In a recent New York Court of Appeals decision from the Second Department, the Court affirmed the applicability of the doctrine of collateral estoppel as a proper affirmative defense to a New York Labor Law action based on the findings reached in an Administrative Law proceeding- namely a Workers’ Compensation hearing. In Lennon v 56th & Park (NY) Owner, LLC, 2021 NY Slip Op 04972 (2nd Dept. 2021), Defendants obtained summary judgment because the Worker’s Compensation Judge previously determined the issue of liability. To that end, the trial court determined that Plaintiff was collaterally estopped from bringing forth his personal injury. In Lemon, prior to commencing litigation, Plaintiff sought Worker’s Compensation benefits for an alleged knee injury caused by a malfunctioning elevator. In that matter, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) determined from the testimony and evidence presented, that the accident did not occur. Upon administrative review of the ALJ’s decision, as requested by Plaintiff, the Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed the findings and conclusion of the ALJ. In the subsequent personal injury suit, brought in Supreme Court, the defendant raised the defense of Collateral Estoppel, pursuant to the Worker’s Compensation adjudication on the issue of liability.
Generally, the doctrine of collateral estoppel “precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue clearly raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party or those in privity”. See Ryan v New York Tel. Co., 62 NY2d 494, 500 (1984). The collateral estoppel doctrine gives conclusive effect to prior determinations when two conditions are met: 1) There must be “an identity of issue which has necessarily been decided in the prior action and is decisive of the present action; and 2) there must have been a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision now said to be controlling”. See Buechel v Bain, 97 NY2d 295 (2001).
The Court of Appeals recognized some overlap between the subject matter of the two proceedings, but held that issues are not identical if the negligence action seeks damages by category or chronology for losses not addressed by the more tightly-defined Workers’ Compensation Board. In reconciling the various cases where collateral estoppel has been applied, the central inquiry concerning “the identity of issue” is whether the Board evaluated an issue on its merits which prevents the plaintiff from establishing a viable personal injury action such as liability or damages.
While the Lemon decision does not necessarily create a new or novel defense strategy, it does illustrate the importance of an early investigation and assessment of all aspects of a matter, including prior proceedings, in order to develop and employ an effective defense strategy specific to the case at hand. From a New York Labor Law perspective, most matters have a workers’ compensation component to them; therefore, it should be a priority for claims professionals and defense counsel to diligently investigate the matter’s claims history before them in an effort to identify all available avenues of defense, and to employ strategic plans of action to best mitigate, if not eliminate, the client’s exposure. Doing so will not only serve the best interests of the client/insured, but it will also serve to manage time and costs of litigation, with the ultimate goal of reaching swift resolutions.
 Russ M. Patane, Esq. is a Shareholder in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. He defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and New York State and Federal Courts. Russ can be reached at RPatane@grsl.com.
 Aran J. O’Gara, Esq. is a member of the NY Litigation Department handling the defense of general liability matters in New York State and the Eastern and Southern Districts of the New York Federal Courts. Aran can be reached at AOGara@grsl.com