Res Judicata: Double Jeopardy’s Civil-Lawsuit Cousin

When Cecil Addison was passed over for promotion, he sued Volvo Trucks North America and Ivan Mitchell in the Western District of Virginia for breach of contract and discrimination. Volvo Trucks had a contract agreement with the United Auto Workers Union. Addison alleged the defendants changed the contract’s job requirements without Union approval so they could put a white male employee in the position for which Addison, a black male, was the most senior qualified employee. He also claimed that, when he complained, they retaliated by terminating his employment. Addison sought $25 million for the career he said they destroyed, and an additional $25 million for pain and suffering. But this wasn’t the first time he filed a lawsuit like this.

Addison made substantially the same allegations, plus others, in an earlier suit he filed in the same court in 2009. In that case, he didn’t communicate with the defendants for over five months, failed to appear at his own scheduled deposition and, when the magistrate judge ordered him to show cause why the case shouldn’t be dismissed, failed to respond. So that case was dismissed.

The principle of res judicata (Latin for “a thing adjudicated”) bars a party from filing a new lawsuit if that party has filed a prior suit on the same claim or on claims arising from the same transactions that could have been raised in that prior suit. The Supreme Court has acknowledged the important reasons for this doctrine, which include (1) preventing the cost and vexation of stacks.jpgmultiple lawsuits, (2) conserving judicial resources, and (3) preventing inconsistent judicial decisions so parties can rely on adjudications.

Res judicata bars a federal case where (1) there has been a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit, (2) the same cause of action for the same facts was raised in both suits, and (3) the same parties or their privies were parties in both suits.

Addison’s first case was dismissed for failure to comply with a court order. But was it a dismissal on the merits? Subject to a few exceptions, which didn’t apply here, Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure deems involuntary dismissals adjudications on the merits. The order dismissing the first action didn’t state whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice. But in the absence of a clear statement in the order, under Rule 41(b), the dismissal is presumed to have been made “upon the merits.”

Res judicata bars both the claims raised and those arising out of the same transaction or occurrence that could have been raised. The language and claims in the two complaints were virtually identical. Though the new complaint clarified a breach of contract claim, the first claim involved the same contract and Addison could have raised the breach claim in the first case.

Both cases also involved identical parties. Thus, Judge James C. Turk concluded that the two cases were essentially identical, satisfying all three elements of res judicata, and dismissed Addison’s second complaint.

Judge Turk also dismissed the case against Volvo Trucks. Rule 4(m) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires defendants to be served within 120 days after the complaint is filed. Though the court ordered Addison to serve Volvo Trucks and gave him extra time to do so, Volvo was never served. Judge Turk rejected Addison’s argument that serving Mitchell at his workplace constituted ‘serving’ the company as well. Dismissal under Rule 4(m) is without prejudice, but Judge Turk made a point of noting that any attempt to refile that claim would be barred by res judicata.

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