Civil Action Challenging Termination Is Barred When Administrative Hearing Is Sufficiently Quasi-Judicial In Nature

In Basurto v. Imperial Irrigation District (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., November 8, 2012), a California court of appeal considered whether an employee terminated by a public irrigation district could seek civil damages after the district’s administrative hearing concluded the action was proper.  The court ruled that because the district’s hearing offered due process protection and was sufficiently quasi-judicial in nature, the employee’s civil action was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

Facts

Salvador Basurto was employed by the Imperial Irrigation District (“District”) as a “zanjero,” a person who distributes the District’s water to farmers using a District vehicle.  In 2003, Basurto was involved in a collision with another vehicle while driving a District vehicle, causing extensive damage to both vehicles and injuring the other driver.  The police report stated that although Basurto was not driving under the influence of alcohol, some alcohol was present in his system.  The report further stated that Basurto was at fault in the accident for failing to yield the right of way.  After holding an administrative hearing, the District’s governing board concluded that Basurto had violated District policies and negligently operated his vehicle.  As a result, the District terminated Basurto.

Basurto filed a lawsuit pursuant to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) alleging wrongful termination on the grounds of age and race discrimination, seeking back pay and reinstatement and alleging the District had not provided him a fair hearing.  The trial court eventually directed the District to conduct a second administrative hearing, which it did in 2007.  Following that hearing, the District again concluded that Basurto was negligent and upheld the decision to terminate.  Basurto again filed suit and the trial court granted summary judgment to the District.  Basurto appealed.

Decision

At issue is whether Basurto’s claims are barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, meaning whether the matters at issue have been argued fully already and decided at prior proceedings.  It is settled that this doctrine not only precludes re-litigation of prior court proceedings but to proceedings of an administrative agency when it acts in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity.

Here, the court found, the District’s internal grievance procedures were sufficiently “judicial” in character to bar Basurto’s civil damages claims.  In Basurto’s second hearing, the court noted, the District provided him many of the procedures of an actual trial.  The multi-year time lapse between Basurto’s termination and his second hearing allowed the parties to conduct substantial discovery on the relevant issues, all of which was available to Basurto.  Further, both sides were represented by counsel.  California precedent makes clear that for an administrative hearing to qualify as sufficiently “judicial” for collateral estoppel purposes, it need not be identical to a judicial trial.  So long as basic due process considerations are satisfied, the doctrine is satisfied. 

The court, quoting from an earlier decision, listed examples of procedures utilized in administrative hearings that are “indicia” of judicial conduct.  The list included such procedures as: 1) including a hearing before an impartial decision maker; 2) providing testimony under oath or affirmation; 3) allowing a party to subpoena, call, examine, and cross-examine witnesses; 4) the introduction of documentary evidence; 5) the presentation of oral and written argument; 6) the taking of a record of the proceeding; and, 7) providing a written statement of reasons for the decision.  (Id. at 6, quoting Pacific Lumber Co. v. State Water Resources Control Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 921, 944.)

Prior courts have ruled that giving estoppel effect to an appropriate, quasi-judicial administrative decision “accords a proper respect” to an agency’s internal procedures, providing the agency a means to quickly determine if it has made an error, and if so, quickly correct it and minimize damage.  Further, applying the doctrine “would promote judicial economy by minimizing repetitive litigation.”

Consequently, collateral estoppel effect is properly applied to the District’s 2007 administrative decision concluding that Basurto’s discharge was consistent with the District’s policies and supported by the weight of the evidence.  The trial court’s granting of summary judgment to the District was correct.  The judgment was affirmed.

Questions

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