation Review Board’s finding that an employee can proceed with his action alleging retaliation in state court even though an arbitrator had already found the employee was not wrongly terminated. Williams v. City of New Haven, 329 Conn. 366, 386 (2018).

Factual Background

Simon Williams began working for the City of New Haven’s refuse department in 1993. Id. at 369. In 2011, Williams suffered an injury to his shoulder, neck, and back. Id. After he sought treatment, the City of New Haven reassigned Williams to light duty work for eight hours each day in 2012. Id. Williams then requested that his new hours, from 7 am to 3 pm, be changed to his old hours, which were from 5 am to 1 pm, because the new scheduled interfered with his second job. Id. The city refused, citing the fact that the location for the work only opened at 7 a.m. Id. at 370. Williams then called one of his treating physicians, who gave Williams a work status report that restricted his hours per day to five. Id. An employee of the city questioned the physician, who in response conducted a follow-up exam of Williams and subsequently issued a work release form abolishing the five-hour per day work restriction. Id.

The city filed a notice of intent with the Workers’ Compensation Commission (commission) to discontinue or reduce William’s workers’ compensation benefits after learning of Williams’ work status report and work release form. Id. The commission, during its investigation, deposed the physician who stated he did not reduce Williams’ hours for any medical reason, but only so he could work both jobs. Id. The commission granted the city’s request to discontinue or reduce Williams’ benefits, and the city then terminated Williams for workers’ compensation fraud after conducting a pre-termination hearing. Id. at 371.

The Arbitration

Williams’ union filed a grievance, per the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the city, alleging Williams was fired without cause. Id. The union and the city agreed to arbitrate the dispute before the state board as outlined in the agreement. Id. The state board found for the city in arbitration, concluding that Williams’ obtainment of workers’ compensation benefits was acquired through “intentional deceit” and “amounted to theft.” Id.

In response, Williams sought to vacate the arbitration award in state court. Id. The state court noted that agreement to arbitrate was unrestricted and the thus the court’s review was limited to two questions: 1) did the award fall outside the scope of the submission to arbitration and 2) did the arbitrators “manifestly disregard the law” during the proceeding. Id. Answering both questions in the negative, the trial court denied Williams’ motion to vacate the award. Id.

Claim for Wrongful Termination and Retaliation

Williams then filed a claim with the commission for wrongful termination, alleging retaliation for bringing a workers’ compensation claim. Id. at 372. The city moved to dismiss under the doctrine of collateral estoppel since, as the city argued, the issue was already decided in arbitration. Id. The commission held that Williams’ was entitled to bring his statutory claim for wrongful discharge even though he previously had acceded to arbitration of a related claim. Id. The commission went further through, finding that the matter arbitrated and Williams’ state court claim were distinct: the arbitration concerned whether the city was justified in terminating Williams for workers’ compensation fraud and the state court claim pertained to determining if the city had wrongfully retaliated against Williams. Id.  The city sought correction of the commission’s decision with the commission itself and later review of the commission with the review board, both of which were denied.

The Appeal

On appeal, the city argued that the commission erred in finding for Williams since the doctrine of collateral estoppel applied in Williams’ state court action on the theory that the arbitration award found that the city had cause to terminate Williams. Id. The exception to the doctrine of collateral estoppel cited by the commission was inapplicable, argued the city, because Williams did not pursue a separate statutory cause of action (as the case cited to by the commission described) but instead arbitrated the matter. Id. The city further asserted that the issues were not distinct and therefore collateral estoppel should bar Williams’ state court claim. Id.

The Supreme Court of Connecticut dismissed the city’s first claim after an analysis of the relevant statutory language and found that the statute and case law “permits a plaintiff to pursue a statutory cause of action ‘despite a prior adverse determination of the same or similar claim in an arbitration proceeding brought pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement.’” Id at 386. Moreover, the court found that even if the issue in arbitration were identical to the issue brought by Williams in state court, collateral estoppel would not bar the state court action. Id. Ultimately, the court affirmed the commission’s decision. Id.

Consequences of the Decision

The ramifications of this decision are yet to be known, as the decision could easily be interpreted narrowly and given little precedential value. On the other hand, a broad interpretation of this case could call into question the effectiveness of arbitration awards if they can be circumvented after the fact in litigation.

For a detailed summary of the case, see Louise Esola’s article titled Conn. high court clears way for retaliation claim.

(Nick Leyh, a third-year student at the University of Missouri School of Law prepared this post.)