Massachusetts Court of Appeals Holds a Workers’ Compensation Insurer Is Not Barred from Re-Litigating Facts Determined in a Prior Proceeding

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.

In his appeal, claimant argued that because the town was a party to both actions, the elements of collateral estoppel were met. The court disagreed. Specifically, the court noted that to preclude re-litigation of the facts due to collateral estoppel claimant must show the insurer was a party or in privity with a party to the prior proceeding. Claimant admitted the insurer was not a party to the prior proceeding and the court found that claimant had not shown that the insurer was in privity with the town as required to preclude litigation of the facts due to collateral estoppel. The court explained that for claimant to show privity he must prove the insurer exercised substantial control over the town in the prior proceeding and failed to do so. As such, the court affirmed the insurer was not barred by collateral estoppel from re-litigating the facts. The court went on to note that regardless of privity, it would be unfair to bind the insurer to the holding of the Division of Unemployment Assistance, as doing so would ultimately force employers to extensively litigate workers’ compensation actions, which would defeat the objective of prompt resolution of claims.

If you suffered a workplace injury, you may be entitled to recover workers’ compensation benefits. If your injury coincided with the termination of your job, recovering benefits may be complicated, and you should seek the counsel of a knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney. At the Law Office of James K. Meehan, our attorneys are seasoned in aiding employees injured at work in recovering the workers’ compensation benefits they are owed under the law.  For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508-822-6600.

 More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Looks at Exclusivity Provision in Workers’ Compensation Act April 18, 2018, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog

Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Reviewing Board Allows Injured Officer to Continue Pursuit of Benefits for Psychiatric Injury July 4, 2017, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog

Massachusetts Appeals Court Reviews Work-Related Psychiatric Injury Claim May 16, 2017, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog