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Connecticut Limits Collateral Estoppel for Employee Complaints

On July 11, 2017, in Spiotti v. Town of Wolcott et al., the Supreme Court of Connecticut reaffirmed that General Statutes § 31-51bb permits employees to assert constitutional or statutory claims in court even after the same issues were resolved by grievance procedures or arbitration pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. In doing so, the Court resolved a question as to whether the enactment of a 2003 law on statutory interpretation compelled the Court to reverse its prior decision that the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not apply to bar post-arbitration actions. 

The plaintiff in the action, Doreen Spiotti, was employed with the Wolcott Police Department and was a member of a police union. She had previously filed a departmental complaint alleging that the department had engaged in retaliatory conduct against her. After the department conducted an investigation and concluded that certain statements in the her complaint were false, the town terminated her employment. Spiotti then filed a grievance pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the town and the union. Following multiple hearings, the Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration concluded that there was just cause for Spiotti’s termination due to the prior finding of false statements.

Spiotti then filed an action in Connecticut Superior Court, alleging that her termination was in retaliation for bringing a previous sex discrimination action against the town and for engaging in protected speech through her prior departmental complaint, both in violation of Connecticut anti-discrimination laws (General Statutes §§ 46a-60(a)(4) and 31-51q). The town filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that Spiotti’s claims were foreclosed by the Board’s findings of fact in the earlier arbitration proceedings. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the doctrine of collateral estoppel, as interpreted in Genovese v. Gallo Wine Merchants, Inc., 226 Conn. 475, 628 A.2d 946 (1993), does not bar a statutory cause of action brought after the same issue has been decided in a collective bargaining arbitration.

The town appealed this decision, arguing that Genovese should be overruled as a result of General Statutes § 1-2z, a law enacted in 2003, which establishes that the meaning of statutes should be derived from extratextual sources only in cases of ambiguity. In Genovese, the Court had resorted to legislative history to determine that a 1988 law, General Statutes § 31-51bb, was intended to bar the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel to claims of statutory and constitutional violations brought after a claim involving the same issues had been finally resolved in grievance procedures or arbitration. This result, the Genovese court noted, ran contrary to the ordinary rule that the results of an arbitration are to have a preclusive effect.

In rejecting the town’s argument, the Court stated that even if Section 31-51bb were clear and unambiguous, the legislature did not intend for General Statutes § 1-2z to apply retroactively to prior statutory interpretation and that the ordinary principles of stare decisis applied in such circumstances. Further, the Court opined that the balance of considerations weighed against disregarding stare decisis and overruling Genovese, noting that, among other things, the legislature had taken no action since 1993 to revise Section 31-51bb and the town had not identified any intervening developments in the law, irreconcilable conflicts, or unconscionable results in applying the existing interpretation of Section 31-51bb. The Court also held that, contrary to the trial court’s decision, the trial court is not bound by the findings of fact made by the Board at the arbitration, although it may consider these findings as evidence.

The Court’s decision reaffirms the principle that collateral estoppel is not applicable to employee complaints decided by final arbitration pursuant to collective bargaining agreements in Connecticut. Instead, even after an adverse arbitration result, the employee may raise the same claims in court, with the issues of fact to be considered de novo. The Court did, however, note potential constitutional problems in passing – employees are permitted to file post-arbitration actions while employers are limited to a narrow review of arbitration results as prescribed by statute. The Court reached no decision on these problems, effectively leaving them to the legislature or to future litigation.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions about any employment-related legal matters. We are happy to assist.

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