Walker v. Envirotest Systems, Inc.

Decision Date10 December 1999
Docket NumberNo. 3:99 CV 0059(GLG).,3:99 CV 0059(GLG).
PartiesMary WALKER, Plaintiff, v. ENVIROTEST SYSTEMS, INC. and State of Connecticut, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut

John H. Gorman, Waterbury, CT, for Plaintiff.

Lisa A. Zaccardelli, Levy & Droney, P.C., Farmington, CT, Clare E. Kindall, Attorney General's Office, Hartford, CT, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM DECISION

GOETTEL, District Judge.

Defendant Envirotest Systems, Inc., moves to dismiss two of the five counts of plaintiff's complaint. [Doc. # 13]. Plaintiff concedes that Count Four should be dismissed. The other count (Count One) turns on the preclusiveness of a Connecticut State Court adjudication of plaintiff's state-law discrimination claim based upon the statute of limitations.

Count One of plaintiff's complaint is brought against Envirotest for violation of Title VII. Plaintiff claims that she was sexually harassed and subjected to a severe and pervasive hostile work environment while working for Envirotest as a part-time emissions inspector. She further claims that she was denied a promotion in retaliation for her complaints about the sexual harassment.

On January 12, 1998, plaintiff filed an administrative charge of employment discrimination with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities ("CCHRO"), which was simultaneously filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The CCHRO dismissed plaintiff's charge as untimely based upon its determination that plaintiff had not been subjected to sexual harassment and that she had not been denied a promotion within 180 days of the filing of her CCHRO complaint. (Letter of Final Agency Action dated Apr. 13, 1998); see Conn.Gen.Stat. § 46a-82(e). Plaintiff sought reconsideration of this determination. The CCHRO rejected her request for reconsideration on the ground that there was substantial evidence to support its original findings. (Merit Assessment Review Reconsideration Form dated July 20, 1998). Subsequently, the EEOC dismissed plaintiff's EEOC charge on the ground that it was adopting the findings of the CCHRO, and issued a right-to-sue letter. (EEOC Dismissal and Notice of Rights dated October 14, 1998). On January 12, 1999, plaintiff filed the instant complaint in Federal Court. In the meantime, pursuant to Connecticut's Administrative Procedures Act, Conn.Gen.Stat. § 4-183, plaintiff had appealed the CCHRO's decision to the Connecticut Superior Court. On August 10, 1999, the Superior Court issued a Memorandum Decision, affirming the decision of the CCHRO and dismissing the appeal. Walker v. Connecticut Com'n on Human Rights and Opportunities, 1999 WL 643369, No. CV 98-0490150-S (Aug. 12, 1999) (Slip Op.).

Defendant now asserts that the state court decision is res judicata as to plaintiff's Title VII civil rights claim asserted in Count One. Plaintiff acknowledges that a state decision is entitled to res judicata effect in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1738,1 but points out that 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(c) extends the limitations period from 180 days to 300 days for purposes of plaintiff's federal Title VII claim. Plaintiff argues that the CCHRO and State Court had no reason, nor authority, to determine whether her EEOC charge was timely filed. Defendant responds that this is irrelevant since a dismissal on the basis of a limitations period is a judgment on the merits, citing Bray v. New York Life Insurance, 851 F.2d 60 (2d Cir.1988), and that since the plaintiff's claim is identical (except for the limitations period) under both state and federal law, it is barred.

Discussion

In Kremer v. Chemical Const. Corp., 456 U.S. 461, 476, 102 S.Ct. 1883, 72 L.Ed.2d 262 (1982), the Supreme Court held that Title VII did not create an exception to the full faith and credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, which requires a federal court to give a state court judgment the same preclusive effect as that judgment would be given in the courts of that State. Under § 1738, a federal court is required to look to the law of the State from which the judgment is taken to determine its res judicata effect. Id. at 482, 102 S.Ct. 1883. In Kremer, the plaintiff had filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which then referred it to the New York State Division of Human Rights. The State agency rejected the charge as meritless, and this decision was upheld on administrative appeal. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed. Subsequently, the plaintiff obtained a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC and brought a Title VII action in federal court. The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the federal complaint on res judicata grounds. Because the state procedures for determination of discrimination claims offered a full and fair opportunity to litigate the merits of such claims, the state court judgment was entitled to res judicata effect. Id. at 485, 102 S.Ct. 1883.

