Alba v. RAYTHEON COMPANY

Decision Date05 April 2004
Citation809 NE 2d 516,441 Mass. 836
PartiesDOLORES L. ALBA, administratrix, v. RAYTHEON COMPANY.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Present: MARSHALL, C.J., GREANEY, IRELAND, SPINA, COWIN, SOSMAN, & CORDY, JJ.

James R. Tewhey for the plaintiff.

James F. Kavanaugh, Jr. (Stephen S. Churchill with him) for the defendant.

Shannon Liss-Riordan & M. Amy Carlin for Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

IRELAND, J.

The plaintiff, the administratrix of the estate of her deceased husband, Santo J. Alba (Alba), appeals from a judgment entered in favor of Alba's former employer, the defendant, Raytheon Company (Raytheon). A Superior Court judge allowed Raytheon's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the plaintiff's claim of handicap discrimination under G. L. c. 151B is barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the judge incorrectly decided the collateral estoppel issue, and also contends that she proffered sufficient evidence that Raytheon failed to provide reasonable accommodation to Alba to preclude summary judgment in favor of Raytheon. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion. Because we conclude that the judge did not err in concluding that the plaintiff's claims are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.2,3

Background.

We summarize the facts, reserving certain details for discussion in connection with the specific issues raised. Raytheon hired Alba as a sheet metal foreman in its Bedford plant in 1988. His job responsibilities increased over the years due to the restructuring of Raytheon's work force, which required him to work longer hours. In March, 1994, Alba was hospitalized due to severe depression. He reported to his treating psychiatrists (who diagnosed him as also suffering from bipolar disorder) that he was under pressure at work. They recommended that he reduce his hours. There is some dispute as to what Raytheon was told when Alba returned to work in April, 1994. It is undisputed, however, that Alba was assured that his job was secure and that he would not be required to work more than forty hours per week. Raytheon contends that was all that was requested.

For the next fifteen months, Alba did not work more than forty hours per week. On May 15, 1995, Alba was temporarily assigned to a different area of Raytheon. There is some dispute whether this required him to assume responsibilities comparable to his work as a sheet metal foreman or imposed some additional responsibilities. However, Alba did not object to being reassigned. Later that day, Alba was found dead in a Raytheon shop, the victim of a self-inflicted head injury. Following Alba's death, the plaintiff filed a claim with the Department of Industrial Accidents (department) for benefits under G. L. c. 152, § 31 (granting benefits to a deceased employee's spouse) and § 33 (covering employee's funeral expenses). She also filed a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (commission). The claim before the department proceeded to a full hearing before an administrative judge in 1996. Following a six-day hearing, which included testimony from fifteen witnesses, the administrative judge dismissed the plaintiff's claim, determining that she was not entitled to benefits. The decision became final when the plaintiff failed to perfect her appeal to the department's reviewing board.

The plaintiff voluntarily withdrew her charge of discrimination filed with the commission, and commenced a civil action in the Superior Court against Raytheon and one of its managers, Daniel Harry Paras, on the theory that Raytheon failed reasonably to accommodate Alba's emotional handicap. In a three count complaint, the plaintiff, individually and as administratrix of Alba's estate, claimed that Raytheon discriminated against Alba in violation of G. L. c. 151B and G. L. c. 93, § 103; Paras, as Raytheon's manager, also discriminated against Alba in violation of the same statutes; and Raytheon's discrimination resulted in the plaintiff's loss of consortium. The parties stipulated to the dismissal of the count against Paras, and Raytheon moved to dismiss the two remaining counts under Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974). A Superior Court judge allowed Raytheon's motion with respect to the plaintiff's discrimination claim under G. L. c. 93, § 103, and her loss of consortium claim.4 She denied Raytheon's motion with respect to the plaintiff's claim of handicap discrimination under G. L. c. 151B, concluding that a claim under G. L. c. 151B survived the death of the alleged victim.5

