According to California law, collateral estoppel is only applied if several threshold questions are met with an affirmative answer. First, was the issue decided in the prior adjudication identical with the one presented in the action in question? Second, was the issue actually litigated in the prior proceeding and was there a final judgment on the merits? Third, was the party against whom preclusion is sought the same as, or in privity with, the party to the former proceeding? The party asserting collateral estoppel bears the burden of establishing the requirements.
Plaintiff commissioner, a minister, was removed from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. He brought an action against the mayor, city and county, stating, among other things, that he had been removed due to his religious beliefs in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). A federal court granted the city summary judgment on all issues except the FEHA issue, which was dismissed without prejudice to refiling in state court. Plaintiff refiled and the trial court ruled that plaintiff was estopped from relitigating the issue.
Was the commissioner estopped from refiling the case?
The court affirmed and held that defendants had satisfied the burden of proof by answering affirmatively the three threshold questions required for the application of collateral estoppel. The identical issue was presented in both actions and the federal court found legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons had been established for plaintiff's removal, which was the pivotal factual issue to have been decided in the state proceedings. The grant of summary judgment was a final judgment on the merits under federal law and plaintiff was also the plaintiff in the prior federal proceeding based upon the same controversy.