Election of Remedies Results in Dismissal of Federal Complaint

In Lewis v Health and Hospitals Corp, 11-cv-0099, 2013 WL 2351798 (SDNY May 30, 2013), the court held that pursuing, and losing, discrimination claims at the state administrative level barred a subsequent federal action.

There, plaintiff initially filed a verified complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) charging defendants with disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.

After conducting an investigation, the SDHR found “no probable cause” to believe that the defendants had engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices.  Plaintiff challenged this decision in New York State Court under CPLR Article 78, and lost there as well. She then filed suit in federal court.

Judge Koeltl dismissed her claims on the grounds of issue preclusion:

Here, the issues in the present action—namely, disability discrimination and retaliation—are issues that were already litigated in the prior state proceedings. The SDHR issued a Determination and Order finding that there was “no probable cause” to believe that the defendants had engaged in discrimination or retaliation in violation of the ADA and the NYSHRL. … When the plaintiff later commenced an Article 78 proceeding, the New York State Supreme Court for New York County dismissed the plaintiff’s Article 78 petition and affirmed the SDHR’s Determination. … The claims and issues asserted in the present action are identical to those asserted in the SDHR and Article 78 proceedings, although they were asserted under state law in the state proceedings. The facts alleged in the present action are also the same as those alleged in the prior proceedings. To explain the facts supporting her present claim, the plaintiff simply attached the SDHR Determination explaining why her claims were rejected. The plaintiff similarly attached the SDHR Determination to her Article 78 petition requesting reversal of that Determination. Accordingly, it is quite clear that the issues in the present action were actually and necessarily decided in the prior state proceedings.

Furthermore, the plaintiff in this case had a full and fair opportunity to litigate these issues in the prior proceedings. In fact, the plaintiff had multiple opportunities to litigate these issues, in both the SDHR proceeding and the Article 78 proceeding. It is quite clear that the prior proceedings afforded the plaintiff a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues raised in the present action. Therefore, collateral estoppel now precludes the plaintiff from bringing the present action against the defendants in federal court.

This case illustrates the procedural downside of pursuing a claim at the state administrative level.

While doing so does have benefits – such as having access to the information uncovered by the SDHR during its investigation – it may also limit one’s options in the long term (as this case illustrates).

It is therefore necessary to choose one’s litigation path carefully.

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