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David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499


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Migra v. Warren City School District

465 U.S. 75 (1984)
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Migra's Legal Significance

Migra's Background Story

In 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 §1983 claims later in federal court. 

American law generally permits parties  only one bite at the apple.  This one bite rule has two important aspects: Under the doctrine of collateral estoppel (issue preclusion), 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 doctrines, click here.)  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.

In 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 their §1983s claim in prior state court litigation, but failed to do so, will be barred from raising those claims in subsequent  federal court suits. 

Allen and 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.  


















 [1] 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 such assurances.

[2] The Firing of Dr. Migra, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical (April 24, 1979)

[3] School Board Praised, Criticized, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical (May 15, 1979)

[4] 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).

[5] Richard Logan, Surveillance of Dr. Migra is Charged, Warren Ohio Tribune Chronical (October __, 1979)

[6] Dr. Migra Plans Ouster Protest, Youngstown Vindicator (May 23, 1979)

Based 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 elementary schools.   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.  Although 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  A 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  Some critics, including board member Constance Goldberg, saw the firing as part of a personal vendetta by members of the board majority.  Ms. 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  (It 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 its decision.6

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 earlier. 

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.