What Is Res Judicata?

In Latin, res judicata means "the thing has been decided." It's founded on the principle that a final judgment of a competent court is conclusive and final unless new material evidence becomes available. In other words, litigating parties are not allowed to raise the same issue in future courts.

The general rule is that a plaintiff who has prosecuted one action against a defendant and obtained a valid final judgment is barred by res judicata from prosecuting another action against the same defendant where:

  • The claim in the second action is one which is based on the same factual transaction that was at issue in the first.
  • The plaintiff seeks an additional or alternative remedy to the one sought earlier.
  • The claim is of such a nature as could have been joined in the first action.

Finding a Balance in Res Judicata

Underlying this standard is the need to strike a delicate balance between the interests of the defendant and of the courts in bringing litigation to a close and the interest of the plaintiff in the vindication of a just claim.

Full Faith and Credit Act

The Full Faith and Credit Act, 28 U.S.C. S 1738, requires that federal courts "give a state-court judgment the same preclusive effect as would be given that judgment under the law of the State in which the judgment was rendered. " Migra v. Warren City School Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 81 (1984). Oregon courts adhere to standard principles of claim and issue preclusion. See Rennie v. Freeway Transp., 294 Or. 319 (1982).

What's the Difference Between Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel?

The difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel has been succinctly described by Justice Potter Stewart, who stated that the federal courts have traditionally adhered to the related doctrines of res judicata (claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (issue preclusion). Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.

Under collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case. As courts often recognize, res judicata and collateral estoppel relieve parties of the costs and aggravation of multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and, by preventing inconsistent decisions, encourage reliance on adjudication. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. at 94. The collateral estoppel bar is inapplicable when the claimant did not have a "full and fair opportunity to litigate" the issue decided by the state court. Id. at 101. Thus, a claimant can file a federal suit to challenge the adequacy of state procedures.

Recognized Exceptions in Splitting a Claim

Splitting a claim occurs when a single or indivisible claim or cause of action is divided up into smaller separate parts in order to bring about additional separate suits. Consent or tacit agreement is clear justification for splitting a claim. The primary purpose of claim preclusion is to protect defendants from being harassed by repetitive actions based on the same claim. However, the rule need not be enforced where the State and County have implicitly consented to the splitting of the claim under state and federal laws. See Rennie, 294 Or. at 329 n. 9 (citing 18 Charles A. Wright, Arthur C. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure S 4415 at 124-125; and Annot., 40 A.L.R.3d 108 (1971)).

It may appear in the course of an action that the plaintiff is splitting a claim. However, there are special reasons that may justify them in doing so. For example, there are certain situations where the prior judgment's that's been made ought not to have the usual consequences of extinguishing the entire claim. Rather, the plaintiff should be left with an opportunity to litigate in a second action that part of the claim which they justifiably omitted from the first action.

England Reservation

The so-called England reservation is available to litigants that are in state court "involuntarily" as a result of Pullman abstention by the federal court. Pullman abstention is a principle that prohibits federal courts from dealing with a state's constitutional issue when the state has the means to resolve the issue itself. See England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964); see also Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S.496 (1941).

England reservation applies when a litigant files a suit in federal court and the federal court stays proceedings to allow the state courts to consider state law questions. In such a situation, the litigant may inform the state court that they should reserve all federal issues with the federal courts. By taking this action, the litigant avoids the bar of res judicata upon return to federal court.

Remember, res judicata disallows a party from bringing a claim if a court of competent jurisdiction has rendered its final judgment on the merits in a previous action, involving the same parties and claims. In re Intl Nutronics, Inc., 28 F.3d 965, 969 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 115 S. Ct. 577 (1994). For example, once a bankruptcy plan has been confirmed, it is binding to all parties and all questions that could have been raised pertaining to the plan and are entitled to the res judicata effect. See 11 U.S.C. section 1141(a).

Decision Made by a Court of Competent Jurisdiction

It is a general principle that such decision is binding and conclusive upon all other courts of concurrent power. This principle pervades not only our own, but all other systems of jurisprudence, and has become a rule of universal law, founded on the soundest policy.

For example, Paul sues Peter to recover the funds due from a loan. During the trial, Paul fails to prove that Peter was loaned the monies, and the verdict is rendered in favor of the defendant, Paul. Until this judgment has been reversed due to an error, it will be conclusive upon both parties. Paul will not be able to recover the funds from Peter in a subsequent suit unless he can prove that the monies are due to him.

Conditions to Make a Matter Res Judicata

The Constitution of the U.S. declares that no fact, once tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexaminable in any court. But in order to make a matter res judicata there must be a concurrence of these four conditions:

  • Identity of the thing sued for.
  • Identity of the cause of action.
  • Identity of persons and of parties to the action: This rule is a necessary consequence of the rule of natural justice: ne inauditus condemnetur.

Identity of the quality in the persons for or against whom the claim is made: For example, an action by Peter to recover a horse, and a final judgment against him, is no bar to an action by Peter, administrator of Paul, to recover the same horse.