State of Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, Stephen M. Morelli, Chairman
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Schreiber v. Town & Country Auto Service

CASE NO. 4239 CRB-3-00-5



JUNE 15, 2001











The claimant was represented by Bruce Newman, Esq., One High Street, P.O. Box 927, Deep River, CT 06417.

The respondents were represented by Michael McAuliffe, Esq., Pomeranz, Drayton & Stabnick, 95 Glastonbury Boulevard, Glastonbury, CT 06033.

This Petition for Review from the April 28, 2000 Finding and Dismissal of Claim by the Commissioner acting for the Third District was heard January 12, 2001 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro and Commissioners Ernie R. Walker and Jesse M. Frankl.


JOHN A. MASTROPIETRO, CHAIRMAN. The claimant has petitioned for review from the April 28, 2000 Finding and Dismissal of Claim by the Commissioner acting for the Third District. He asserts on appeal that the trier erred by ruling that the doctrine of res judicata estopped him from litigating the compensability of his left shoulder injury. We find no error, and affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

The claimant worked for the respondent Town & Country Auto Service on December 1, 1997, during the course of which employment he was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He alleges that he sustained various injuries as a result. The respondents accepted a neck injury, but contested the other claimed injuries. A formal hearing was held on July 9, 1998 before the first trial commissioner at which the claimant maintained that he had injured his neck, back, and both shoulders and hips. On September 3, 1998, the commissioner issued an award wherein he found the back and neck injuries compensable, and ordered the respondents to pay § 31-308(a) benefits. The claimant then returned to this forum seeking to address the matter of his left shoulder injury before the second trial commissioner. Said commissioner raised the topic of claim preclusion sua sponte, insofar as further litigation concerning the compensability of that injury was barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

In the factual findings, the second commissioner took administrative notice of the July 9, 1998 trial record, including all exhibits and the transcript of the formal hearing. At the outset of that hearing, the issues mentioned by the claimant’s attorney included the respondents’ failure to issue a voluntary agreement, the claimant’s request for reimbursement for paid medical bills and mileage expenses, and his contention that he was owed 15 additional weeks of temporary total disability benefits. July 9, 1998 Transcript, p. 2. When the claimant took the stand, he testified that his initial neck and back injuries gradually affected his hips and both of his shoulders. Id., pp. 11-12, 14. He represented that Dr. Moeckel, his treating physician, was currently caring for his left shoulder and left arm, at which site the claimant was still experiencing pain. Id., pp. 13, 15. The respondents’ counsel noted at that juncture that his client was denying liability for the left shoulder and left arm injuries. Id., p. 13. The claimant would later testify that he had not reported left shoulder pain to the doctor who initially treated him. Id., pp. 30-31. Presumably, those symptoms did not commence until after he began seeing Dr. Moeckel.

The first trial commissioner observed in his Finding and Award that the claimant alleged injuries to his back, neck, shoulders and hips in the motor vehicle accident, with the respondents contesting everything but the neck. September 3, 1998 Findings, ¶ 3-4. In terms of specific body parts, the commissioner only made further findings with respect to the cervical and lumbar spine injuries, which he found compensable. Id., ¶ C. Nothing more was written in the award about the claimant’s shoulders or hips. After reviewing the law concerning the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel, the second trier determined that the claimant had fairly and fully litigated his shoulder injury claim before the prior commissioner. The commissioner concluded that the left shoulder claim was now barred by res judicata, and dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The claimant has appealed that ruling to this board. He has also filed a Motion to Submit Additional Evidence in the form of a letter from his treating physician dated February 28, 2000, which we deem moot due to our decision below.

We begin our analysis of this appeal by assuming the task of distinguishing the sibling concepts of res judicata and collateral estoppel, and their doctrinal cousin, “the law of the case.” Because these related ideas all descend from a judicial concern for systemic efficiency and the sanctity of final judgments, they are often confused and commingled by parties attempting to define the applicable legal rules in situations such as this. Subtle but material differences in these concepts make it important to clarify where each of them lies in the spectrum of preclusion, and we take the opportunity to do so here.

