February 22, 2013
Decided on February 14, 2013
The Court of Appeals has ruled that a factual finding in a workers’ compensation case is binding upon a claimant in other litigation. In this case a “trial” at the Workers’ Compensation Board resulted in a finding of no further causally related disability.
In addition to the workers’ compensation claim the injured worker filed a negligence suit. The defense in the negligence suit made a motion before the trial judge in New York County Supreme Court to limit the ability of the plaintiff to argue continuing disability beyond the effective date of the finding of no further disability. That decision was reversed by the Appellate Division First Department in a 3-2 decision, invoking the mandatory jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals.
In a 4-1 decision the Court of Appeals reversed the First Department and held that a factual finding made at the Workers’ Compensation Board is binding against the plaintiff in other litigation. Collateral estoppel will be applied against a party in a subsequent proceeding if the party against whom it is sought to apply the finding had a full and fair opportunity to contest the issue, the issue is identical and the issue was actually decided in the earlier litigation.
The Court of Appeals found that the issue of how long the claimant was disabled was a determination of fact that was at issue in both cases and that it was a question of pure fact. (Collateral estoppel does not apply to mixed issues of law and fact.) The Court also determined that the chance to litigate the issue before the Board was full and fair. Based upon this they found that collateral estoppel barred the claimant from claiming in the law suit that he remained disabled beyond the date the Law Judge found his disability ended.
In dissent Judge Lester Piggott agreed with the First Department and would not have limited the plaintiff’s ability to claim that he remained disabled beyond the date found by the Board. Judge Piggott found that the issue of further disability before the Workers’ Compensation Board is a mixed question of fact and law and that therefore collateral estoppel cannot apply against the claimant. He found that a decision of the Board “concerning work-related disability is imbued with the policy considerations of the WCB, and for that reason cannot be the basis of collateral estoppel.” He also was persuaded by the amicus brief submitted by the New York State Trial Lawyers Association that stated “”simple trip . . . to a Workers’ Compensation Hearing will demonstrate the wisdom of the Appellate Division majority’s decision.” He has seriously questioned whether or not the Board actually gives parties a full and fair opportunity to litigate an issue.