Claim Preclusion | Parent Not Guarantor | Restricting School Access

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Small Claims Ruling Has Preclusive Effect

Small Claims Ruling Has Preclusive Effect

In Simmons v. Trans Express Inc., plaintiff brought a federal action against her former employer for violations of Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Minimum Wage Act. The employer moved to dismiss on grounds of “res judicata.”

Res judicata translates to “a matter judged.” Generally, res judicata is the principle that a cause of action may not be re-litigated once it has been judged on the merits. “Finality” is the term which refers to when a court renders a final judgment on the merits. Res judicata is also frequently referred to as “claim preclusion.” As a related principle, collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is a common law estoppel doctrine that prevents a person from re-litigating an issue – as opposed to the entire claim. Once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision precludes re-litigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case. The rationale behind these preclusions is the prevention of legal harassment and the prevention of overuse or abuse of judicial resources.

Here, in August 2018, plaintiff filed suit in a New York small claims court seeking “monies arising out of nonpayment of wages.” Simmons was awarded $1,000 less than the $5,000 Small Claims statutory maximum. Then, Simmons commenced the instant federal action alleging that she is entitled to unpaid overtime wages, liquidated damages, and attorney’s fees stemming from the defendant Trans Express Inc.’s violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the New York Minimum Wage Act. Trans Express moved to dismiss the complaint contending that the action was barred by the doctrine of res judicata because of the previous small claims proceeding. The motion was granted.

The federal Court recognized that the employer’s “motion rests entirely on the doctrine of res judicata. According to that doctrine, ‘a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from re-litigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.’ Because the small claims action brought by Simmons was decided by a New York court, New York law determines the preclusive effect of the earlier judgment. The issues presented by the judgment awarded to Simmons are: (1) whether res judicata applies to judgments rendered in small claims court, (2) whether an exception to res judicata applies due to the limits on recovery in small claims court, and (3) whether plaintiff’s present claims arise from the same facts as the previous action and could have been raised in that action.”

In dismissing the action, the Court reasoned that as a “fundamental rule, res judicata applies to judgments of New York’s small claims courts. Arguing to the contrary, plaintiff relies in principal part on New York City Civil Court Act § 1808. This statute provides that judgments in small claims courts ‘shall not be deemed an adjudication of any fact at issue or found therein in any other action or court.’ However, the legislative history of this provision makes clear that it concerns only collateral estoppel, or issue, as opposed to claim, preclusion, and, therefore, not the preclusive effects of res judicata. The legislative bill jacket, completed at the bill’s signing, which compiles the pertinent legislative history, makes clear that the very purpose of the bill was to clarify that ‘the true intent of section 1808 is to make clear that a small claims judgment has no collateral estoppel or ‘issue preclusion’ effect in a subsequent proceeding.’”

The Court found that an “earlier version of the statute used the term ‘res judicata,’ but the legislative history of this 2005 amendment explains that ‘the use of the term ‘res judicata’ was … inapposite.’ The Legislature noted that ‘the courts have consistently held that a small claims judgment is res judicata when the same claim is filed in another court,’ and cited five examples with approval. Plainly, this history confirms that New York law gives claim preclusive effect to small claims court judgments. It is a conclusion that is reinforced by abundant case law. Therefore, the fact that Simmons’s prior suit was decided in small claims court will not rescue this action from the bar of res judicata, if the bar is otherwise applicable.”

As for the plaintiff’s argument that res judicata does not apply because the small claims court was only empowered to award $ 5,000.00 in damages, and the federal action seeks greater relief, the Court noted that a New York Appellate Division “rejected this precise argument … where it held that a small claims judgment operated as a bar to a future action, ‘even though, were plaintiff to have brought and proven his claims in state Supreme Court in the first instance, he could have sought a larger award.’ The court explained that ‘plaintiffs could have pursued all relief in a single action in the Supreme Court, but opted instead to pursue the claim in the Small Claims Part of the Civil Court,’ and it refused to allow plaintiffs to escape the consequences of that decision.”

The Court concluded that because the “plaintiff’s federal claims, like her claims in small claims court, arise from her employment at Trans Express and had accrued prior to the small claims proceeding, they could have been raised in the prior proceeding and are barred by res judicata. In other words, the present claims are ‘based upon the same harm and arise out of the same or related facts.’ The notice of judgment in the small claims proceeding clearly indicates that Simmons had raised a claim for ‘unpd. OT. Notice of Judgment, Simmons.’” It is hard to construe this to mean anything other than unpaid overtime.”

We note that the unsuccessful plaintiff in this action has filed a notice of appeal and, if overturned, we will update this article.

Parent Could Not Be Held Liable as Guarantor for Adult Child’s Unpaid Medical Bills

Parent Could Not Be Held Liable as Guarantor for Adult Child’s Unpaid Medical Bills

In Westchester County Health Care Corporation v. Ceus, a medical provider brought an action against the parent of an adult former patient, seeking to recover for unpaid hospital and medical services allegedly rendered to the patient.

