Civil Procedure

7th Circuit: Fired Johnson & Bell Lawyer Can Sue for Discrimination During State-Court Tort Appeal

A fired former associate of Johnson & Bell can sue the law firm for discrimination in federal court at the same time that he is appealing an Illinois state-court dismissal of his defamation case, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Reversing a federal district judge’s decision that the court should abstain from hearing Meanith Huon’s discrimination case until his state-court tort case against the law firm is finalized, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the discrimination case should proceed because it is not a “parallel” matter, reports the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Unless substantially the same parties are litigating substantially the same issues in the state and federal court at the same time, the cases are not parallel and hence abstention is improper, a three-judge appellate panel explained in a written opinion (PDF) yesterday.

Here, however, the evidence required to prove Huon’s state-court defamation and intentional infliction of emotion distress case against Johnson & Bell was different than the evidence required to prove race and national origin discrimination. The federal case also included a pendent state claim for tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.

“Although at first blush it may seem inefficient to allow both cases to proceed,” writes Judge Diane Wood, a federal court has an obligation to exercise its jurisdiction “with preclusion doctrines operating as a backstop to ensure that the concurrent proceedings do not result in inconsistent judgments.”

Huon is representing himself pro se in the federal discrimination case.

His state-court defamation suit focused on alleged statements made related to law firm performance evaluations, the 7th Circuit notes.

In the discrimination case, however, Huon contends that the law firm treated him unfavorably because of his race and national origin, concerning his salary, benefits, work assignments and by not putting him on probation prior to firing him.

A request for comment made to a Johnson & Bell spokeswoman by the ABA Journal did not receive an immediate response.

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