There is an unspoken truth about the Superior Courts in Connecticut: Summary judgment for employers in employment-related claims is typically a long shot. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
A case to be released by the Connecticut Appellate Court next week shows the difficulty but also shows that at least with regard to defenses of res judicata and collateral estoppel, an employer has a fighting chance.
(What is res judicata or collateral estoppel? In simple terms, it is the civil equivalent of "double jeopardy" and typically prevents a party from relitigating an issue or case already decided in a similar case with the same parties.)
The case is described by the court has being of the "most unusual of summary judgment cases" so the procedural history is bit convoluted but important to understand the outcome.
In Singhaviroj v. Board of Education of Fairfield (officially released October 5, 2010), the plaintiff was terminated in April 2004 for reasons that are not important. In March 2005, he filed an action alleging that he was denied equal protection and due process. One month later, he filed a separate lawsuit (the subject of the appeal) alleging wrongful discharge.
The cases were consolidated in February 2006 and about 18 months later, the court granted a motion to strike the entire first action in its entirety. The Plaintiff did not replead and thus in March 2008, the court rendered judgment in favor of the Defendants in the first action.
The Defendants then filed for summary judgment claiming that the remaining claims by the Plaintiff were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. With a trial date about 5 weeks away, at oral argument, the judge denied the summary judgment motion saying "I’m going to deny the motions for summary judgment, but I’m not making any findings that there are, in fact, issues of material fact. I’m denying them because there is insufficient time…for the court to make that determination."
The Defendants appealed. There were several issues that flowed from that.
1) The Appellate Court at first rejected the Defendants argument that the court erred when it didn’t find a material issue of fact, saying that it was within the lower court’s discretion generally to deny a summary judgment motion when a trial is close at hand.
Lesson learned from that portion: If you have a summary judgment motion in state court, file it well in advance of any trial date.
2) Even though the Defendants never pleaded res judicata or collateral estoppel as a special defense, the court said it would consider those issues because the Plaintiff never objected to the issue and argued the merits of the issue in the court below.
Lesson learned: If you’re defending the matter, be sure to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel as a special defense.
3) The Court said the trial court’s fatal flaw was not considering the merits of the res judicata or collateral estoppel arguments which are more than just a run-of-the-mill defense:
Because a res judicata or collateral estoppel claim is the ‘‘civil law analogue’’ to a double jeopardy challenge, a court faced with such a claim must resolve that question before trial may commence. We therefore conclude that the court improperly denied the defendants’ motions for summary judgment without determining whether a genuine issue of material fact existed with respect to their res judicata and collateral estoppel defenses.
Indeed, the court noted that the court never even allowed oral argument on that issue. Because of that, the court remanded the matter back to the trial court for consideration of the merits of the issue.
Lesson learned: If you have a res judicata or collateral estoppel defense, this opinion may be cited to suggest to the trial court that it is improper for the court not to rule on the merits of such a defense.