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State discrimination claim barred

More than three years ago, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that an employee’s discrimination claim under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act is not barred, even though federal courts have already rejected the same claim based on federal law.

The court held then that the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply, because federal courts lack jurisdiction to consider state law discrimination claims.

But in the same case, back before the court a second time, it held on May 18 that the suit was barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion.

The court found: the statutes of limitation are the same; and the issue of timeliness has already been litigated in federal court against the employee. Thus, the court held the state law claim is barred, too.

The long-running litigation began when Joyce Aldrich was demoted by Best Buy Stores L.P. in March 2003. The same month, Aldrich complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Milwaukee, but she did not file a formal charge of age and sex discrimination until Feb. 4, 2004.
Under a work-sharing agreement between the EEOC and the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division, a charge filed with either is considered filed with both.

The EEOC investigated the claim and dismissed it in January 2005. Aldrich then sued in federal court, but the claim was dismissed, because it was not filed within the 300-day statute of limitation.

Instead of appealing, Aldrich requested that the ERD investigate the claims. The Labor and Industry Review Commission dismissed the claims on grounds of claim preclusion, concluding that the federal court had already dismissed the same claims.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s reversal of LIRC, concluding, “Claim preclusion is designed to prevent litigation of matters that were, or could have been, litigated in the prior proceedings. Because Aldrich could not bring her WFEA claims in the prior federal action, the doctrine of claim preclusion is not applicable to her claims before the ERD.” Aldrich v. LIRC, 2008 WI App 63, ¶14, 310 Wis. 2d 796, 751 N.W.2d 866.

On remand to LIRC, the Commission dismissed the claims again, this time concluding that issue preclusion barred the claims — because the timeliness of the complaint is an issue that has been fully litigated in the federal action, that issue may not be relitigated in state court.

The circuit court reversed, but on appeal before the Court of Appeals for a second time, the court reversed the circuit court, and affirmed that LIRC properly dismissed the claim on issue preclusion grounds.

The court acknowledged that a federal court’s determination that a complaint is untimely under federal law is normally not dispositive as to a state court statute of limitation.

However, Wis. Admin. Code DWD 218.03(5) designates the date of filing with the ERD as the date of filing with the EEOC.

Accordingly, Judge Lisa Neubauer wrote for the court, “Thus, the issue of fact at the core of this dispute is the date of filing with the EEOC, a matter which has already been decided in federal litigation. We therefore uphold the Commission’s application of issue preclusion as to that determination.”

David Ziemer can be reached at david.ziemer@wislawjournal.com.

What the court held

Case: Aldrich v. LIRC, No. 2010AP1785

Issues: Does the doctrine of issue preclusion bar a discrimination claimant from relitigating the statute of limitations, when a federal court has determined her complaint was untimely?

Holdings: Yes. The statute of limitations is the same, so the issue has already been litigated.

Attorneys: For Plaintiff: Peter M. Reinhardt, Menomonie; For Defendants: Amy Schmidt Jones, Milwaukee; Scott C. Baumbach, David C. Rice, Madison.

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