Collateral Damage: When Should the Determinations of Administrative Adjudications Have Collateral Estoppel Effect in Subsequent Adjudications?
By Matthew Faust
Collateral estoppel is an equitable doctrine under which a court gives issue-preclusive effect to findings of fact or law made in previous proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently held that under certain circumstances, the determinations of administrative adjudications have collateral estoppel effect in federal court. The Court, however, did not address under which circumstances the determinations of administrative adjudications should have collateral estoppel effect in subsequent administrative adjudications. There has been little clear and consistent reasoning in lower federal courts about when collateral estoppel should apply in administrative adjudications, and administrative agencies vary widely in their application of collateral estoppel when conducting adjudications.
This Note argues that neither the balancing test used to apply collateral estoppel in federal court nor the more formalistic per se rules proposed by some commentators are appropriate when applying collateral estoppel between administrative adjudications. Instead, courts should defer to agencies, granting them wide discretion to recognize or not recognize the collateral estoppel effect of prior administrative adjudications.