What Does ‘Res Judicata’ Mean and How Can It Impact My Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Case?

There can many traps awaiting the unwary claimant in a workers’ compensation case. Your employer, or its insurer, likely will be armed with knowledgeable attorneys who are well-versed both in the facts of the case and the law. They may recite Latin words and phrases you don’t know, or legal terms with which you are unfamiliar. To make sure you avoid those traps, make certain you are as well-equipped as your opponent by retaining the services of an experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney.

If you have pursued both a civil lawsuit and a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, the former has the potential to impact the latter. An example of this was the case of L.Y., who worked as a clinical researcher at a biotechnology company, testing new medications. According to the researcher, his supervisor engaged improper methodology on some tests, which the researcher refused to follow. After the supervisor’s results were discarded, the researcher was allegedly reduced to “meaningless” work, ridiculed by co-workers and eventually fired. All of this, according to L.Y., caused him to suffer a psychological injury.

The researcher did not seek psychiatric care for nearly three years. His doctor diagnosed him as having experienced a “severe, single episode depression.” An impartial physician who examined L.Y. concluded that the researcher had schizoaffective disorder that, while not caused by the negative events at work, had been made worse by them. The independent doctor concluded that L.Y. was totally disabled and that “significantly improved functional capacity is unlikely.”

L.Y. undertook several legal actions. A wrongful termination and discrimination suit was resolved in the employer’s favor by an arbitrator. A second lawsuit, alleging claims of breach of contract and defamation, also failed. A federal judge decided that the arbitrator’s earlier decision precluded the second action.

The employer also filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits based upon the emotional injury he allegedly suffered while he was at the biotech company. The employer’s insurer argued that L.Y.’s case should be dismissed based upon the legal rule of res judicata. Res judicata essentially means that, once you’ve litigated a case and received a decision on the merits, you cannot re-litigate those same claims again later in a subsequent action.

The ALJ agreed with the insurer that this legal principle prevented the researcher from pursuing his claim for benefits. The Reviewing Board disagreed, which revived L.Y’s claim and gave him a renewed opportunity to obtain benefits.

The key to the researcher’s appellate success was the specific requirements of res judicata. That legal concept requires, among other things, that the issues litigated in the previous action must be identical to those in the current claim. In L.Y.’s lawsuits, he litigated whether or not he was the victim of discrimination, whether the employer wrongfully terminated him and whether the employer breached the contract. L.Y’s workers’ compensation claim, on the other hand, focused solely on the emotional injury he allegedly suffered as a result of the disagreements with the supervisor over testing methodology and the stress those disputes caused. This issue was explicitly not covered by the arbitrator’s decision, so the rule of res judicata could not possibly apply and L.Y. should have been allowed to go forward with his claim.

If you have suffered harm at work, whether physical or emotional, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Knowledgeable Plymouth County workers’ compensation lawyer Michael S. Mehrmann has spent many years effectively representing people from across Plymouth County, including Kingston, Plymouth, Marshfield, Hanson, Carver, Pembroke, and Duxbury in their worker’s compensation cases. To find out more about how we can help you, call (781) 585-3911 or contact us online.