2d Circuit Discusses Circuit Split Re Ability of Title VII Plaintiff to File Suit in Federal Court Seeking Relief Unavailable in State Proceeding

Per Nestor v. Pratt & Whitney, --- F.3d ----, 2006 WL 2827236 (2nd Cir. Oct. 4, 2006):

Plaintiff-Appellant Gale Nestor ("Nestor") filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities ("CCHRO") against her former employer, United Technologies Corporation, Pratt & Whitney Division ("Pratt"), alleging that her employment had been terminated by reason of her sex. She prevailed in the CCHRO, prevailed as well on the appeals taken by Pratt in the Connecticut state courts, and she collected damages of back pay and interest. She later filed this action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Covello, J.), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 ("Title VII"), seeking damages that were unavailable in the CCHRO proceedings: attorney's fees, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and punitive damages (collectively referred to as "additional relief"). Pratt successfully moved for summary judgment on the ground that Nestor's action is barred by Connecticut's doctrine of res judicata (or "claim preclusion"). We vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The issue presented on appeal is whether a Title VII plaintiff who prevailed on her discrimination claims before a state administrative agency and in appeals of the agency decision to state court can subsequently file suit in federal court seeking relief that was unavailable in the state proceedings. This issue has split our sister circuit courts. Compare Jones v. Am. State Bank, 857 F.2d 494 (8th Cir.1988) (holding that Title VII plaintiff may bring suit to recover attorney's fees after successfully litigating before a state administrative body), Patzer v. Bd. of Regents, 763 F.2d 851, 858 (7th Cir.1985) (holding that state court judgment affirming an administrative decision did not bar a subsequent federal action for additional relief because of "national policy that Title VII remedies be available to supplement state remedies for employment discrimination"), Lewis v. Ames Dept. Stores, Inc., No. 3:97CV1214 (CFD), 1999 WL 33116610 (D.Conn. Mar.31, 1999) (same); with Chris v. Tenet, 221 F.3d 648 (4th Cir.2000) (holding that federal court lacked jurisdiction to hear plaintiff's suit solely seeking attorney's fees incurred in a prior administrative action).

Pratt urges . . . that after the state administrative decision withstood appeal and became final, additional relief was no longer available. Pratt offers two reasons: [i] subject matter jurisdiction does not exist over a "damages only" action; and [ii] the doctrine of res judicata bars relitigation, including relitigation of different claims to relief. We disagree with both arguments, and reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment. Her federal action . . . entails litigation of substantive issues: for example, whether Nestor suffered any emotional distress caused by Pratt's discrimination and whether Pratt's conduct was malicious. Thus, it is not simply that Nestor seeks to recover for expenses incurred elsewhere; Nestor's federal action seeks to adjudicate substantive issues regarding Pratt's discriminatory conduct and its consequences. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.


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