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Court Finds that Tenured Teacher’s Federal Claim for Improper Dismissal was Peempted

By April 11, 2014April 29th, 2015News

The Seventh Circuit recently upheld the district court’s finding that a former tenured teacher’s Age Discrimination in Employment Act claim was barred from federal court by the preclusion doctrine as she had already brought and lost the same claim in state court. The court rejected the teacher’s claim that preclusion should not be applied on equitable grounds.

Harriet Walczak was in her fourth decade of teaching in the Chicago Public School system when her school’s new principal placed her in a performance-remediation program during the 2007–2008 academic year. By the end of that school year, she was facing discharge proceedings. Walczak alleges that the new principal was disdainful of the older teachers from the outset, calling them “dinosaurs” in front of both faculty and students, and filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging a violation of the ADEA.

While her EEOC charge was pending, the hearing officer assigned to her case recommended that Walczak be reinstated as a tenured teacher. But the Chicago Board of Education rejected the hearing officer’s recommendation and terminated her employment. Walczak filed a complaint in Cook County Circuit Court seeking judicial review of the Board’s decision. The circuit court affirmed the Board’s decision, and the Illinois Appellate Court recently affirmed that judgment.

Shortly after the circuit court’s decision, Walczak received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC. She then sued the Board in federal court alleging that she was discharged because of her age in violation of the ADEA. The district court dismissed the ADEA suit on the basis of preclusion, and the Seventh Circuit upheld that decision.

The doctrine of claim preclusion provides that a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction bars any subsequent actions between the same parties or their privies on the same cause of action. Claim preclusion applies not only to matters that were actually decided in the original action but also to matters that could have been decided.

Although Walczak contended that there was no final judgment that could bar her ADEA suit, the Seventh Circuit found that the circuit court’s decision in the judicial-review proceeding constituted a final judgment on the merits, and that nothing had prevented Walczak from bringing her ADEA claim in conjunction with her state-court suit. The Seventh Circuit also disagreed with Walczak’s claim that applying claim preclusion would be inequitable because, by failing to object or move for a stay of the proceedings in state court, the Board had acquiesced to claim-splitting. The court instead found that the Board was not required to lodge a preemptive objection in the first suit in order to preserve its right to assert a claim-preclusion defense in the second suit. Therefore, until Walczak filed her ADEA claim in federal court, no claim-splitting had occurred. The Board had raised its preclusion defense as soon as Walczak brought her ADEA claim in the second suit, and hence, it was timely.