Miller v. County of Santa Cruz

Decision Date27 December 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-16694,92-16694
Citation39 F.3d 1030
PartiesDouglas MILLER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COUNTY OF SANTA CRUZ, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Richard K. Abdalah, Jackson, Abdalah & Rodriguez, Cupertino, CA, for plaintiff-appellant.

Mark G. Bonino and Megan A. Smith, Ropers, Majeski, Kohn, Bently, Wagner & Kane, Redwood City, CA, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Before: D.W. NELSON and BEEZER, Circuit Judges and LETTS, * District Judge.

BEEZER, Circuit Judge:

Douglas Miller appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to the County of Santa Cruz and the individually named defendants. The district court concluded that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel barred Miller's federal suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 because he failed to seek review of the adverse decision of the Santa Cruz County Civil Service Commission. 796 F.Supp. 1316. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1291, and we affirm.


Miller was employed by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department from December 1980 until February 1988. He was terminated after four disciplinary actions, the last of which related to an alleged failure to report an overpayment of wages. Miller contested his dismissal before the Santa Cruz County Civil Service Commission. The Commission held a public evidentiary hearing at which Miller was represented by counsel and was permitted to present oral and documentary evidence and to call witnesses. The Commission sustained his dismissal, issuing written findings and conclusions.

Miller was notified of his right to seek judicial review in the Superior Court of California. Cal.Code Civ.P. Secs. 1094.5 and 1094.6. He elected not to do so. Instead he filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 in the United States District Court. Magistrate Judge Infante, sitting by consent of the parties, granted the County's motion for summary judgment on res judicata and collateral estoppel grounds. 1


The question presented is whether unreviewed findings of a state administrative tribunal are entitled to preclusive effect in a subsequent Sec. 1983 action in federal court. We review de novo a grant of summary judgment. Maffei v. Northern Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 892, 895 (9th Cir.1993). We review de novo the district court's determination that res judicata and collateral estoppel are available. Guild Wineries and Distilleries v. Whitehall Co., 853 F.2d 755, 758 (9th Cir.1988); Plaine v. McCabe, 797 F.2d 713, 718 (9th Cir.1986). If we determine that collateral estoppel is available, we review for abuse of discretion the district court's decision to accord preclusion to the agency's decision. Plaine, 797 F.2d at 718.


Title 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1738 requires that we give the same preclusive effect to state court judgments as they would be given in the state in which they were rendered. Marrese v. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 470 U.S. 373, 380, 105 S.Ct. 1327, 1331-32, 84 L.Ed.2d 274 (1985).

Section 1738 does not govern cases involving unreviewed decisions of a state administrative hearing board or commission. University of Tennessee v. Elliot, 478 U.S. 788, 794, 106 S.Ct. 3220, 3223-24, 92 L.Ed.2d 635 (1986). Nonetheless, as a matter of federal common law, federal courts give preclusive effect to the findings of state administrative tribunals in subsequent actions under Sec. 1983. Id. at 797-99, 106 S.Ct. at 3225-27.

Elliot requires us to give preclusive effect, at a minimum, to the factfinding of state administrative tribunals. We have gone further, however, and held that "the federal common law rules of preclusion described in Elliot extend to state administrative adjudications of legal as well as factual issues, even if unreviewed, so long as the state proceeding satisfies the requirements of fairness outlined in [United States v. Utah Construction & Mining Co., 384 U.S. 394, 422, 86 S.Ct. 1545, 1560, 16 L.Ed.2d 642 (1966) ]." Guild Wineries, 853 F.2d at 758. The fairness requirements of Utah Construction are: (1) that the administrative agency act in a judicial capacity, (2) that the agency resolve disputed issues of fact properly before it, and (3) that the parties have an adequate opportunity to litigate. 384 U.S. at 422, 86 S.Ct. at 1560.

Our reasons for according preclusive effect to unreviewed agency determinations are outlined in detail in Plaine, 797 F.2d at 718-721. Plaine involved a decision by the California Corporations Commissioner that a merger price was fair. The plaintiff could have, but did not, seek review of the decision in state court. Rather, she brought an action in federal court asserting that defendants violated section 14(e) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. We concluded that the commissioner's unreviewed fairness determination was entitled to preclusive effect. Id. at 721. We explained that:

The Supreme Court has held that administrative proceedings may be given preclusive effect accorded to a court "[w]hen an administrative agency is acting in a judicial capacity and resolves disputed issues of fact properly before it which the parties have had an adequate opportunity to litigate."

Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting Utah Construction, 384 U.S. at 422, 86 S.Ct. at 1560). We reasoned, therefore, that when an administrative proceeding meets the Utah Construction requirements, "it may rise to the level of a 'judicial proceeding' entitled to preclusive effect by section 1738." Id. at 719.

The threshold inquiry, we held, is whether a state administrative proceeding was conducted with sufficient safeguards "to be equated with a state court judgment." Id. This requires careful review of the administrative record "to ensure that, at a minimum, it meets the state's own criteria necessary to require a court of that state to give preclusive effect to the state agency's decisions." Id. We also noted that although a federal court should ordinarily give preclusive effect when the state court would do so, "there may be occasions where a state court would give preclusive effect to an administrative decision that failed to meet the minimum criteria set down in Utah Construction." 2 Id. at 719, n. 13. However, we determined that there were no special circumstances requiring us to look beyond the state's preclusion law, because California had already adopted the Utah Construction standard. Id. at 719-20 & n. 13.

If Plaine left any doubt as to the preclusive effect we will give to unreviewed state agency determinations in cases such as Miller's, it was eliminated in Eilrich v. Remas, 839 F.2d 630 (9th Cir.1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 819, 109 S.Ct. 60, 102 L.Ed.2d 38 (1988). Eilrich was a municipal police officer discharged after making certain public statements. There, we reiterated our holding in Plaine that the only question, in light of California's incorporation of the Utah Construction standard, was whether the administrative hearing met the requirements of California law such that a California court would have accorded the determination preclusive effect. Id. at 633. We also reiterated that because an adequate opportunity for de novo judicial review was available under California law, Eilrich could not " 'obstruct the preclusive use of the state administrative decision simply by foregoing [the] right to appeal.' " Id. at 632 (quoting Plaine, 797 F.2d at 719 n. 12); see also Guild Wineries, 853 F.2d at 761-62 ("alleged faulty reasoning must be pursued on direct appeal and does not justify denying claim preclusive effect"). 3


There is no genuine dispute that California would give preclusive effect to the judgment of the Civil Service Commission had Miller brought his Sec. 1983 action in state court. In Swartzendruber v. City of San Diego, 3 Cal.App.4th 896, 5 Cal.Rptr.2d 64, 71 (1992), the court gave preclusive effect to the unreviewed findings of the City Civil Service Commission. The facts are remarkably similar to the facts here. Swartzendruber was terminated for not obeying a direct order to appear for work in a uniform. The Commission upheld her termination, and she did not seek review under Secs. 1094.5 and 1094.6. She then sued in state superior court, alleging, in part, that her civil rights had been violated.

The Swartzendruber court held that, unless state court review of the administrative findings is sought, "an administrative hearing adjudication binds the parties on the issues litigated." Id. The court's ultimate conclusion rests on both collateral estoppel and res judicata grounds.

To determine whether the "issue" of Swartzendruber's civil rights had been determined, the court examined the scope of the cause of action "to determine if it encompasses the same primary right that was at stake in the Commission proceeding." Id. at 71. The court concluded that Swartzendruber's allegations that her federal civil rights had been violated merely restated her cause of action for wrongful termination in constitutional terms. The same primary right, the right to continued employment, was at stake in both actions. Because the issue of her right to employment had already been adjudicated, Swartzendruber was collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of her termination in the guise of a Sec. 1983 action alleging violations of her civil rights.

The court also applied principles of res judicata to Swartzendruber's "claim" that her civil rights had been violated. It held that Swartzendruber's failure to "interpose before the Commission any defense to the charge of insubordination, including defenses that the City's actions violated her civil rights," was fatal to her Sec. 1983 claim. The court quoted the following language of Takahashi v. Board of Education, 202 Cal.App.3d 1464, 249 Cal.Rptr. 578, 591 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U.S. 1011, 109 S.Ct....

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