Contreras v. Miller Bonded, Inc.

Decision Date30 September 2013
Docket Number32,050.,Nos. 31,605,s. 31,605
Citation316 P.3d 202
PartiesJohn CONTRERAS, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. MILLER BONDED, INC., Defendant–Appellee. Cynthia Perea, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. The City of Albuquerque, Defendant–Appellee, The New Mexico Transportation Union, Defendant.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

The Gilpin Law Firm, Donald Gilpin, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellants.

Maestas & Suggett, P.C., Paul Maestas, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellee Miller Bonded, Inc.

French & Associates, P.C., Paula I. Forney, Stephen G. French, Robert W. Becker, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellee City of Albuquerque.

OPINION

VIGIL, Judge.

{1} In each of the cases before us in this appeal, Plaintiffs brought a suit under the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA), NMSA 1978, Sections 28–1–1 to –14 (1969, as amended through 2007), which provides for a “trial de novo in the district court.” Prior to each lawsuit, administrative proceedings unrelated to the NMHRA actions resulted in adjudications of fact against each NMHRA plaintiff that were fatal to both NMHRA suits. The NMHRA defendants successfully argued to the district court that collateral estoppel applied, and summary judgment was granted in their favor. Each NMHRA plaintiff appeals, and we have consolidated the appeals. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that by specifically providing for a “trial de novo in the district court in NMHRA actions, the Legislature created a statutory exception to the application of collateral estoppel in such cases. We therefore reverse.

I. BACKGROUNDA. Perea v. City of Albuquerque

{2} Cynthia Perea was a bus driver for the City of Albuquerque who was terminated for cause. Following administrative proceedings, which included a full evidentiary hearing before the City Personnel Board, Perea appealed her termination to the district court, as provided by the Albuquerque city ordinance. In the district court, Perea asserted that her termination resulted from sexual discrimination. In support of this assertion, Perea contended that a male employee had also engaged in misconduct but only received a demotion. She also asserted that she was terminated because of a serious medical condition resulting from injuries she sustained prior to the incident giving rise to her termination.

{3} After engaging in traditional whole record review of the administrative record, the district court concluded that there was substantial evidence in the record to support Perea's termination for cause. The district court also rejected Perea's discrimination arguments on the basis that the male employee's behavior she cited was completely distinguishable from her own conduct. The district court further found that [b]ecause the [City Personnel Board] expressly found [Perea's] testimony to be not credible, and because [Perea] merely provided her version of hearsay evidence (without further proof), the [City Personnel Board] is justified in concluding that [Perea] was not discriminated against.”

{4} Following the district court action affirming her termination, Perea filed a charge of discrimination with the Human Rights Division of the New Mexico Department of Labor pursuant to the NMHRA contending that her termination resulted from sexual discrimination, serious medical condition, and retaliation. After investigating the complaint, the Director of the Human Rights Division made a determination that there was sufficient probable cause to believe that discrimination occurred in Perea's termination on the basis of sex, but no probable cause that there was discrimination on the basis of serious medical condition or retaliation. Perea was advised of her right to a hearing before the Human Rights Division or to waive the hearing and proceed directly to district court. SeeNMSA 1978, § 28–1–10(J) (providing that a complainant “may seek a trial de novo in the district court in lieu of a hearing before the commission” after filing a waiver of the right to a hearing before the commission). Perea chose to waive the hearing. She requested and received a “right to sue” letter from the Human Rights Division, and she filed a complaint in the district court alleging that her termination resulted from discrimination on the basis of sex and serious medical condition in violation of the NMHRA.

{5} The City filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that [t]he only issue presented in this case is discrimination [on] the basis of gender and serious medical condition” and that “Perea is collaterally estopped from challenging the findings of [the district court] that neither pretext nor disparate treatment played a role in her termination.” In response, Perea argued that her discrimination claims were not precluded by collateral estoppel because she is entitled to a trial de novo pursuant to Section 28–1–13(A) of the NMHRA and relevant federal case law. The district court agreed with the City and granted summary judgment in its favor. Perea appeals.

