Connecticut Supreme Court Rules that Collateral Estoppel Does Not Bar a Statutory Claim Brought Before the Workers’ Compensation Commission Despite Prior Arbitration of the Similar Claim
The Connecticut Supreme Court is permitting a city worker in New Haven, Connecticut, to pursue a claim for retaliation before the Workers’ Compensation Commission. The city had previously fired the worker on the grounds that the worker had committed workers’ compensation fraud.
Following the worker’s termination, the plaintiff’s union, the United Public Service Employees Union, Local 424, Unit 34 filed a grievance pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union, claiming that the plaintiff had been fired without just cause. The parties agreed to bypass the grievance procedure and to proceed directly to arbitration before the state board, as authorized by the collective bargaining agreement. After conducting evidentiary hearings, the state board issued an award in favor of the city, concluding that it had just cause to terminate the plaintiff because his receipt of workers’ compensation benefits had amounted to theft.
Subsequently, the plaintiff filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, alleging that he had been wrongfully discharged by the city in retaliation for bringing a workers’ compensation claim in violation of § 31–290a. The city moved to dismiss the claim, contending that it was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel because the issue had been finally decided in the arbitration proceeding before the state board and that decision could be appealed in court. The commissioner concluded that, under § 31–51bb, as interpreted by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., 226 Conn.475 (1993), the plaintiff was entitled to pursue his claim pursuant to § 31–290a despite his prior voluntary submission of a related claim to arbitration pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement.
On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the commissioner’s decision, reasoning that the issue was a matter of statutory interpretation. The court held that the review board correctly determined that § 31–51bb, as interpreted in Genovese, permitted the plaintiff to file his claim pursuant to § 31–290a with the commission, despite the fact that the state board previously had determined that the city did not wrongfully terminate his employment. The court further held that they need not determine whether the issue that the plaintiff raised in the arbitration proceeding before the state board was different from the issue that he raised in his claim to the commission pursuant to § 31–290a because, even if the issues were the same, § 31–51bb would permit the plaintiff to file his claim with the commission.
In light of this decision, public and private employers facing workers’ compensation claims and related legal matters in Connecticut should seek advisement from counsel with deep experience in workers’ compensation as well as employment and labor law, and the ability to provide guidance on both aspects of a matter simultaneously.
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