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Johnson v. Mississippi Power Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

March 21, 2014



TOM S. LEE, District Judge.

This cause is before the court on the motion of defendant Mississippi Power Company (MPC) to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff Gralyn D. Johnson has responded to the motion and the court, having considered the memoranda of authorities, together with attachments, submitted by the parties, concludes that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth herein.

Plaintiff Johnson was terminated from his employment with defendant MPC on December 21, 2011, ostensibly as a result of having committed safety rule violations. After filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and receiving a notice of right to sue, Johnson, who is African-American, brought the present action against MPC, asserting claims of race discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In his complaint, Johnson alleges that during his employment with MPC, white employees were treated more favorably than he and that while he was ultimately terminated for safety rule violations, a number of white coworkers who committed more egregious safety rule violations were not terminated. He further alleges that he was retaliated against after opposing MPC's discriminatory practices.

MPC has moved to dismiss on the basis of collateral estoppel and/or res judicata. It notes that following his termination, Johnson filed a claim for unemployment compensation benefits with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES), which denied his claim, finding that he was discharged for misconduct based on his having committed safety rules violations. Johnson appealed the denial decision to the MDES Administrative Law Judge, who held following a telephone hearing that Johnson was disqualified from receiving benefits as he was terminated for misconduct. The ALJ ruled:

The safety rules and procedures as implemented by the employer are reasonable and serve the purpose of protecting its workers. A worker who continually violates those rules and procedures through inattention to detail or carelessness does so wantonly. And, when a discharge results from a series or pattern of similar acts of worker disservice which have resulted in warnings, the worker becomes culpable and should be held to a higher standard of accountability to show that his actions are justified. The claimant did not meet that standard. As the claimant continued on the same course of repeated acts of disservice, despite the warnings, misconduct is more easily found. The reason for the claimant's discharge was due to acts of wanton misconduct in connection with the work. Consequently, he is disqualified.

The MDES Board of Review affirmed the ALJ's decision. Johnson filed an appeal in the Circuit Court of Harrison County, but his appeal was dismissed because of his failure to file a brief.

MPC contends that since the reason for Johnson's termination was litigated before the MDES, was determined by the MDES, and was central to those proceedings, then collateral estoppel precludes him from relitigating that issue in this court. It further argues that the "four identities" establishing res judicata are also met.

Contrary to MPC's urging, the MDES ruling has no preclusive effect on Johnson's Title VII claims. It is generally true that "[t]he federal courts must give an agency's fact finding the same preclusive effect that they would a decision of a state court, when the state agency is acting in a judicial capacity and gives the parties a fair opportunity to litigate." Stafford v. True Temper Sports , 123 F.3d 291, 294 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Univ. of Tenn. v. Elliott , 478 U.S. 788, 799, 106 S.Ct. 3220, 92 L.Ed.2d 635 (1986)). See also Cox v. DeSoto County, Miss. , 564 F.3d 745, 748 (5th Cir. 2009) ("The law is clear that when a state agency acting in a judicial capacity... resolves disputed issues of fact properly before it which the parties have had an adequate opportunity to litigate, federal courts must give the agency's fact-finding the same preclusive effect to which it would be entitled in the State's courts.'") (quoting Elliot , 478 U.S. at 799). "In Mississippi, administrative decisions are given preclusive effect. Specifically, the decisions of the [Mississippi Employment Security Commission] MESC[1] are given preclusive weight in Mississippi courts, if supported by the evidence and in the absence of fraud." Cox , 564 F.3d at 748. See also Stafford , 123 F.3d 295 ("As far as Mississippi is concerned, the decisions of [the MDES] have preclusive weight in Mississippi courts, are appealable through the Mississippi court system, and even have the potential for review by the United States Supreme Court.") (citing Miss. Code. Ann. § 71-5-531).

However, "state administrative decisions do not have preclusive effect as to claims for which Congress provided a detailed administrative remedy, such as Title VII and ADEA claims." Wright v. Custom Ecology, Inc., No. 3:11CV760 DPJ-FKB, 2013 WL 1703738, at *5 (S.D.Miss. Apr. 19, 2013). See also Cox , 564 F.3d at 748-49 (in cases brought under ADEA, collateral estoppel does not apply since Congress has provided for a detailed administrative remedy) (citing Astoria Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Solimino , 501 U.S. 104, 110-14, 111 S.Ct. 2166, 115 L.Ed.2d 96 (1991)). Thus, in a Title VII action, a prior state decision enjoys preclusive effect only if rendered or reviewed by a court; "[a]n administrative decision involving Title VII claims that is not reviewed by a state or federal court may not preclude a subsequent Title VII claim." Thomas v. Louisiana, Dept. of Social Services , 406 Fed.App'x 890, 894-95 (5th Cir. 2010)(citing Elliott , 478 U.S. at 796). See also Roth v. Koppers Indus., Inc. , 993 F.2d 1058, 1062 (3d Cir. 1993) ("Following Elliott, the courts of appeals have unanimously concluded that unreviewed administrative agency findings can never be accorded issue preclusive effect in subsequent Title VII proceedings."); McInnes v. California , 943 F.2d 1088, 1093-94 (9th Cir. 1991)("The clear teaching of Elliott is that in a Title VII action a prior state decision enjoys preclusive effect only if rendered or reviewed by a court.... In contrast, unreviewed administrative determinations lack preclusive effect in a subsequent Title VII action, regardless of any preclusive effect state law might accord to them."). Accordingly, the district courts in this state have consistently refused to accord preclusive effect to MDES/MESC decisions in Title VII actions. See, e.g., Wright, 2013 WL 1703738, at *5 (holding that MDES decision in plaintiff's favor had no preclusive effect in Title VII action); Moore v. Shearer-Richardson Memorial Nursing Home, 1:10CV170B-S, 2012 WL 1066340, at *3 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 28, 2012) (concluding that MDES findings in plaintiff's favor had no preclusive effect on the plaintiff's Title VII race discrimination claim); Finnie v. Lee County, Miss. , 907 F.Supp.2d 750, 761 n.13 (N.D. Miss. 2012) (declining to apply collateral estoppel to plaintiff's Title VII claim); Cayson v. Mart Systems, Inc., 2005 WL 1330895, 1-2 (N.D. Miss. 2005) (holding that "[a]dministrative hearings do not have a preclusive effect on claims such as Cayson's Title VII claim"); Smith v. Koch Foods of Mississippi, LLC, Civil Action No. 3:09CV688DPJ-FKB, 2011 WL 2415336, 2 n.1 (S.D.Miss. June 13, 2011) (rejecting Smith's estoppel argument related to the unemployment compensation ruling); see also Thomas , 406 Fed.App'x at 895 (declining to give ruling of state unemployment compensation agency that the plaintiff's termination was justified preclusive effect where it was not clear from the record whether she had appealed that ruling to state court).

