In a decision released on Tuesday, the Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of a state law gender discrimination claim on the grounds that it was barred by the doctrine of res judicata.
The procedural background of Fernandez v. Mac Motors, Inc. illustrates an important mechanism for employers to use to avoid fighting a two-front battle in both state and federal courts, while providing a warning sign to attorneys who represent individuals.
The Plaintiff, a former finance manager at the defendant’s car dealership, first brought a federal court action under the Equal Pay Act alleging that she had been paid less than male employees who performed the same job. While that action was pending, she filed a gender discrimination claim with the CHRO; upon receiving a release of jurisdiction, she then brought a separate state law action alleging gender discrimination.
The allegations of both complaints were nearly identical, according to the court. Rather than seek a stay of the federal court action or seek to amend her federal complaint to add the state law claim, she just decided to proceed on both tracks. That strategy proved to be a mistake, according to the court.
The federal court first dismissed the Equal Pay Act claim at the summary judgment stage. Almost immediately thereafter, the employer then filed a motion in state court to dismiss that complaint on the grounds of res judicata. The lower court granted that motion and it was affirmed by the Appellate Court.
As the Appellate Court quotes: “Res judicata, or claim preclusion, express[es] no more than the fundamental principle that once a matter has been fully and fairly litigated, and finally decided, it comes to rest. . . . Res judicata bars the relitigation of claims actually made in [a] prior action as well as any claims that might have been made there. . . . Public policy supports the principle that a party should not be allowed to relitigate a matter which it already has had an opportunity to litigate.’’
Here, the plaintiff had “several opportunities that were available to her that she could have employed in order to bring her gender discrimination claim before the District Court.” As if the punctuate that finding, the court even refers to a law school review article on the subject “Avoiding the Trap of Res Judicata: A Practitioner’s Guide to Litigating Multiple Employment Discrimination Claims in the Third Circuit.”
In other words, res judicata bars the plaintiff’s discrimination claim in state court from proceeding.
(A separate sexual harassment claim was not barred by res judicata but was also dismissed on summary judgment grounds, and affirmed by the Appellate Court.)