Missouri's Supreme Court on Tuesday reminded judges around the state they can end lawsuits, under certain circumstances, before a case has been finished.
The procedure is called "judicial estoppel."
"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," Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote for the seven-judge high court, which unanimously overturned a St. Louis City Circuit Court jury's verdict favoring a state administrative law judge.
The court said St. Louis Circuit Judge Julian L. Bush should have blocked Matthew D. Vacca's discrimination lawsuit against the state after Vacca took conflicting positions in two different cases.
The jury had awarded Vacca $4 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages against the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, as well as $500,000 in punitive damages against then-Division Director Brian May — although the circuit court later reduced that to $5,000.
The jury's finding supported Vacca's claim that he was retaliated against for filing a disability discrimination complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Vacca has an incurable form of muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes the body to attack its own muscles, slowly weakening the person who has it.
He became a state's Workers' Compensation Division administrative law judge in 1992.
When Vacca received long-term disability benefits from the Missouri State Employees Retirement System — which included a finding that Vacca could not "perform with reasonable continuity the Material Duties of Any Occupation for which you have the education, training and experience" — his bosses treated that as a "voluntary quit," the Supreme Court ruling noted.
But, in a lawsuit challenging his termination, Vacca argued he could have continued to work as an administrative law judge for another 20 years, with accommodations for his disability.
However, in his separate marriage dissolution proceeding, he claimed he was entitled to maintenance because he totally was unable to work — and had been awarded $1,200 per month in maintenance based on that claim.
The award was later canceled.
As Stith wrote near the beginning of the court's 27-page opinion: "Vacca was able to successfully convince the court overseeing the dissolution of his marriage to initially award maintenance due to his disability. He also applied for and received long-term disability benefits from (MOSERS) based upon his similar claims of being disabled from all work with or without reasonable accommodation.
"The trial court abused its discretion in refusing to apply judicial estoppel to preclude Vacca from making the inconsistent claim that he was able to work as an ALJ for another 20 years with reasonable accommodations."
The court's ruling noted Bush considered the judicial estoppel option, but thought he could not use it "because the dissolution judgment had been remanded for further proceedings due to evidentiary errors."
The Supreme Court ruling said the state asked Bush to stop the discrimination lawsuit, filing a motion for summary judgment "asserting, in light of Vacca's statements made in both his application for disability benefits and his dissolution proceedings, (that) Vacca should be 'judicially estopped from demonstrating to this Court that he is able, with reasonable accommodation, to perform the job of an ALJ, because he has previously claimed that he is unable to work at all.'"
The ruling noted state and federal cases have determined that application of the principle is on a case-by-case basis.
Stith wrote: "The (U.S.) Supreme Court took pains to note that, because of the equitable and discretionary nature of judicial estoppel, 'the circumstances under which judicial estoppel may appropriately be invoked are probably not reducible to any general formulation of principle.'"
However, she added: "Once a party takes truly inconsistent positions, there are no 'inflexible prerequisites or an exhaustive formula for determining the applicability of judicial estoppel.'"
And, the court ruled, Vacca clearly told different information to different courts.
"This Court finds it particularly concerning Vacca took these conflicting positions despite his intimate familiarity with the world of disability," Stith wrote. "As an ALJ for 19 years, he was knowledgeable enough to understand the legal effect of these conflicting allegations.
"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.'"
However, the high court noted Vacca had made other claims in his discrimination lawsuit that weren't subject to the estoppel rule, and it sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
"Vacca still may have been entitled to recover other damages if the jury agrees with his claim that his inability to work due to his disability was merely a pretext to justify his termination or other unfavorable job actions," the court ruled.
"Although Vacca is estopped from claiming he was able to continue working as an ALJ, that does not foreclose his recovery on a claim, if any, that does not require him to show he was able to continue working."