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Nov. 11 Civil Procedure: Res Judicata

I’m going to skip going over the different rules for now. I may come back to that later. So I’m moving on to res judicata. That’s a term that means “thing adjudicated.” In the broad sense, it refers to the finality of judgments and covers claim preclusion (also known as res judicata) and issue preclusion (known as collateral estoppel). We’ll tackle claim preclusion first and collateral estoppel later. Thus, when I use the term “res judicata” for the rest of this post, I’m referring to claim preclusion. 

The doctrine of res judicata is a very important one which the Supreme Court has affirmed several times. In Federated Department Stores v. Moitie, the Court struck down a Ninth Circuit attempt to create an exception to the doctrine. The litigation path of Moitie is pretty convoluted. In essence, the government brought a suit for price fixing and seven plaintiffs filed a suit similar to the government’s. Those suits were dismissed. Two of those plaintiffs, Moitie and Brown, decided not to appeal with the other plaintiffs, but rather to file new litigation. The new suit was still very similar to the government’s complaint, but the attorney tried to couch it in terms of state law instead of federal law. When Moitie II (as it’s known now) reached the Ninth Circuit, the court acknowledged that under a strict interpretation res judicata, Moitie II’s claim would be barred. The wrinkle is that during after Moitie II was filed, the reason the for the original litigation’s dismissal was overturned and the other five plaintiffs won on appeal. The Ninth Circuit thought it would be just and in line with public policy to allow an exception to res judicata because it wouldn’t be fair for Moitie and Brown to not recover when the other plaintiffs did. The Supreme Court, however, wasn’t happy with that decision and held that the res judicata consequences of a final, unappealed judgment on the merits are not altered by the fact that the judgment may have been wrong or rested on a legal principle subsequently overruled in another case. So res judicata is a pretty strong and important doctrine that litigators need to always be aware of.

There are three elements for claim preclusion to come into effect. The first is that you need a judgment on the merits, the claim has to involve the same parties, and it has to involve the same transactions or series of transaction. The first two criteria are pretty clear, but the third isn’t. In Hermann v. Cencom Cable Assn., Judge Posner said that the Restatement definition of a transaction as a pragmatic trial unit (I’m paraphrasing here) isn’t helpful enough. The court ruled that two claims are one for the purposes of res judicata if they are based on the same or nearly the same factual allegations. This is a much more definitive rule that makes it easier to determine to what res judicata would apply and minimize mistakes by attorneys.


November 11, 2006 - Posted by | Civil Procedure

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