In this case, MPC contends that the findings of the MDES were judicially reviewed and that collateral estoppel therefore applies. On this point, it reasons that although Johnson's appeal to the circuit court was dismissed due to his failure to file a brief on appeal, Johnson nevertheless "effectively obtained judicial review by filing" the appeal. The court rejects this contention. By failing to file a brief, plaintiff voluntarily abandoned his appeal prior to any judicial review which is, in effect, no different from failing to initiate an appeal.[2] See Cox , 564 F.3d at 748 (finding that MESC ruling that Cox was not eligible for benefits because she was discharged for work-related misconduct had no preclusive effect in subsequent ADEA action notwithstanding that the plaintiff "voluntarily dismissed her judicial appeal of the MESC ruling"). Based on the foregoing, the court thus concludes that MPC's motion is without merit as it pertains to Johnson's Title VII claim.

While unreviewed state administrative fact-finding is never entitled to preclusive effect in actions under Title VII, that is not so as to claims brought under § 1981. See Elliott, 474 U.S. at 796-97 (applying collateral estoppel to state administrative fact-findings for purposes of sections 1981 and 1983 but not for purposes of Title VII, and explaining that "Congress in enacting the Reconstruction civil rights statutes, did not intend to create an exception to general rules of preclusion"). See also Jett v. Dallas Independent School Dist. , 798 F.2d 748, 763 n.14 (5th Cir. 1986) (noting that in some respects relief is available under Title VII where it is not under sections 1981 and 1983, and citing Elliott for recognition of difference in application of collateral estoppel to the latter but not the former). Thus, since Mississippi courts give preclusive effect to the decisions of the MDES, if supported by the evidence and in the absence of fraud, then so should this court. See Cox , 564 F.3d at 748. It does not follow, however, that defendant is entitled to dismissal.[3]

On the contrary, as to Johnson's race discrimination claim, even giving the MDES decision preclusive effect, the court concludes that MPC's motion to dismiss is not well taken. In its motion, MPC does not differentiate between the preclusion doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. It recites the elements of both, and then vaguely argues that the MDES decision should be accorded preclusive effect. However, neither doctrine precludes Johnson's race discrimination claim.

"Under Mississippi law, the doctrine of res judicata bars parties from litigating claims within the scope of the judgment' in a prior action." Black v. North Panola School Dist. , 461 F.3d 584, 588-89 (5th Cir. 2006) (quoting Anderson v. LaVere , 895 So.2d 828, 832 (Miss. 2004)). "This includes claims that were made or should have been made in the prior suit.'" Id . (quoting Anderson). For the bar of res judicata to apply, four identities must be present: "(1) identity of subject matter; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the parties; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person against whom a claim is made." Id . (citations omitted). "If these four identities are present, the doctrine of res judicata will prevent the parties from relitigating all issues that were decided or could have been raised in the previous action." Id . (citing Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Ins., Inc. , 891 So.2d 224, 232 (Miss. 2005)). Identity of subject matter is lacking here. While "[a] party cannot escape the requirements of... res judicata by asserting its own failure to raise matters clearly within the scope of a prior proceeding, '" Underwriters Nat'l Assur. Co. v. North Carolina Llife & Accident & Health Guaranty Assn. , 455 U.S. 691, 710, 102 S.Ct. 1357, 71 L.Ed.2d 558 (1982), the issue of whether MPC was motivated by a racial animus when it terminated Johnson was not before the MDES, nor was it within the scope of the MDES proceeding.

Under Mississippi law, four elements are required for collateral estoppel to apply. "The party must be seeking to relitigate a certain issue, that issue must already have been litigated in a prior action, the issue must have been determined in the prior suit, and the determination of the issue must have been essential to the prior action." Stafford v. True Temper Sports , 123 F.3d 291, 295 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Raju v. Rhodes , 7 F.3d 1210, 1215 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1032 , 114 S.Ct. 1543, 128 L.Ed.2d 194 (1994)). As Johnson did not raise the issue of whether his termination was motivated by a racial animus in the MDES proceeding, that issue was not actually litigated or decided. MPC submits, though, that the MDES's factual finding that Johnson was not eligible for ...

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