WHEN IS THE RETURN DOOR TO THE COURT ROOM LOCKED?

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some lawyers are confused about when and how a judgment precludes a return trip to court by operation of res judicata. The confusion is somewhat understandable, since in chancery court we often deal with return trips for modifications and contempts. It’s been discussed here before.

There are chancery cases, however, such as divorce judgments as to property and grounds, property disputes, suits for rescission and specific performance, actions to contest wills, and the like where res judicata can operate as a bar — or not.

The COA case of Rodgers v. Moore, et al., decided last November by the COA, is one of those cases. In 2004, the Moores filed suit to remove cloud on title against Mary Rodgers. In 2006, the suit was dismissed by the court without prejudice pursuant to MRCP 41(d) for failure to prosecute. In 2007, the Moores filed yet another suit, and Mary Rodgers, proceeding pro se, answered that the suit should be dismissed as res judicata due to the prior dismissal. There are some other procedural wrinkles in the case that do not directly pertain to my point here.

The chancellor ruled that the 2004-filed proceeding was not res judicata, and Mary appealed.

Judge Roberts, writing for the court that affirmed the chancellor’s ruling, gave us a handy exposition on the principles of res judicata and why they did not bar the 2007 suit:

¶10. Rodgers first asserts that the chancery court erred in finding that the doctrine of res judicata was not triggered in the current case. The doctrine of res judicata requires the presence of four identities before it is applicable, and the absence of any of the identities is “fatal to the defense of res judicata.” Hill v. Carroll Cnty., 17 So. 3d 1081, 1085 (¶10) (Miss. 2009) (citations omitted). The four identities are as follows: “(1) identity of the subject matter of the action; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the parties to the cause of action; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person against whom the claim is made.” Id. (citing Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Insurance, Inc., 891 So. 2d 224, 232 (¶24) (Miss. 2005)). Additionally, a fifth requirement is that there must be a final judgment adjudicated on the merits. See Harrison, 891 So. 2d at 232 (¶22); Beene v. Ferguson Auto., Inc., 37 So. 3d 695, 698 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). If these five things are established, then res judicata bars any claims that were brought in the prior action or could have been brought in the prior action. Hill, 17 So. 3d at 1084-85 (¶¶9-10).

¶11. Rodgers submits that the four identities are present. She also claims that the chancery court’s dismissal of the case filed in 2004 without prejudice was a final judgment on the merits. According to Rodgers, the plaintiffs in the first suit failed to show ownership of the property, thereby failing to establish superior title. We agree with Rodgers’ contention that the first, second, and fourth identities are present; however, we do not find that the third and fifth identities are necessarily present. The first identity is met because the subject matter of both suits was to remove a cloud on the title of a specific piece of land. The second is the identity of a cause of action. This “is found where there is a commonality among the ‘underlying facts and circumstances upon which the present claim is asserted and relief sought.’” Studdard v. Pitts, 72 So. 3d 1160, 1162 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Riley v. Moreland, 537 So. 2d 1348, 1354 (Miss. 1989)). The causes of action in both cases are the same. Fourth is the quality of the persons against whom the claim is made, which are also the same.

¶12. In dispute are the third identity and the fifth requirement. The third identity is whether the parties in both actions are the same or are in privity with the original parties. See Little v. V & G Welding Supply, Inc., 704 So. 2d 1336, 1339 (¶15) (Miss. 1997); Williams v. Vintage Petroleum, Inc., 825 So. 2d 685, 689 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). It is clear that the original parties to the suit are also parties in the second suit. However, the second suit contains several additional parties not in the original suit. What is unclear from the record is whether these additional parties were in privity with the original parties; nonetheless, the determination of this identity is not dispositive, as the fifth requirement is clearly not met.

¶13. The fifth requirement is that there has been a final adjudication on the merits in the original suit. We do not agree with Rodgers’s claim that the chancery court’s dismissal without prejudice of the 2004 case was an adjudication on the merits. In its October 11, 2010 opinion, the chancery court stated that the original case was dismissed “without ruling on any of the issues brought by either party[.]” In Williams, 825 So. 2d at 688 (¶12) (citing Stewart v. Guar. Bank & Trust Co. of Belzoni, 596 So. 2d 870, 872-73 (Miss. 1992)), this Court stated: “A voluntary dismissal taken without prejudice is not an adjudication on the merits and does not operate as res judicata in subsequent suits.” See also Ladnier v. City of Biloxi, 749 So. 2d 139, 156 (¶69) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). The chancery court’s dismissal of the 2004 case without prejudice was not an adjudication on the merits. The dismissal was on the ground that the “pleadings did not establish the [p]laintiffs as the proper parties to the litigation.” No issue involving the ownership of the disputed property was addressed by the chancery court; therefore, the chancery court was correct in finding that res judicata did not bar the second suit.

An MRCP 41(d) dismissal, then, is not a dismissal on the merits, is without prejudice, and will not operate as res judicata, because it is not a final judgment disposing of all claims in the case. Neither is a voluntary dismissal or any dismissal without prejudice. Don’t overlook, though, that a statute of limitations may run in the time that the case lies dismissed.

Modifications and contempts are not barred by res judicata because (1) the court retains jurisdiction to consider modification of certain issues, and to enforce its judgments, and (2) they are not a relitigation of the prior action, and they are based on and limited to matters occurring post the final judgment.

This case does not add anything substantive to my previous post on the subject, other than some additional authority that you can cite as needed, but it does illustrate the character of judgment that is necessary to operate as a bar.

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