B. Contreras v. Miller Bonded, Inc.

{6} John Contreras was employed by Miller Bonded, Inc. (MBI), as a sheetmetal apprentice when he suffered a work injury to his back. When Contreras did not show up for work the next day, he was terminated for cause.

{7} After receiving treatment for his injuries, Contreras filed a pro se complaint for workers' compensation benefits. At issue before the workers' compensation judge (WCJ) was whether Contreras gave notice of the accident and injury to MBI before or after he was terminated. The WCJ awarded compensation benefits to Contreras. However, the WCJ also expressly found that Contreras was terminated from his employment for cause and that he gave notice to MBI of the accidental injury after he was terminated. Contreras appealed the compensation order to this Court, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. We summarily affirmed when he failed to provide us with the information necessary to evaluate his appeal.

{8} Like Perea, Contreras then filed a charge of discrimination with the Human Rights Division of the New Mexico Department of Labor pursuant to the NMHRA, alleging that his termination resulted from discrimination on the basis of a serious medical condition. After investigating the complaint, the Director of the Human Rights Division found that Contreras had not disclosedhis injury to MBI until after he was terminated and that his injury did not rise to the level of a serious medical condition. The Director therefore determined that there was no probable cause to believe that Contreras's termination resulted from discrimination on the basis of a serious medical condition, and his charge was dismissed with prejudice.

{9} The NMHRA affords [a] person aggrieved by an order of the commission” a right to “obtain a trial de novo in the district court.” Section 28–1–13(A). Contreras filed a complaint in the district court pursuant to the NMHRA, contending that MBI terminated him because of discrimination on the basis of a serious medical condition. Contreras also brought a separate retaliatory discharge tort claim, alleging that [his] employment was terminated because of his serious medical condition” after he “made an employment decision for the safety, welfare and best interests of his coworkers, consumers and [MBI].”

{10} MBI filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the findings of the WCJ precluded Contreras from re-litigating his claims before the district court under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Specifically, MBI asserted that Contreras was not entitled to litigate again the findings of the WCJ that Contreras was terminated for cause and that he had not given notice of his injury to his employer until after his employment was terminated. Contreras responded by asserting that collateral estoppel did not apply and that in any event, under Section 28–1–13(A), he was entitled to a trial de novo.

{11} The district court determined that substantial evidence supported the findings of the WCJ that Contreras was terminated for cause and that he notified MBI of his accident and injury after he was terminated. The district court further noted that there was no question that both of these questions were fully litigated in the workers' compensation case and concluded that Contreras “does not have the right to litigate for a second time the factual issues necessary to determine both his workers' compensation claim and his current claims before this Court.” Summary judgment was entered in favor of MBI on all of Contreras's claims.

{12} Contreras filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that the language of Section 28–1–13(A) providing for a trial de novo and comparative federal case law establish that the Legislature did not intend for prior administrative findings to preclude a trial de novo on his NMHRA claims. The district court denied the motion, and Contreras appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

{13} On appeal, Plaintiffs raise an issue of first impression in New Mexico. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert that summary judgment was improperly granted on their respective NMHRA claims because by directing that a NMHRA plaintiff is entitled to bring an action in the district court “de novo,” the Legislature expressed its intent that prior findings made by an administrative agency are not entitled to collateral estoppel in a subsequent NMHRA action. To resolve the issue before us, we first examine the doctrine of collateral estoppel and conclude that the elements of collateral estoppel are satisfied in both NMHRA cases. We then examine the statutory language adopted by the Legislature in creating NMHRA actions and federal precedent. After doing so, we conclude that findings made in administrative proceedings are not entitled to collateral estoppel in NMHRA actions.

A. Collateral Estoppel

{14} “The doctrine of collateral estoppel fosters judicial economy by preventing the relitigation of ultimate facts or issues actually and necessarily decided in a prior suit.” Shovelin v. Cent. N.M. Elec. Coop., 1993–NMSC–015, ¶ 10...

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