Migra v. Warren City School District Board of Education

RESPONDENT: Warren City School District Board of Education
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma

DOCKET NO.: 82-738
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 465 US 75 (1984)
ARGUED: Oct 11, 1983
DECIDED: Jan 23, 1984

James L. Messenger - on behalf of the Respondent
John R. Vintilla - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Migra v. Warren City School District Board of Education

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 11, 1983 in Migra v. Warren City School District Board of Education

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Migra against Warren City School District Board.

Mr. Vintilla, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

John R. Vintilla:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, in this civil rights action brought under Sections 1983 and 85, the Sixth Circuit held that res judicata principles barred the petitioner from presenting her constitutional claims in the District Court because she failed to raise them in a prior state court proceeding.

The central issue before the Court is whether a litigation of statutory issues in a state court precludes a party from pursuing her federal civil rights claims which were not raised, litigated, or decided in the prior stats court litigation.

This central question gives rise to two, we believe, two subsidiary questions.

First, does the Ohio rule of res judicata bar the petitioner from pursuing the instant action in the federal court, and secondly, should a federal court, consistent with the Congressional policy underlying 1983, deny a civil rights plaintiff a federal forum because he or she litigated, and incidentally prevailed, on a narrow state issue in a state court against the same parties.

The factual history or posture of this case, we believe, is critical to a consideration and determination of the issues before the Court.

The petitioner, Ethel Migra, was employed by the Warren City School District Board of Education as a supervisor of elementary education.

She was employed on a yearly basis, what is designated in Ohio as a limited contract.

In Ohio, a state board of education is, I imagine, in most jurisdictions, is granted very broad discretion in the renewal or non-renewal of a teacher.

Now, in the event that the respondent board determines that a teacher should not be renewed, the board is required under Ohio law to notify the teacher on or before April the 30th of the year in which the contract is to expire.

And then recently our Court of Ohio in Tracey versus O'Steigel Board, Six Ohio State Third 305, also held that in that notification, the board must set forth the basic reason for the non-renewal, although the teacher is not entitled to what they call cause and a hearing, cause and hearing mandate.

William H. Rehnquist:

That would be a doctrine of state law that you are--

John R. Vintilla:

Yes, Your Honor, the Supreme Court.

It was believed that since non-tenured... non-tenured teachers are not entitled to reasons for non-renewal, since they are on a yearly basis, and each year, at the end of the school year, their contract terminations unless the school board on or before April 30th determines it should be renewed, and the teacher has until June the 4th, I believe, of that year to determine whether he or she will accept, and then they are entered into a written contract.

In our situation here, the respondent board held a meeting on April the 17th of 1979, and adopted a resolution unanimously to renew the contract of the petitioner for the ensuing year, and subsequent to that resolution or offer to continue her employment, the petitioner duly accepted and notified the board that she accepted the offer to serve for another year.

One week after the initial meeting of April 17th, the board called a special meeting on April the 24th, at which time it rescinded, reconsidered the renewal of the petitioner and rescinded its earlier resolution to renew her, with a majority of three, a three to one vote, and one member was absent because he was not notified of the... of the special purpose of the meeting, and he was at that time... in fact, two members were sent to Florida as delegates of the board at a national education conference.

Now, as a result of the action of the board in terminating the petitioner, she filed suit in the Common Pleas Court of Trumbull County, Ohio, and in that suit she challenged the validity of the board's action in terminating her, and her complaint in essence set forth a breach of contract, and the second count, or second cause of action, a tort action in the nature of a conspiracy to violate her contract of employment.

The trial judge held trial.

It was a bench trial.

At the trial time he upon his own motion reserved and continued the tort action, the second cause of action, and held trial only on the narrow issue as to whether or not the board, respondent board acted in conformity with the state law as to its non-renewal or termination of the... of the petitioner.

The court then rendered its judgment, found that the petitioner had a binding contract with the school board, that the school board breached the contract, and therefore granted damages to the petitioner in the amount of the salary she lost for the year and ordered her reinstated to her position, but inasmuch as the decision was rendered on March the 20th, and her contract expired in June, she never entered into her position again for one reason or another.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--Mr. Vintilla, I guess there is no question but that your client could have raised these claims in the state court proceeding, could have filed the 1983 and 1985 claims there?

John R. Vintilla:

Oh, no question about it, under concurrent jurisdiction, and Congress has granted to the states concurrent jurisdiction to entertain a civil rights, and the civil rights suitor, plaintiff obviously had a choice.

If she felt comfortable with state court--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And you would agree that if under Ohio law your client would thereafter be precluded because she had not brought them, that that would be binding on the district court, the federal district court?

Is that right?

John R. Vintilla:

--Well, I take the position, we take the position that the Congressional intent in granting plaintiffs... a civil rights plaintiff the choice to go to federal court or the state court, we believe that that grant by Congress is unconditional.

I think as we understand the intent the Congress intended to allow the suitor to determine whether he feels comfortable in the state court, for whatever reason, for local prejudice problems, and go to federal court.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Despite the clear requirement that federal courts give full faith and credit to state court judgments?