The doctrine of res judicata is similar to the criminal law concept of double jeopardy, but in a civil law setting. Res judicata bars any party to a civil lawsuit from suing again on the same claim or issue that has previously been decided by the court. This includes any issue that was heard and decided in the first lawsuit, even if the subsequent lawsuit attempts to state different reasons the party should prevail. To explore this concept, consider the following Res Judicata definition.
Definition of Res Judicata
- A case that has been decided by a court of competent jurisdiction, and not subject to re-litigation by the same parties.
1684-1695 Latin (a thing adjudicated; a judged matter)
What is the Doctrine of Res Judicata
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals accused of committing a crime from being put on trial a second time after the matter has been judged. In the civil law arena there is a need to prevent people who are not happy with the outcome of their civil lawsuit from re-filing the same matter again, hoping to get a different result.
The doctrine of res judicata addresses this issue, as it bars any party to a civil lawsuit from seeking to have the matter retried once a judgment has been issued by the court. This applies whether the party wishing a new trial has new evidence to present, or attempts to state a different reason for his claim for damages for the same violation of his rights.
Res Judicata vs. Collateral Estoppel
There is a similar legal doctrine that bars a party to a legal action from seeking to have an issue within a case re-decided after the issue has been formally decided by a judge, or in some other legal proceeding, in a previous case. This doctrine is referred to as “collateral estoppel,” or “estoppel by record.” In collateral estoppel, the subsequent lawsuit involves a different cause of action, and some or all of the parties to the previous suit. While this is allowed, the action is bound by decisions of fact, or of matters of law, made by the judge in the original suit.
Res judicata differs in that it restricts the re-trial of the entire civil matter, rather than just judicial decisions on small, yet important, issues within the original case. The difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel then becomes a question of whether the court is being asked to make a judgment on an issue, or on a claim.
An issue, which may be subject to collateral estoppel, is a fact or question of law that was specifically disputed in a previous case. This might include something like a dispute as to the authenticity of an email used to prove one party’s case in a lawsuit.
Example of issue preclusion in collateral estoppel:
Jane sued Matthew, her supervisor at work, for sexually harassing her, causing her to quit her job. During the trial, Jane provided copies of email communications from Matthew, as evidence. Matthew argued that the emails were not real, but after considering his argument, the judge decided the emails were real, and could be submitted as evidence.
A few months after the trial, Jane filed a lawsuit against her employer for failing to take action when she complained about Matthew’s sexual harassment. If the employer attempted to claim that the emails Jane wants to submit as evidence are not genuine, the issue would fall under collateral estoppel. The issue of the authenticity of the emails was already decided in Jane’s previous lawsuit against Matthew, and so the court cannot re-decide the issue.
A claim, which may be subject to res judicata, is the actual basis for a lawsuit. Res judicata applies when a litigant attempts to file a subsequent lawsuit on the same matter, after having received a judgment in a previous case involving the same parties. In many jurisdictions this applies not only to the specific claims made in the first case, but also to related claims that could have been made during the same case.
Example of claim preclusion in res judicata:
Nathaniel was injured when he was rear-ended while waiting at a stoplight. After seeking medical treatment, Nathaniel files a civil lawsuit seeking reimbursement for his medical expenses, as well as for his time off work while he recuperated. The judge decides in Nathaniel’s favor, and orders the other driver to pay Nathaniel’s medical bills, missed work, and pain and suffering.
A couple of months later, Nathaniel realizes that he cannot afford to repair the damages his car sustained in the accident. He files a second lawsuit, asking that the other driver be ordered to pay for the $4,000 repairs. In many jurisdictions, Nathaniel’s second claim (for car repairs) would be dismissed, as he could have, and should have, brought the claim up during the original lawsuit. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to ensure all claims resulting from the same incident are brought up and tried together.
Requirements for Res Judicata
The principle of res judicata has its roots in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which addresses the finality of judgments rendered in a civil jury trial. The text provides that “… no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Although this text specifies that no fact previously decided can be brought up later, it actually pertains to both res judicata and collateral estoppel. Once a jury has rendered a verdict in a civil trial, it cannot be changed by another court, except under very specific conditions. Those conditions include reversible errors made by the court or the jury in the original trial, and they may be taken before an appellate court. This is claim preclusion, or res judicata.
The courts have also maintained that an official ruling or decision on any fact of a case during litigation cannot be re-decided in another matter related to the same parties and incident. This is issue preclusion, or collateral estoppel.
