Connecticut Supreme Court in Review: Recent Labor and Employment Decisions
Originally published in Connecticut Law Tribune, September 2019.
The Connecticut Supreme Court term was again relatively quiet in the area of labor and employment, with only a few decisions that impact employers.
Claimant’s Award of Benefits Under Longshore Act Collaterally Estopped Employer From Relitigating Causation
In Filosi v. Electric Boat, 330 Conn. 231 (2018), the question was whether an employer is collaterally estopped from challenging an employee’s eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits due to an earlier decision by a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge awarding benefits to that employee under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.
The claimant, Donald L. Filosi, was a smoker who worked for Electric Boat Corp. at its Groton shipyard from 1961 to 1998. During his employment, he was exposed to asbestos. In 2012, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He filed a notice of claim for compensation with the Workers’ Compensation Commission alleging he sustained a lung injury from exposure to dust and fumes. He died on Dec. 17, 2012, and his widow filed a notice of claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission due to his death from lung cancer.
The widow also sought benefits under the Longshore Act. While the Connecticut workers’ compensation claim was pending, the federal administrative law judge found the plaintiff proved by a preponderance of the evidence the decedent’s lung cancer was work-related. To reach this decision, the administrative law judge held the widow’s experts were reliable and found decedent’s “disability and death, a direct result of his lung cancer, causally linked to this asbestos exposure while employed at defendant” and awarded benefits under the Longshore Act.
The plaintiff then submitted the administrative law judge’s order to the state workers’ compensation commissioner, arguing the employer could not relitigate causation. The commissioner, however, held Electric Boat was not collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue and found decedent’s long-term tobacco use was a significant factor in his development of lung cancer. The commissioner dismissed decedent’s claim for benefits. The widow appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board.
The board held the administrative law judge applied the state standard—i.e., substantial contributing factor standard—in reaching his decision. Therefore, it reversed the commissioner’s decision since the administrative law judge had applied the appropriate standard for workers’ compensation.
The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court. The court held the finding of compensability under the federal Longshore Act had preclusive effect in the proceedings under the state Workers’ Compensation Act because the administrative law judge applied the state standard. Specifically, the administrative law judge credited an expert’s testimony that the asbestos exposure was a “substantial contributing cause,” which is the same causation standard required under the state act.
Member of LLC Was Employee for Purposes of Determining Entitlement to Second Injury Fund Compensation
In Gould v. City of Stamford, 331 Conn. 289 (2019), the claimant was a part-time employee of Stamford and the sole member of Intervale, a limited liability company. The claimant created Intervale to do field production work. While working as a park police officer in Stamford, the claimant injured his back and legs. He filed a claim for workers’ compensation based on his earnings from the city and his earnings from Intervale. The city paid its portion of the claim and transferred the claim for concurrent employment to the Second Injury Fund. The fund denied the claim on the grounds there was no employer/employee relationship between the claimant and the LLC.
The commissioner concluded the claimant was not an employee of Intervale, and the board affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding claimant provided services to Intervale and was subject to the hazards of Intervale’s business, and therefore was Intervale’s employee for purposes of the act.
New Milford Teachers’ Union’s Grievance Arbitrable and Arbitrator Did Not Manifestly Disregard the Law
Board of Education of the Town of New Milford v. New Milford Education Association, 331 Conn, 524 (2019), involved a dispute between the New Milford Board of Education and the teachers’ union. Before the 2015-16 school year, the board used shortened school days to provide time for teacher’s professional development within the normal workday. During negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, the board notified the union it would eliminate the shortened school days and the work previously done on those days would be done outside of student hours. In essence, the board would extend the day. The parties reached an impasse and the dispute went to a three-member interest arbitration.
Following the arbitration, the New Milford school board eliminated abbreviated school days for the 2015-16 school term. The union contended this improperly extended the teacher workday and filed a grievance. The arbitrator sided with the union, and the board moved to vacate the award. The trial court found for the union, and the board appealed.
The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, finding the trial court (1) correctly denied the board’s application to vacate the grievance arbitration award on the grounds that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law by concluding that the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata did not apply to bar the union’s grievance; and (2) the trial court properly concluded that the union’s grievance was arbitrable under the terms of the agreement. The board had argued it was not arbitrable because the union failed to identify a violation of a specific provision of the CBA.
All told the 2018-19 term was very quiet for employers. Very few of the cases had broad applicability to employers across industries in Connecticut, which may explain why so few appeals were taken. Litigation is costly and uncertain. Single employers rarely want to bear the burden of litigation.
Therefore, while courts remain an option for employers, it is an option seldom used. As surprising as it may seem, legislative options may be a more likely avenue for the tough issues facing employers. While the 2019-20 term began recently and the docket looks like another quiet year for employers, time will tell the source of the next big development in this area. We will keep you informed.