On September 24, 2007, Petitioner, Anita Rivers, appealed a decision of the Respondent, Peabody Retirement Board (the "Board") in which she was denied accidental disability retirement benefits after claiming a mental disability as a result of interactions with a co-worker. Ms. Rivers filed a Motion for Summary Decision on October 26, 2009. (Exhibit A1.) The Board filed an Opposition to the Motion for Summary Decision on November 4, 2009. (Exhibit B.) A hearing on the Motion for Summary Decision was held at the offices of the Division of Administrative Law Appeals (DALA) on November 17, 2009, at which time Ms. Rivers filed a Response to the Respondent's Objection to the Motion for Summary Decision. (Exhibit A2.)
FINDINGS OF FACT
Based upon the documents submitted at the hearing in the above-entitled matter, I hereby render the following findings of fact:
1. On June 20, 2005 the Petitioner, Anita Rivers, received notice from the Board that her application for accidental disability retirement benefits had been denied without the convening of a Regional Medical Panel. Rivers v. Peabody Retirement Board, CR-05-548 (July 5, 2006).
2. On June 29, 2005 Ms. Rivers filed a timely appeal of the Board's decision with the Contributory Retirement Appeal Board. Rivers, CR-05-548 at 6.
3. An adjudicatory hearing was held at DALA's offices on June 15, 2006. Various documents were entered into evidence at the 2006 hearing. Ms. Rivers testified on her own behalf. No other witnesses testified at that hearing. Rivers, CR-05-548 at 2.
4. Following the 2006 hearing, Magistrate Joan Freiman-Fink concluded that, "[s]ince Ms. Rivers was involved in an incident with a co-worker on October 5 that resulted in her being treated for anxiety and depression … she has made a threshold showing of entitlement to have a medical panel evaluation in accordance with the requirements outlined in G.L. c. 32 § 7(1)." Magistrate Fink remanded the matter to the Board for the convening of a Regional Medical Panel. Rivers, CR-05-548 at 8.
5. On September 22, 2006 three Medical Panel physicians (the "Medical Panel") conducted an examination of Ms. Rivers. (Attachment B, Exhibit B.)
6. The Certificate responses were in the affirmative. The Medical Panel issued a Certificate stating:
a. Ms. Rivers is mentally or physically incapable of performing the essential duties [of her] job as described in the current job description.
b. Ms Rivers' incapacity is likely to be permanent.
c. Ms. Rivers' incapacity is "such as might be the natural and proximate result of the personal injury sustained or hazard undergone on account of which retirement is claimed." (Attachment B, Exhibit B.)
7. Following the issuance of the Regional Medical Panel Certificate, the Board made a determination of Ms. Rivers' eligibility for accidental disability benefits based on the Medical Panel's opinion, other medical and non-medical evidence, and the testimony before the Board by seven witnesses: Ms. Rivers; her significant other, Joseph Dunn; Attorney Michael Smerczynski; former Peabody High School Assistant Principal Eric Tracy; Peabody High School teacher Cheryl English (who reportedly witnessed the incident that allegedly gave rise to Ms. River's disability); Terry Lee (who reportedly instigated the incident that allegedly gave rise to Ms. River's disability); and former Peabody High School Principal Joseph Patuleia. (Exhibit B.)
8. On September 13, 2007 the Board notified Ms. Rivers of its decision to deny her accidental disability retirement benefits. (Exhibit B.)
After a careful review of the evidence and arguments offered at the hearing in the above entitled matter, I have concluded that this case is not appropriate for Summary Decision. The Petitioner is indeed correct in her contention that the formal Standard Adjudicatory Rules of Practice and Procedure, 801 CMR 1.01(7)(h) provide, in pertinent part:
When a Party is of the opinion there is no genuine issue of fact relating to all or part of a claim or defense and he is entitled to prevail as a matter of law, the Party may move, with or without supporting affidavits, for summary decision on the claim or defense.
However, in this case, there are material facts in dispute which render it inappropriate for Summary Decision.
When an applicant appeals a decision made by a local retirement board, DALA's review of the decision is de novo. See Namay v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Bd., 19 Mass. App. Ct. 456, 461-62 n.8 (1999). Further, the findings of the Medical Panel are not binding on the Board or DALA, but are instead a piece of evidence to be taken into account when rendering a decision on the applicant's eligibility for accidental disability benefits. Wakefield Contributory Retirement Bd. v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board, 352 Mass. 499, 501-02 (1967).
The Petitioner asserts that the principles of res judicata and/or collateral estoppel operate to bind DALA to Magistrate Fink's earlier conclusions. This claim is erroneous.
Magistrate Fink's findings as to disability and causation are not binding in this appeal.
The doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, only applies where there has been a final judgment on the merits of a case and the issues that have been litigated are the same. Com. v. Purdy, 408 Mass. 681, 686 (1990). The Respondent correctly argues that DALA's 2006 decision cannot be construed as a final judgment. See id. (holding that res judicata did not apply because there was no final judgment where the trial court determined that a matter was not properly before it because the defendant had not been examined by two qualified examiners, as required under statute). Moreover, the doctrine of res judicata only applies where the previous final judgment is on the merits of a case. The doctrine is inapplicable where the earlier judgment speaks to a technical or procedural matter. Hacker v. Beck, 325 Mass. 594, 598 (1950). Magistrate Fink's 2006 Decision was rendered on a threshold, preliminary matter. The question before her at that time was : did the Board err in denying Ms. River's application without first convening a Medical Panel? While the same factual issues may have arisen in both appeals, neither the legal standards applied nor the ultimate issue decided in the earlier appeal are the same in the current appeal. It should also be noted here that Magistrate Fink rendered her Findings of Fact in the 2006 case after the testimony of only one witness.
The doctrine of collateral estoppel does not render Magistrate Fink's 2006 Findings of Fact binding in this appeal. The doctrine of collateral estoppel bars relitigation of the issues fully litigated and determined in a prior action. Kobrin v. Board of Registration in Medicine, 444 Mass. 837, 843 (2005). However, in order for the doctrine to apply, the applicable legal standards and burdens of proof must be identical in the two actions. See, e.g., Jarosz v. Palmer, 436 Mass. 526, 531(2002). In the 2006 case, Magistrate Fink was posed with the legal question of whether Ms. Rivers had put forth sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case that she would be entitled to accidental disability benefits. This determination is distinct from the legal issue that is the subject of the present appeal (i.e., can Ms. Rivers prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that she is entitled to accidental disability benefits?). Because of the different legal standards applied in each, the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not apply and a full evidentiary hearing on Ms. Rivers' entire claim is appropriate.
Having determined that the earlier litigation and decision do not control Ms. Rivers' latest appeal, I now turn to the question of the range of legal issues to be decided when Ms. Rivers' case proceeds to hearing. Ms. Rivers argues that, because of Magistrate Fink's earlier findings and the Medical Panel's conclusions, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to (1) whether she is disabled and therefore unable to perform the duties of her previous employment with Peabody High School, and (2) whether Ms. Rivers' disability is permanent. Thus, Ms. Rivers concludes that the only remaining issue is that of causation (i.e., did her disability arise out of an incident that occurred during the performance of her duties?). For all the reasons enumerated above, I am not bound by Magistrate Fink's 2006 findings or the Medical Panel's conclusions on disability, permanence or causation. . De novo review of all three § 7(1) criteria is therefore appropriate.
Based on the foregoing, the Petitioner's Motion for Summary Decision is DENIED.
Division of Administrative Law Appeals,
DATED: December 4, 2009