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Acosta v. Idaho Falls School District No. 91

United States District Court, D. Idaho

December 6, 2017



          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge


         Pending before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 44) filed by Defendant Idaho Falls School District (the “District”). Plaintiff R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary of Labor (the “Secretary”), opposes the Motion. The Court heard oral argument on August 10, 2017 and ordered supplemental briefing, which was completed on August 16, 2017. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the motion.


         On May 31, 2011, Penny Weymiller filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Secretary of Labor, alleging that the District retaliated against her for raising concerns with asbestos removal plans, in violation of the whistleblower provisions of the Asbestos R. Alexander Acosta has been substituted for his predecessor, Thomas E. Perez, as Secretary of Labor under Fed.R.Civ.P. 25(d). Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 (“AHERA”). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) investigated Ms. Weymiller's claims and announced its determination on January 15, 2015. OSHA found that Ms. Weymiller had been subject to whistleblower retaliation in violation of both the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) and AHERA.

         Under AHERA's whistleblower retaliation provisions, there is no private right of action beyond the filing of a complaint with the Secretary. However, if the Secretary determines that a violation has occurred, the statute requires that he file a complaint in the appropriate United Stated District court. 15 U.S.C. § 2651(b); 29 U.S.C. 660(c)(2). As such, after OSHA's determination that the District's actions violated AHERA' whistleblower provisions, the Secretary filed an action in this Court seeking both individual relief for Ms. Weymiller, and an injunction ordering the District to take certain steps to prevent future violations. Dkt. 1.

         At the same time, the Secretary ordered individual relief for Ms. Weymiller pursuant to OSHA's determination that the District violated CAA's whistleblower retaliation provision.[1] Exercising its rights under the CAA, the District requested a de novo hearing on Ms. Weymiller's CAA claim before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On May 2, 2017, ALJ Richard M. Clark issued his Decision and Order denying Ms. Weymiller's whistleblower complaint. Dkt. 44-7.

         Subsequently, the District sought a writ of mandamus in this Court ordering the ALJ to dismiss its review of the Secretary's determination that Ms. Weymiller had been subject to retaliation under the CAA. This Court declined to intervene, citing lack of jurisdiction. See Mem. Decision and Order at 8, Dkt. 28 (finding that the Department of Labor and the courts of appeals have exclusive jurisdiction over CAA claims). After the ALJ ruled in favor of the District on Ms. Weymiller's CAA retaliation claim, neither Ms. Weymiller or the Secretary sought an appeal, though both had that right. The District then filed this motion on the grounds that the Secretary is precluded from pursuing the AHERA claim based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where a party can show that, as to any claim or defense, “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Here, the parties do not raise any genuine disputes of material fact. Rather, the District argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, because the Secretary's claim is barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

         The doctrine of collateral estoppel provides that “[w]hen an issue of fact or law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the parties, whether on the same or a different claim.” Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 27 (1982). Collateral estoppel applies to preclude an issue adjudicated in an earlier proceeding if: (1) the issue was necessarily decided at the previous proceeding and is identical to the one which is sought to be relitigated; (2) the first proceeding ended with a final judgment on the merits; and (3) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party at the first proceeding. Reyn's Pasta Bella, LLC v. Visa USA, Inc., 442 F.3d 741 (9th Cir. 2006).

         It is well settled that principles of collateral estoppel may be applied to administrative adjudications. See Astoria Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Solimino, 501 U.S. 104, 107 (1991); Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 95 (1980). Thus, “[w]here an administrative agency has made relevant factual findings in the course of refusing relief which [it is authorized] to give, the finality of these findings, if sufficiently supported, cannot be avoided in a court action” for the same or similar relief. United States v. Utah Constr. & Mining Co., 384 U.S. 394, 420 (1966). Congress may limit the preclusive effect of agency adjudications, however, by providing for de novo review of a particular claim in federal court. See Chandler v. Roudebush, 425 U.S. 840 (1976) (finding that a statutory right to district court civil action entitles a plaintiff to de novo review of administrative determinations).


         The District argues that the issues of fact and law underlying the Secretary's AHERA claim were actually litigated and determined by final judgment on the merits in the ALJ proceeding on Ms. Weymiller's CAA claim, and that the Secretary was in privity with Ms. Weymiller in the CAA proceeding, such that he should be estopped from pursuing the AHERA claim. Neither party contests that relevant the issues of fact and law were actually litigated and determined by final judgment during the ALJ proceeding.[2]Instead, the parties contest whether Ms. Weymiller and the Secretary were in privity. Before addressing this ...

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