Res judicata (claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) have been described as related ideas on a continuum, perhaps differing only by degree. Crochiere v. Board of Education, 227 Conn. 333 (1993). The metaphorical elder of these two concepts, res judicata, provides that “a former judgment on a claim, if rendered on the merits, is an absolute bar to a subsequent action on the same claim. A judgment is final not only as to every matter which was offered to sustain the claim, but also as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose.” Delahunty v. Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co., 236 Conn. 582, 589 (1996). Thus, claim preclusion prevents a party from reasserting the same claim regardless of what additional evidence or differing legal theories might be advanced on its behalf. Id.

The junior theory in the pair, collateral estoppel, is an aspect of res judicata that prohibits the relitigation of an issue that has been actually litigated and necessarily determined in a prior action between the same parties upon a different claim. Lafayette v. General Dynamics Corp., 255 Conn. 762, 772 (2001). “For an issue to be subject to collateral estoppel, it must have been fully and fairly litigated in the first action. It also must have been actually decided and the decision must have been necessary to the judgment.” Id. (emphasis in original), citing Virgo v. Lyons, 209 Conn. 497, 501 (1988). Both claim and issue preclusion entail that a disputed factual matter, or a finding embodying an application of law to facts, has been conclusively determined in a previous action on a different claim involving the same parties or parties in privity1 with them. Judicial economy and the integrity of the system favor the imputation of precedential value to that decision. Delahunty, supra; Dowling v. Finley Associates, 248 Conn. 364, 373-74 (1999).

The “law of the case” doctrine, meanwhile, is a principle that has evolved from the understanding that a judge is not bound to follow the decisions of another judge made at an earlier stage of the proceedings in that same case concerning questions of law that have been raised by the parties. Breen v. Phelps, 186 Conn. 86, 98 (1982); Wiggin v. Federal Stock & Grain Co., 77 Conn. 507, 516 (1905). In a proper situation, a judge may vacate, modify or depart from an interlocutory order or ruling of another judge in the same case. Breen, supra, 98-99, citing 46 Am. Jur. 2d, Judges § 46; annot., 132 A.L.R. 14, 49. As a result of the conflict between a judge’s freedom to readdress legal questions and the continual importance of fostering judicial economy, the “law of the case” doctrine has evolved. “[It] is a flexible principle of many facets adaptable to the exigencies of the different situations in which it may be invoked. . . . In essence, it expresses the practice of judges generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided and is not a limitation on their power. . . . A judge should hesitate to change his own rulings in a case and should be even more reluctant to overrule those of another judge.” Bowman v. Jack’s Auto Sales, 54 Conn. App. 289, 293 (1999) (citations omitted), quoting Breen, supra, 99. Pursuant to the doctrine, once a ruling has been made, it will be treated as correct throughout all subsequent stages of the proceeding, unless a higher court confronts the issue. State v. Daniels, 209 Conn. 225, 237 (1988). This principle applies at the appellate level as well (including this board), and is invoked unless there are compelling reasons that render it inapplicable, such as the introduction of substantial new evidence, the subsequent issuance of a Supreme Court decision that is inconsistent with the prior ruling, or a conviction upon the part of the second reviewing court that its predecessor’s decision was clearly erroneous. Bowman, supra, 293-94; see also Breen, supra, 100-101.

The current set of circumstances before this board does not implicate the “law of the case” doctrine, as the claimant’s shoulder injury claim is not a pure question of law. We also agree with the claimant’s observation that the collateral estoppel doctrine is technically inapplicable here. See Claimant’s Brief, pp. 4-5. In light of his compensable cervical and lumbar spine injuries, a determination of the compensability of his shoulder injury was not strictly necessary in order for the trial commissioner to find him totally and partially disabled, or to make a decision on the payment of medical bills, for that matter. “Issue preclusion,” therefore, could not properly lie, as the shoulder injury was not an integral component of an adjudicated claim.