The medical services that were the subject of the complaint were provided to the defendant’s daughter who was over the age of 21 at the time the services were provided.
The defendant parent moved for summary judgment, contending she cannot be held liable for services rendered to her adult daughter, for which she neither provided a guarantee nor signed a promise to pay.

The medical provider opposed the motion arguing that the insurance card allegedly provided by the daughter at the time of her visit, listed her as a “covered family member” on a plan on which the defendant parent was the named insured.

The Court noted that under the “common law, absent a statutory obligation, ‘a parent is not liable for the support and maintenance of an adult child.’ In addition, it has long been held that even where a parent affirmatively requested the medical services that were provided to an adult child by a physician or medical professional, the parent is not, without more, liable for the cost of those services.” Here, there was no allegation that the parent requested any services for the daughter.

Although the medical provider referred the Court to the requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandating coverage for children up to age 26 on their parents’ insurance, the Court stated that “this mandated coverage does not include any mandate for parents’ continued liability for the non-covered medical expenses incurred by their children after they reach age 21.”

The Court further stated that there was no support for the medical provider’s “proposition that the primary insured person under a group insurance plan is personally liable as a guarantor for the cost of services provided to her adult children, based on their inclusion under her coverage. In order to claim that defendant may be held liable, in the absence of a common law obligation or a statutory obligation, plaintiff relies exclusively on the inclusion of [the daughter’s] name as an additional insured on a health insurance card on which defendant parent is the primary insured. In effect, plaintiff treats the inclusion of [the daughter’s] name on the insurance card as either a guarantee or a promise by the primary insured to pay for services rendered to any listed family member. However, there is no signed writing to this effect.”

“To be enforceable, either a guaranty or any form of promise ‘to answer for the debt … of another person,’ must be in writing and executed by the party to be charged” and the medical provider’s insertion of the parent’s name in its invoice as “Guarantor” had “no legal effect in the absence of any indication that plaintiff affirmatively undertook to stand in that capacity, let alone a signed writing. Plaintiff’s position amounts to, at best, a claim of an implicit promise. Such a claimed promise is unenforceable.”

The Court granted the parent’s motion and dismissed the complaint.

School’s Restriction on Convicted-Rapist-Father’s Access to Son’s School Upheld

School’s Restriction on Convicted-Rapist-Father’s Access to Son’s School Upheld

In Lujan v. Carranza, a father filed an Article 78 petition challenging the determination of the N.Y.C. Department of Education, which restricted his access to his son’s school, and the determination of Commissioner of New York State Education Department, which dismissed his administrative appeal. The Supreme Court in Albany County held that the middle school’s restrictions, limiting father’s access to school, were not made in violation of lawful procedure, affected by error of law, or arbitrary and capricious and dismissed the petition.

According to the Appellate Court, in 1988, the petitioner-father was convicted of Rape in the First Degree. Petitioner’s victim was a fourteen year old girl, and the rape was committed with a deadly weapon. Based on this conviction, the petitioner has been adjudicated a Level III sex offender. He was released from prison and discharged from parole supervision in 1998. He is also the father and sole caretaker for his son, “X.” During the 2015-2016 school year, “X” attended Yorkville Community School, PS 151 in New York City. On November 20, 2015, the Principal of that school sent a letter to the petitioner, informing him that the school was placing restrictions on his access to the school based on his Level III sex offender status and because his victim was under the age of 18. Those restrictions prevented him from coming within 1,000 feet of school grounds. If the petitioner needed to pick up his son on an emergency basis, he would have to contact the school to make arrangements. Similar restrictions continued as the son moved through the school system through Middle School.

The Court noted that the “petitioner is a Level III sex offender. As the Risk Assessment Guidelines and Commentary (see Board of Sex Examiners, Sex Offender Registration Act [SORA]: Risk Assessment Guidelines and Commentary [Jan. 1996]) makes clear, SORA was passed to protect society from the threat posed by a sex offender who is about to be released into the community. The magnitude of the threat depends upon two considerations: the defendant’s likelihood of re-offense, and the harm that would be inflicted if that defendant did re-offend. Risk Assessment Guidelines and Commentary, Commentary, op. cit., at 2. A defendant’s risk category is dictated by the number of points scored on the Risk Assessment Guidelines; 110 points or more results in a classification as a level three offender, that is, an offender with a high risk of recidivism who poses a threat to public safety.”

In upholding the determination, the Court said that the petitioner “has been adjudicated as a Level III sex offender which means he poses the highest possible risk to re-offend. His prior crime was committed against a girl of Middle School age. In light of these facts, the school’s determination to place supervisory restrictions on the petitioner has a sound basis in fact. Petitioner notes that he often attended his son’s elementary school without restriction and without incident, and that is to his credit. However, at oral argument, counsel for the petitioner conceded that a school has the right to take “precautionary measures” to address “particular concerns.” As noted above, schools stands in loco parentis to their students and have a duty to protect them. The precautionary measures and restrictions here address the particular concerns petitioner presents and are rationally related to the school’s in loco parentis duty.”

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