Guilty Plea Not Necessarily Proof of Liability For Civil Suit (NY)

In Maiello v. Kirchner, the Second Department was asked to determine whether a defendant was collaterally estopped from contesting liability in a civil matter where he entered a conditional plea of guilty to an assault charge, but that plea was later vacated.

On the day of the incident, the defendant went to the plaintiff’s house to speak with his estranged wife, who happened to be dating the plaintiff at the time. A confrontation ensued when the defendant tried to get in the door, so the plaintiff picked the defendant up and placed him on the front of the porch, where the defendant lost his balance. The defendant then reached out and grabbed the plaintiff, pulling him off the porch and causing substantial injuries.

The defendant subsequently pled guilty to assault in the third degree on the condition that upon completion of probation, the plea would be vacated and the charge would be amended to harassment in the second degree. The defendant completed the probation, the assault charge was vacated, and the charge was amended.

In his civil action against the defendant, the plaintiff moved for summary judgment arguing that based on his guilty plea to assault, the defendant was collaterally estopped from contesting liability. A party may invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel to prevent a party from contesting liability where the criminal conviction is based upon facts identical to those in issue in a civil action. The party seeking benefit of collateral estoppel bears the burden of proving that the identical issue was necessarily decided in the prior action, and is decisive in the present action. The party against whom preclusion is sought bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination.

The Supreme Court found that the defendant’s plea estopped him from contesting liability, but the Second Department disagreed. It found that although the defendant’s plea involved the identical issue in the civil proceeding, liability was not decided because a conditional plea was not a final judgment. Rather, when a defendant enters a conditional plea, sentencing is adjourned.

The court further found that the defendant’s plea to harassment did not estop him from contesting liability because he did not have a full and fair opportunity to contest liability. It reasoned that the defendant did not have the same incentive to contest the charge against him because harassment was a nonviolent violation.

Thanks to Gabriel Darwick for his contribution.

For more information, contact Denise Ricci at dricci@wcmlaw.com