On the other hand, res judicata was found to be applicable here by the trial commissioner in ¶ I of the findings. The res judicata doctrine would bar relitigation of the shoulder injury if it could have been raised for the purpose of proving total or partial disability, even if a finding of such disability could also have been rendered without making such a finding, as was the case here. Delahunty, supra, 589. Our courts use a “transactional” test in order to determine whether an action involves the same claim as an earlier action; such a decision is to be made “pragmatically, giving weight to such considerations as whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations or business understanding or usage.” Id., 590. Again, the goal of this doctrine is to encourage stability in judgments by preventing parties from relitigating claims that they have already had an opportunity to litigate. Id., 591.

As noted above, the claimant unambiguously testified at the July 9, 1998 formal hearing that his initial neck and back injuries proceeded to affect his hips and shoulders, and the respondents explicitly stated that they were denying liability for that claim. Transcript, pp. 12-14. The first commissioner noted the claimant’s allegation in his September 3, 1998 findings. The claimant also introduced exhibits that specifically discussed his severe shoulder pain and its probable relation to the motor vehicle accident. Claimant’s Exhibit A (Report of Dr. Eichengreen), Claimant’s Exhibit C (Report of Dr. Tucker), Claimant’s Exhibit D (Report of Dr. Moeckel). With this evidence before him, the commissioner could readily have entered findings resolving the compensability of the claimant’s shoulder condition. No such findings were included in the trier’s decision, and neither party sought to correct that decision by adding findings concerning the shoulder injury. Also, neither party appealed the award. A reasonable interpretation of that ruling, therefore, would be that the claimant was able to prove that his neck and back injuries were compensable, but not his claimed hip and shoulder injuries. The trier simply neglected to deny them specifically in his findings. This decision is now final, as no correction, articulation or appeal was pursued.

We have stated in the past that a party is not entitled to present his case in a “piecemeal” fashion, allowing him the opportunity to try to present his case in a different manner after failing to meet his burden of proof initially. Brown v. Connecticut Aerosol, 3169 CRB-3-95-5 (April 7, 1997); Fassett v. F. Castellucci & Sons, 15 Conn. Workers’ Comp. Rev. Op. 83, 84, 2150 CRB-3-94-9 (Dec. 7, 1995). Though such cases might not always cite the res judicata doctrine by name, the principle reflected by those decisions is identical. “In the interest of finality and judicial economy, it is important that a claimant offer all available evidence the first time his claim is being considered.” Fassett, supra, 84. The second trial commissioner was entitled to find that said principle applied in this case as well. The claimant had earlier offered evidence regarding the compensability of his shoulder injury, which would have supported his disability claims. This claim was also closely related to his other alleged injuries, thereby creating a “convenient trial unit” of the sort discussed in Delahunty, supra. Despite the continuing jurisdiction of this Commission over Chapter 568 claims, a claimant is not entitled to multiple opportunities to raise and resolve the same issue. The trier was entitled to conclude that the claimant was legally precluded from raising his shoulder injury claim in new proceedings by virtue of the res judicata doctrine, as the matter was ripe for resolution during the earlier proceedings, and had been fully litigated.

We hereby affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

Commissioners Ernie R. Walker and Jesse M. Frankl concur.

1 “Privity” signifies “a relationship between one who is a party of record and another who is a nonparty, but is sufficiently close to mandate the application of res judicata or collateral estoppel.” Mazziotti v. Allstate Ins. Co., 240 Conn. 799, 813 n.1. Though the precise requirements of privity vary depending on circumstances, there must be “such an identification in interest of one person with another as to represent the same legal rights so as to justify preclusion.” Id., 814. BACK TO TEXT

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