Collateral estoppel is a long-standing rule of law that people can only get “one bite of the apple.” In other words, people are not entitled to re-litigate the same facts or claims until they reach a verdict of their liking. There are certain requirements that must be met to preclude litigation due to collateral estoppel, however, and simply because facts were previously decided in another forum does not automatically prevent a court from allowing the same facts to be litigated. In workers’ compensation cases it is important to know whether you or your employer’s insurer are held to facts determined in a prior proceeding. In Yahoub’s case, the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held that an employer was not barred from litigating facts in a Massachusetts workers’ compensation claim that were previously found by the Department of Industrial Accidents.
In Yahoub, claimant was working as a custodian for the town of Milton when he sustained injuries in an altercation with his supervisor. After an investigation, claimant was determined to be the aggressor of the incident and was terminated. He then filed a claim for unemployment benefits with the Division of Unemployment Assistance who awarded him benefits after finding the town had not proven claimant engaged in deliberate misconduct that constituted a willful disregard of the town’s interest. The town appealed to the District Court, but the District Court affirmed the decision of the Division of Unemployment Assistance.
Claimant then filed a claim with the Department of Industrial Accidents seeking workers’ compensation benefits for severe emotional distress, which he alleged was caused by the altercation. A hearing was conducted in which testimony was presented from claimant, his supervisor, and a witness. During the hearing, the town’s workers’ compensation insurer argued claimant was not entitled to recover benefits due to the fact that his actions amounted to willful and serious misconduct and his termination was a bona fide personnel action. Following the first day of the hearing, claimant moved to prohibit the insurer from re-litigating the facts found by the Division of Unemployment Assistance, under a theory of collateral estoppel. The administrative judge denied claimant’s motion due to lack of privity between the parties in each proceeding. At the conclusion of the hearing, the administrative judge agreed with the insurer and found claimant had initiated the altercation, and denied claimant’s claim. Claimant subsequently appealed to the reviewing board. The reviewing board affirmed the administrative judge’s ruling. Claimant subsequently filed an appeal with the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.