Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Offensive Use of Collateral Estoppel By Workers' Comp Claimant Upheld

In his recent February 13, 2013 Memorandum and Order in the case of Alpensjo v. Sandvik Materials Technology, Inc., No. 2010-Civil-1277 (C.P. Feb. 13, 2013, Minora, J.), Judge Carmen D. Minora of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas addressed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by the Plaintiff asserting the theory of collateral estoppel based upon a final judgment rendered by a worker’s compensation judge.  

This case arises out of a Complaint filed by the Plaintiff alleging that Sandvik wrongfully terminated the Plaintiff's employment as a violation of public policy in the context of a worker’s compensation claim.   The Complaint also alleged defamation.  

According to the Opinion, the record before the Court contained evidence of positive work reviews and advancement by the Plaintiff in his employment up through the date of a December 11, 2008 motor vehicle accident that left the Plaintiff impaired and unable to work.   The Court noted that, up to the time of the accident, there is no documents or testimony suggesting that Sandvik was unhappy with the Plaintiff as their employee. 

After the accident, the Plaintiff was limited in his ability to work and attempted, despite his condition, to at least work part-time hours.   By March of 2009, the Plaintiff arrived at work and was advised that his employment was terminated.  The Plaintiff, who was a Swedish citizen was advised that he had 30 days to leave the country as his work Visa was set to expire.  

The Court noted that the Plaintiff had a companion worker’s compensation benefits claim proceeding after his motor vehicle accident as well.   In the worker’s compensation claim, the worker’s compensation judge rendered a decision on the Plaintiff’s claim.  The Plaintiff asserted that the worker’s compensation judge’s decision should act as collateral estoppel on specific findings of fact and conclusions of law contained in that Opinion related to issues pending in his Court of Common Pleas action.  

The defense argued that the worker’s compensation decision should not be deemed to be conclusive or be given preclusive effect as the Defendant had no full and fair opportunity to litigate before the worker’s compensation court.  The Defendant also argued that there was no identity of issues as required by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

With respect to this Court of Common Pleas decision, there was an issue as to whether or to the worker’s compensation decision squarely faced and resolved the central factual issue raised in the Court of Common Pleas case, i.e., whether the Plaintiff was subjected to a retaliatory discharge from his employment.  

Judge Carmen  D. Minora
Lackawanna County
In his Opinion, Judge Minora provides a thorough review of the doctrine of collateral estoppel as well as the relationship of issues raised in a worker’s compensation claim as related to a companion Court of Common Pleas claim. 

After reviewing the record before the Court, Judge Minora found that the elements necessary to implement the doctrine of collateral estoppel or issue preclusion were met in the case before him.   Judge Minora also found that the worker’s compensation hearings were conducted with sufficient protections and opportunity to be heard by Sandvik.   Ultimately, the Court found that the parties of the worker’s compensation case were identical to the parties in this Court of Common Pleas case and that Sandvik had a full and fair opportunity to litigate at the worker’s compensation hearing.   Accordingly, Judge Minora found that certain factual determinations made by the worker’s compensation judge were deemed to be conclusively established between the parties for purposes of the Court of Common Pleas case and that the Defendant was collaterally estopped from disputing these particular issues. 

Accordingly, the Plaintiff’s request for partial summary judgment based upon a doctrine of collateral estoppel was granted.  

Anyone desiring a copy of this decision reviewing the doctrine of collateral estoppel may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.  


I send thanks to the Foley Law Firm in Scranton, PA for bringing this decision to my attention.  

 

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