Migra v. Warren City School District, the Supreme Court
held that the principle of claim preclusion (res judicata)
applies in §1983
cases. Under that principle, plaintiffs who sue under state
law in state court, but elect not to assert
closely related §1983
claims in those suits, will not be permitted to bring their
claims later in federal court.
American law generally permits parties only
one bite at the apple. This one bite rule has two important
Under the doctrine of collateral estoppel (issue
a party who has litigated and lost a particular issue in one
case is not permitted to relitigate the same issue in a subsequent case.
Under the doctrine
of res judicata (claim preclusion) plaintiffs are required to
bring closely related claims together in a single suit. Plaintiffs
who omit such claims from their first suit will be barred from asserting
them in subsequent suits.
(For some additional explanation of these two
In Allen v. McCurry
the Supreme Court held that principles of collateral estoppel would be
applied in §1983
litigation, but left open the issue of whether res judicata principles
would also be applied.
Migra, the Supreme Court resolved that issue.
The Court rejected arguments that plaintiffs should be able to split
their claims by first bringing their state claims in state court and
then bringing their federal §1983
claims in federal court. Plaintiffs who could have raised
claim in prior state court litigation, but failed to do so, will be
barred from raising those claims in subsequent federal court
Migra also resolved an important related issue. Both
cases held that, under 28 U.S.C. §
1738, the federal courts should apply state preclusion law, i.e.,
that they should give a prior state court decision the same preclusive
effect that courts of the rendering state would give it. In doing
so, Migra rejected the argument that federal
courts could apply federal law to give state decisions
greater preclusive effect than given them by the state courts.
While the Board did not give reasons for its
decision, some members claimed that the original vote to renew Dr.
Migra’s contract was made after the superintendent assured them that she
would resign rather than accept the contract.
The superintendent denied having made any
The Firing of Dr. Migra, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical (April 24, 1979)
School Board Praised, Criticized, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical (May 15,
Superintendent in Warren Resigns Post, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical
(October __, 1979).
For an example of the furor over secular
humanism, see, Smith v. Board of School Com'rs of Mobile County, 827 F.
2d 684 (11th Cir. 1987) reversing Smith v. Board of School
Comm'rs, 655 F.Supp. 939, 988 (S.D.Ala.1987).
Richard Logan, Surveillance of Dr. Migra is Charged, Warren Ohio Tribune
Chronical (October __, 1979)
Dr. Migra Plans Ouster Protest, Youngstown Vindicator (May 23, 1979)
on her early life, Ethel Migra (pictured at right) seemed more likely to
be the protagonist in a Horatio Alger story than the central figure in a
local civil rights struggle. Born
in 1930 in rural Lorain County, Ohio, she was the only one of five
siblings to earn a high school diploma.
She married young and—twelve years, three children and a divorce
later—began her first full time job at age 31, serving as secretary to a
high school principal. For the
next nine years, she took extension classes while working and raising
her children. Having earned two
years of college credit, she qualified for a temporary teaching
certificate and took a job teaching fifth and sixth grade at a local
elementary school. After four
years, she enrolled at Kent State where she completed her undergraduate
and Master’s degrees in Elementary Education, as well as a Ph.D. in
Curriculum & Instruction. Fresh
out of Kent State—at age 46—she was hired as Supervisor of Elementary
Education by the Warren City School District.
She served in that position for three years.
At Warren City, she was tasked with revamping the
district’s elementary curriculum.
She was also made director of a
board-created commission that prepared a desegregation plan for the
As was often the case, particularly in the
late 70’s, curriculum reform and desegregation became flash points in
the local version of the culture wars.
the superintendent and some board members supported her efforts, some
members of the board and community saw the curriculum as too progressive
and opposed the desegregation plan because it involved busing.
It initially appeared that Dr. Migra was weathering
this conflict. In April of
1979, the Warren City School Board unanimously adopted a resolution
renewing Dr. Migra's contract for the 1979-80 school year.
However, shortly after Dr. Migra
accepted that renewal, the Board held a special meeting and adopted a
resolution that purported to rescind its previous resolution and to
cancel the contract it had offered a week earlier.
The reasons for the Board’s actions were hotly
disputed. The Board itself declined to explain.1
coalition of minority groups (including
the local NAACP and Urban League) described Dr. Migra’s firing as part
of an effort to impede desegregation.2
A member of a
local anti-busing organization praised the decision as an effort to save
money by eliminating an unnecessary position.3
including board member Constance Goldberg, saw the firing as part of a
personal vendetta by members of the board majority.
Goldberg accused other board members of being influenced by “a small
group of right wing radicals” who believed that the schools had been
infiltrated by “secular humanism.”4
later turned out that the board president had apparently compiled a
“surveillance file” on Dr. Migra and Ms. Goldberg, a file Ms. Goldberg
said “would make Communist Hunter Joe McCarthy look like an angel.”5)
Despite the recommendation of the district’s
superintendent and a legal opinion from its attorney, the Board stood by
In April of 1979, the
Warren City School Board unanimously adopted a resolution renewing Dr.
Migra's contract for the 1979-80 school year, and Dr. Migra promptly
accepted that renewal. However, shortly after receiving that
acceptance, the Board held a
special meeting and adopted a resolution that purported to rescind its
previous resolution and to cancel the contract it had offered her a week
Not surprisingly, Dr. Migra sued the Board and the
three board members who had voted not to renew her contract. Her
initial suit was filed in state court and asserted state law causes of
action for breach of contract by the Board and tortious interference
with contract by the three board members. The state court ruled
against the Board on the breach of contract claim and awarded Dr. Migra
reinstatement and compensatory damages in the nature of back pay.
It reserved the tortious interference claims against the individual
board members and those claims were dismissed without prejudice at the
plaintiff's request. The Board appealed the judgment but the state
appellate court affirmed.
In July of 1980, Dr. Migra sued the Board and the
three individual members, this time in federal court under §1983.
She asserted that her termination violated various constitutional rights
and alleged that it was motivated by hostility to her proposed
desegregation plan and curriculum.
However, the federal courts never reached the merits
of those claims. Instead, the District Court ruled that Dr.
Migra's federal claims were barred under the doctrine of res judicata,
because she should have raised them in her state court proceedings.
The Court of Appeals affirmed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
As discussed in the previous column,
the Supreme Court held that federal courts should apply principles of
res judicata in §1983
actions and that they should give prior state court decisions the same
preclusive effect given them by the state courts. However, the
Court was uncertain whether the District Judge had applied Ohio or
federal preclusion principles. As a result, it sent the case back
to the District Court to interpret Ohio law and apply it.