Raytheon then filed a motion for summary judgment on the single remaining G. L. c. 151B claim, arguing that it had provided the only accommodation requested by Alba (namely that he work no more than forty hours per week); the plaintiff could not prove that Alba was a qualified handicapped person entitled to any accommodations; and the plaintiff was collaterally estopped, based on the proceedings before the department, from proving that Alba suffered any harm arising from his employment. Concerning Raytheon's first argument, the judge who considered the motion for summary judgment concluded that there was "enough in the materials . . . to raise a triable issue." The judge, however, granted Raytheon's motion on the ground that the plaintiff was collaterally estopped from pursuing her discrimination claim by certain findings that the administrative judge made in the plaintiff's workers' compensation case.6 The judge stated:

"Through six days of hearings and fifteen witnesses, [the plaintiff] attempted to show that her husband's suicide and the emotional problems which led to it were caused by an event or series of events occurring in the course of Alba's employment. In deciding against her, the [administrative judge] expressly addressed what Raytheon did or failed to do in dealing with Alba's psychological difficulties, and made findings on precisely the issues which are important to [the] plaintiff's case now before this [c]ourt. In particular, the [administrative judge] found that Alba did not request any special accommodation when he returned [to] work after his hospitalization (which was the first time that his supervisor became aware of Alba's problem), nor did he ask that his work be restricted in any way. Moreover, the [administrative judge] found that, on the day of his death, Alba was not given increased job responsibilities. These are precisely the issues which [the] plaintiff now contends are in dispute so as to make summary judgment inappropriate. Where those issues have already been fully litigated, however, [the] plaintiff should not be afforded the opportunity to try them all over again."

Discussion.

1. Summary judgment standard. The grant of summary judgment will be upheld on appeal when, "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, all material facts have been established and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. . . . [The appellate court] may consider any ground supporting the judgment." (Citations omitted.) Augat, Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 410 Mass. 117, 120 (1991). See Champagne v. Commissioner of Correction, 395 Mass. 382, 386 (1985) (appellate court not bound by ground relied on by Superior Court). The appellate court will "resolve all evidentiary inferences in favor" of the nonmoving party. Simplex Techs., Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 429 Mass. 196, 197 (1999).

2. Collateral estoppel. The plaintiff argues that the judge erred in granting Raytheon's motion for summary judgment based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel. She maintains that the administrative judge's findings on the question of reasonable accommodation (see note 6, supra), were not essential to his determination that Alba's injuries did not arise out of and in the course of his employment.7 We disagree. We conclude that, in an action brought under G. L. c. 151B, a party is collaterally estopped from claiming that an employer's failure reasonably to accommodate an employee with a handicap led to the employee's suicide where, in an earlier workers' compensation case, an administrative judge made factual findings on the same question of reasonable accommodations when deciding whether the employee's suicide was due to a mental or emotional disability caused by or arising from his employment.

The judicial doctrine of collateral estoppel provides that "[w]hen an issue of fact or law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the parties, whether on the same or a different claim." Martin v. Ring, 401 Mass. 59, 61 (1987), quoting Fireside Motors, Inc. v. Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., 395 Mass. 366, 372 (1985). See Jarosz v. Palmer, 436 Mass. 526, 530-531 (2002). The purpose of the doctrine is "to conserve judicial resources, to prevent the unnecessary costs associated with multiple litigation, and to ensure the finality of judgments." Martin v. Ring, supra. The doctrine may be applied with respect to administrative agency determinations so long as the tribunal rendering judgment has the legal authority to adjudicate the dispute.8Id. "The guiding principle in determining whether to allow defensive use of collateral estoppel is whether the party against whom it is asserted `lacked full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first action or [whether] other circumstances justify affording him an opportunity to relitigate the issue.'" Id. at 62, quoting Fidler v. E.M. Parker Co., 394 Mass. 534, 541 (1985).

Before applying the doctrine, a court must answer affirmatively four questions: (1) was there a final judgment on the merits in the prior...

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