No collateral estoppel from railroad arbitration

In Grimes v. BNSF Railway, the district court applied collateral estoppel to a Federal Railway Safety Act (“FRSA”) suit, based on a fact finding made by a type of arbitral panel called a Public Law Board (“PLB”) after an investigation and hearing by railroad personnel. No. 13-60382 (Feb. 17, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit reversed, noting: (1) the hearing was conducted by the railroad; (2) the plaintiff was represented by the union rather than an attorney; (3) the termination decision was made by a railroad employee, not by “an impartial fact finder such as a judge or jury”; (4) the rules of evidence did not appear to have controlled in the arbitral proceedings; and (5) “most crucially,” the PLB’s affirmance was based solely on the record developed at the hearing administered by the railroad.  The Court noted authority that rejects res judicata in this context, but also noted that “estoppel may apply in federal-court litigation to facts found in arbitral proceedings as long as the court considers the ‘federal interests warranting protection.’”

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