There are certain elements that must be present in order for a litigant’s claim of res judicata to be considered valid. The party claiming res judicata must show to the court the following:
- The specific cause of action in the prior lawsuit
- The specific issue or fact that was addressed and decided in the prior lawsuit
- The identities of the parties to the prior lawsuit
- The designation or position of the parties in the previous lawsuit (which parties were plaintiffs, and which were defendants)
- Whether the judgment on the previous lawsuit was final
- Whether all parties to the previous lawsuit were given full and fair opportunity to be heard on the issue
Purpose of Designation of Parties
The purpose of specifying the position or role of each party to the previous lawsuit is to determine whether the parties hold the same or different positions in the new lawsuit.
Melanie filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of her elderly mother, who was swindled out of several thousand dollars by her landlord, Hank. Prior to, and during the drawn-out litigation, Hank engaged in a campaign of smearing Melanie’s reputation, as well as her mother’s, by posting derogatory and deceitful comments on social media. He even went so far as to call Melanie’s employer to call her a trouble-making thief. At trial, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Melanie’s mother, awarding her every penny Hank had cheated her out of.
A few weeks after the trial, Melanie files a civil lawsuit for defamation of character, basing her claim on the libelous and slanderous comments Hank had made publicly about her. At trial, Hank may argue that Melanie cannot sue him based on res judicata, as she had already received a judgment on her mother’s case. Hank would be mistaken, however, as in the new lawsuit, Melanie has shifted roles. In the first lawsuit, Melanie acted on behalf of her mother, meaning Melanie herself was not a party to the case. In this new case, Melanie is suing on her own behalf. Res judicata therefore does not apply.
Example of Res Judicata in Real Estate Fraud Case
In 1999, Anita Davis loaned over $500,000 to several individuals who functioned as a real property investment company, for the purpose of purchasing several properties, and fixing them up for resale. Davis learned that the company had falsely inflated the values of the properties they were to purchase with Davis’ money, and that they had no intention to ever rehabilitate the properties. Davis filed a civil lawsuit claiming the company had defrauded her, and seeking damages to the tune of nearly $1 million. At trial, the judge dismissed Davis’ claim with prejudice, as she had not sufficiently proven her case.
Two years later, Davis filed a new lawsuit against the same investment company, claiming breach of contract, as it had failed to make any payments on the four deed of trust notes they had signed in the original loan transaction. Davis also claimed that, although plaintiffs had surrendered the properties to her, she spent a great deal of money to make improvements to the properties, but ultimately incurred a loss after the properties were sold.
In the new lawsuit, Davis requested over $164,000 in damages, plus interest, attorney’s fees, and other costs of suing the defendants. The defendants requested that the Court dismiss her lawsuit with a plea of res judicata, arguing that she was barred from bringing this claim by res judicata, because her prior claim for fraud had been dismissed with prejudice. Defendants backed up this argument by claiming the facts, accusations, and damages in the breach of contract case were the same as those in the fraud case. The circuit Court agreed with the defendants, and dismissed Davis’ case with prejudice.
Davis appealed her case to the state of Virginia Supreme Court, which affirmed the requirements of res judicata. The Court also reiterated that the party claiming the defense of res judicata must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claim is barred by a prior judgment.
Davis first lawsuit claimed that the defendants committed actual fraud, and that she had relied on their representations of the value of the collateral (the real properties) securing the deeds of trust, which were false. To prove actual fraud, a plaintiff must prove to the Court that the defendants intentionally and knowingly made a false representation about a material fact, with the intent to mislead, and that the plaintiff’s damages were due to her reliance on the defendants’ statements.
The Court ruled that Davis’ lawsuit for breach of contract is identified as a separate claim. While the claim for fraud required the plaintiff to prove that the defendants had intent to defraud her, her claim for breach of contract required her to prove:
- That the deed of trust notes existed
- The defendants failed to pay the notes as agreed
- The amount and nature of Plaintiff’s damages based on defendants’ breach of contract
Evidence necessary to proving fraud is not only different from, but irrelevant to, proving a claim of breach of contract. Because irrelevant evidence is not allowed to be presented, the two cases were definitively of separate issues. The Court rejected the defendants’ claim of res judicata, and concluded that the district court had erred in dismissing Davis’ claim for breach of contract.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Dismissed with Prejudice – A lawsuit being dismissed permanently, with no option for the plaintiff to re-file.
- Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
- Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Preponderance of Evidence – The belief by a jury or judge that evidence presented by one party in a civil lawsuit is more convincing, or believed to be more truthful, than that presented by the opposing party. In other words, it is more likely than not that such evidence is true.