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Court reverses $7M verdict for ALJ

Jessica Shumaker//March 20, 2019//

Court reverses $7M verdict for ALJ

Jessica Shumaker//March 20, 2019//

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An administrative law judge is judicially estopped from making claims in a discrimination suit that are inconsistent with claims he made in a separate dissolution case, the Missouri Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.

On March 19, the court reversed a $7 million jury verdict for Matthew Vacca, who in 2015 argued that he faced retaliation after filing a discrimination complaint related to his muscular dystrophy.

The award included $2.5 million in punitive damages against the Division of Workers’ Compensation and $500,000 against its former director, Brian May. The circuit court later reduced the award against the director to $5,000.

Vacca alleged that leaders at the division questioned his workplace accommodations, gave him a bad evaluation and changed his trial assignments, which prompted him to file discrimination complaints in 2010.

Vacca, who had been an ALJ since 1992, was terminated in 2011 after he was granted long-term disability benefits.

During dissolution proceedings with his ex-wife, Vacca represented that he was completely disabled and unable to support himself, which appeared to contradict the claim he made in his discrimination suit that he could have continued working as an ALJ with accommodations.

After the verdict in his discrimination case, the trial court denied the defendants’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial. The division appealed, and Vacca cross-appealed.

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Photo By: KAREN ELSHOUT
The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Photo By: KAREN ELSHOUT

On appeal, the state argued the Supreme Court should throw out the entire award because Vacca made inconsistent statements in the two separate proceedings.

In the court’s opinion, written by Judge Laura Denvir Stith, the court ruled that Vacca is judicially estopped from claiming he would be able to continue working as an ALJ.

Stith said judicial estoppel “is invoked to protect the dignity of the judicial proceedings and to prevent parties from playing fast and loose with the judicial process by taking inconsistent positions in two different proceedings.”

“The circuit court found Vacca claimed in this case he could have continued to work as an administrative law judge (ALJ) for 20 years, but in his ongoing dissolution proceeding he claimed he was entitled to maintenance because he was totally unable to work,” she said. “The circuit court nonetheless incorrectly thought it was barred from applying judicial estoppel because the dissolution judgment had been remanded for further proceedings due to evidentiary errors.”

Stith said the court was particularly concerned that Vacca took conflicting positions “despite his intimate familiarity with the world of disability.”

“As an ALJ for 19 years, he was knowledgeable enough to understand the legal effect of these conflicting allegations,” she wrote. “Vacca’s sophistication, gained over nearly two decades of work in the field of disability, makes invocation of judicial estoppel all the more necessary ‘to protect the integrity of the judicial process.’”

Vacca’s initial $7 million verdict tied for the 20th largest plaintiff’s win of 2015, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media. His attorney, Joan M. Swartz of the Law Office of Joan M. Swartz in St. Louis, also was named an Influential Lawyer at the 2016 Missouri Lawyers Awards for her role in the case.

“We’re disappointed with the court’s opinion, but we are, however, looking forward to trying this case to another St. Louis city jury,” she said. “We expect we will hold our government accountable, and we believe we have a fair chance our jury verdict will be even higher.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office represented the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which houses the division.

“We appreciate the Court’s ruling and will continue to vigorously defend the case on remand,” Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email.

The case is Vacca v. Missouri Dept. of Labor and Industrial Relations et al., SC96911.

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