The Proper Role of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel in Title VII Suits

40 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2011 Last revised: 29 Jul 2011

See all articles by John H. Matheson

John H. Matheson

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: January 1, 1981


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 19641 embraces an intricate and overlapping array of state and federal enforcement procedures, all designed to eradicate discriminatory employment practices based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In states that have not adopted fair employment practices laws, the federal system operates alone. The complainant must first file with a federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which will investigate the charge.If the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe the allegation, it may, after unsuccessfully using informal conciliation to resolve the dispute, institute enforcement proceedings in federal court. If the EEOC chooses not to litigate, the complainant may sue the defendant in federal court. In states that have enacted a "law prohibiting the unlawful practice alleged," section 706(c) of the Act,7 the so-called "deferral" provision, guarantees state authorities first opportunity to resolve the charge. Most states afford both investigatory review similar to that provided by the EEOC and full scale evidentiary hearings before an administrative tribunal.Complainants can then obtain review of the agency's findings in state courts.

Although the Act's "deferral" provision establishes an important role for state enforcement proceedings, state jurisdiction is not exclusive. Sixty days after filing with a state, complainants may enter the federal system.It is thus possible that each employment discrimination charge will be heard in four separate forums: a state administrative agency, a state court, the EEOC, and, finally, a federal court. The obvious and critical question raised by these overlapping jurisdictional provisions concerns the weight, if any, that one forum must attach to a prior determination rendered in another.

In most contexts, the answer has already been given. Yet one issue - the deference that federal courts must give to state findings - has generated an important controversy that the Supreme Court has recently agreed to resolve.

This Article suggests that the correct answer lies between the positions adopted by the courts of appeals. The full faith and credit clause, 28 made applicable to the federal courts by Congress in section 1738 of title 28 of the United States Code, 29 title VII's legislative history, 30 and the policies of efficiency and consistency upon which preclusion doctrines are based 31 all play important roles in defining the correct solution. Provided that the state's fair employment practices laws parallel title VII, the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel should preclude relitigation of claims and issues that were or could have been fully and fairly litigated in a state proceeding.

The Article proceeds from the premise, established in Part I, that federal courts must apply preclusion principles unless Congress clearly indicates otherwise. Part II considers a number of indicators of Congress's intent, and finds no evidence to rebut the presumption that federal courts must give preclusive weight to certain state decisions. Part III then proposes general guidelines for the application of preclusion doctrines in title VII litigation.

Suggested Citation

Matheson, John H., The Proper Role of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel in Title VII Suits (January 1, 1981). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 1485, 1981, Available at SSRN:

John H. Matheson (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

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