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DECISIONS David Horrigan Suing his former employer, Howard University, after the institution fired him, Harold E. Lacy Jr. twice prevailed in jury trials. Unfortunately for Lacy, his $265,000 jury verdict was placed in limbo when the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the second judge had misapplied the doctrine of offensive collateral estoppel. Howard Univ. v. Lacy, nos. 02-CV064 and 02-CV-554. Howard fired Lacy after he allegedly placed a student in an illegal chokehold. Lacy sued, arguing that the school’s employee handbook constituted an enforceable employment contract and that Howard breached the contract by the manner in which it fired him. In the first trial, the jury found for Lacy, but was unable to reach a verdict on damages. A second jury trial resulted in a $265,000 verdict for Lacy. The university appealed, arguing that the first trial judge, Susan Winfield, erroneously applied the doctrine of offensive collateral estoppel. The doctrine involves a plaintiff’s “offensive” use of collateral estoppel-or issue preclusion-to prevent a defendant from arguing an issue decided previously in a case with another plaintiff. Relying on Lacy’s claim that previous juries had decided the issue, Winfield did not allow Howard to argue that the employee handbook was not an employment contract. Reversing and remanding for a new trial on the issue of liability, the appellate court held that the doctrine did not apply because the issue of whether the handbook was indeed a contract had not, in fact, been decided conclusively in previous cases. Noting that some of Lacy’s cited cases actually supported the university’s position, the court said, “Given the restraint with which offensive collateral estoppel should be invoked . . . we do not think that a single verdict in a markedly different case supports issue preclusion in Lacy’s favor here.”

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