Estate Planning and Business Law

What is Res Judicata?

Res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, is the Latin term for "a matter [already] judged." Simply put, if a matter has been adjudicated by a competent court, it may not be pursued further by the same parties.

The burden of proving that the requirements for application of res judicata have been met is upon the party seeking to assert it. ( Vella v. Hudgins (1977) 20 Cal. 3d 251, 257) For res judicata to apply as an affirmative defense to an action: (1) the prior action must have been a final judgment on the merits; (2) the present action must be on the same cause of action as the prior action; and (3) there must be privity between the parties to the prior action and the present action. ( Busick v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1972) 7 Cal. 3d 967, 974; see also Lyons v. Security Pacific Nat. Bank (1995) 40 Cal. App. 4th 1001, 1015 and Brinton v. Bankers Pension Services, Inc. (1999) 76 Cal. App. 4th 550, 556)

1. First Requirement: Final Judgment on the Merits

A final judgment is res judicata only if it is based on the merits ( Hasson v. Cozens (1970) 1 Cal. 3d 576, 580). A judgment is on the merits for purposes of res judicata if the substance of the claim is tried and determined ( Johnson v. City of Loma Linda (2000) 24 Cal. 4th 61, 77). "That only is deemed to have been adjudged in a former judgment which appears upon its face to have been so adjudged, or which was actually and necessarily included therein or necessary thereto. ( Code Civ. Proc. § 1911)

2. Second Requirement: Same Cause of Action

Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, the key issue is whether the same cause of action is involved in both suits ( Eichman v. Fotomat Corp. (1983) 147 Cal. App. 3d 1170, 1174). Unless cause of action in two actions is identical, first judgment does not bar second suit. ( Citizens for Open Access Etc. Tide, Inc. v. Seadrift Assn. (1998) 60 Cal. App. 4th 1053, 1067) If second action involves a different cause of action, rather than different legal theory, doctrine of res judicata does not apply. ( Craig v. County of Los Angeles (1990) 221 Cal. App. 3d 1294, 1299) The case law defines the precise meaning of a cause of action for the purposes of res judicata as follows:

i. Primary Right and the Harm Suffered

Whether a cause of action is identical for purposes of claim preclusion depends on the primary right sought to be protected in the two actions . The invasion of one primary right gives rise to a single cause of action ( Boeken v. Phillip Morris USA, Inc. (2010) 48 Cal. 4th 788, 797; Slater v. Blackwood (1975) 15 Cal. 3d 791, 795; Frommhagen v. Board of Supervisors (1987) 197 Cal. App. 3d 1292, 1299-1300). Court must compare actions, looking at rights which are sought to be vindicated and harm for which redress is claimed; reference must also be made to pleadings and proof in each case. ( Citizens for Open Access Etc. Tide, Inc. v. Seadrift Assn. (1998) 60 Cal. App. 4th 1053, 1067)

For purposes of applying the doctrine of res judicata, the phrase "cause of action" has a precise meaning: The cause of action is the right to obtain redress for a harm suffered ( Boeken v. Phillip Morris USA, Inc. (2010) 48 Cal. 4th 788, 798). Under the primary rights theory, the determinative factor is the harm suffered. ( Id.; Agarwal v. Johnson (1979) 25 Cal. 3d 932, 954; also see Takahashi v. Board of Education (1988) 202 Cal. App. 3d 1464, 1474)

I nvolvement of same facts in both suits is not conclusive . ( Gill v. Hughes (1991) 227 Cal. App. 3d 1299, 1305) Different primary rights may be violated by the same wrongful conduct. ( Branson v. Sun-Diamond Growers (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 327, 342-343) When different primary rights are violated by the same wrongful conduct, a final adjudication of one of the plaintiff's rights does not necessarily bar a second action ( Agarwal v. Johnson (1979) 25 Cal. 3d 932, 954). In Craig v. County of Los Angeles (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 1294 the question was whether a prior mandate proceeding to compel the sheriff's office to comply with an order to hire plaintiff barred the present action for fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and employment discrimination. The Craig court held it did not. The primary right in the mandate action involved the right to be employed as a harbor patrol officer. The later action to recover damages because of the denial of that right involved a different primary right. ( Branson v. Sun-Diamond Growers (1994) 24 Cal. App. 4th 327, 343) In Branson the court held that the primary right to seek authorization for indemnity is not the same cause of action as one for breach of a contract for indemnity. ( Branson v. Sun-Diamond Growers (1994) 24 Cal. App. 4th 327, 343-344)

ii. Res judicata in Unlawful Detainer Actions

The bar of res judicata does not apply where the plaintiff was unable to rely on a certain theory of the case or to seek a certain remedy or form of relief in the first action because of the limitations on the subject matter jurisdiction of the courts or restrictions on their authority to entertain multiple theories or demands for multiple remedies. ( Sun-Diamond Growers (1994) 24 Cal. App. 4th 327, 344) In action in unlawful detainer, sole question in issue is right of present possession, and question of title cannot be litigated therein, hence judgment in an unlawful detainer action is not admissible in action involving title to premises in dispute. ( Martin v. Bartmus (1922) 189 Cal 87, 207).

3. Third Requirement: Same Parties Or Their Privies

Further, for claim preclusion to be available as a defense, the same parties or their privies must be involved in both the prior and present actions (see Busick v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd. (1972) 7 Cal. 3d 967, 974). Because res judicata only applies between the same parties or their privies, when defendants are neither it makes no difference that the claims in the underlying action and current action arose from the same primary right. Such defendants cannot invoke res judicata on their behalf ( Rice v. Crow (2000) 81 Cal. App. 4th 725, 736).

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