Plaintiff complains, however, that she has never had an opportunity to litigate the merits of her Title VII claim and that neither the CCHRO nor the Connecticut Superior Court considered the question of whether her claim was barred by the 300-day limitations period applicable to her Title VII claim, as opposed to the shorter 180-day limitations period under Connecticut's Fair Employment Practices Act, Conn.Gen.Stat. § 46a-82(e). Plaintiff is correct that, although she only had 180 days within which to file her state charge with the CCHRO, under Title VII, she had 300 days to file her federal charge with the EEOC so long as she had first filed a discrimination complaint with the State agency.2 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). See Ford v. Bernard Fineson Dev. Ctr., 81 F.3d 304, 307 (2d Cir.1996) (discussing the intricacies of the 300-day rule); see also Tewksbury v. Ottaway Newspapers, 192 F.3d 322, 327-28 (2d Cir.1999). However, the fact that plaintiff's state claim was subject to a different limitations period does not necessarily negate the preclusive effect of the State court judgment.

The Second Circuit in Bray addressed a similar issue. The plaintiff had filed a discrimination complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights and with the EEOC. The State agency found no probable cause to support her charge of race and sex discrimination, and plaintiff appealed to the New York Supreme Court. The State Court dismissed her appeal as untimely. (It was filed one day late). In the meantime, the EEOC had issued its own finding of no probable cause and notified the plaintiff of her right to initiate an employment discrimination complaint in federal court within 90 days of her receipt of the right-to-sue letter. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in federal district court raising claims under Title VII, as well as 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that the state court judgment barred the plaintiff from relitigating her employment discrimination complaint in federal court. The Second Circuit held that, once a plaintiff seeks state judicial review of an agency decision, a federal court must determine what preclusive effect the State would give to the judgment of its court. Id. at 63. The Court held that because New York would treat a dismissal on statute of limitations grounds as a final judgment on the merits for res judicata purposes, the plaintiff was precluded from relitigating her race and sex discrimination claims in federal court. Id. at 64. The Court acknowledged the unfairness of its decision on the plaintiff,3 but held that the crucial factor was that she had chosen to submit her case to the state courts for review.4 Id.; see also Woods v. Dunlop Tire Corp., 972 F.2d 36, 38-40 (2d Cir.1992) (holding that plaintiff's Title VII claim was barred by res judicata based upon plaintiff's bringing a prior federal action under the Labor Management Relations Act, even though plaintiff had not obtained a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC at the time the LMRA action was commenced), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1053, 113 S.Ct. 977, 122 L.Ed.2d 131 (1993); Peavey v. Polytechnic Institute of New York, 768 F.Supp. 35, 37 (W.D.N.Y.1990) (holding that a Title VII claimant was barred from bringing his action in federal court because he had previously appealed the decision of the state agency to state court, which dismissed his appeal for want of prosecution).

Thus, in accordance with § 1738, and based upon the holdings in Kremer and Bray, we must determine what preclusive effect, if any, Connecticut courts would give to the Superior Court's dismissal of plaintiff's discrimination claim on limitations grounds. See also Brye v. Brakebush, 32 F.3d 1179 (7th Cir.1994).

In Connecticut, under the doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion, a former judgment on a claim, if rendered on the merits, is an absolute bar to a subsequent action on the same claim, or any claim based on the same operative facts that might have been made.5 Joe's Pizza, Inc. v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co., 236 Conn. 863, 871-72, 675 A.2d 441 (1996). In determining whether a party's claim arises from the same operative facts as an already adjudicated claim, Connecticut courts apply the "transaction test" of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 24. Commissioner of Environmental Protection v. Connecticut Bldg. Wrecking Co., 227 Conn. 175, 189, 629 A.2d 1116 (1993); see Sekor v. Capwell, 1 F.Supp.2d 140, 145 (D.Conn.1998) (holding that plaintiff's age discrimination claim arose out of the same transaction as her state court action challenging her termination by the School Board); Meehan v. Town of East Lyme, 919 F.Supp. 80, 83-84 (D.Conn.1996) (holding that plaintiff's § 1983 claim arose out of the same transaction as his prior administrative appeal of the School Board's denial of his tenure contract). In this case, there is no question that plaintiff's federal Title VII claim arises out of the same "transaction" as her state discrimination complaint.

The next inquiry is whether plaintiff had...

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