In Minnesota, you generally cannot sue a person for the same issue or claim that has already been resolved by a court.
For example, if Dave and Sharon both breached their contract with Rob and Rob sues Dave, Rob cannot later sue Sharon for the same breach of contract. Rob must sue them both at the same time or forever lose the right to sue the other person.
This is similar to the Double Jeopardy legal doctrine in criminal that prevents a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime.
Overview of Res Judicata Concepts in Minnesota
The key legal concepts in this area are described using the following terms:
- Issue Preclusion & Collateral Estoppel are legal rules providing that a judgment in one case prevents (estops) a party to that suit from trying to litigate the issue in another case
- Res Judicata & Claim Preclusion literally mean “a matter [already] judged.”
- Failure to Join a Necessary Party is a requirement under Rule 19.01(b)(2) of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure
- Law of the Case and Stare Decisis are related legal doctrines that are not very relevant here
Example to Illustrate Res Judicata Concepts in Minnesota
The following example may help illustrate the issues.
The maintenance guy at an apartment was negligent in damaging a resident’s valuable personal property. The resident sued the maintenance guy and won, but the maintenance guy has no money. Can the resident now sue the apartment property manager?
Let’s assume that under the principle of respondeat superior, the property manager is liable. However, does the first lawsuit preclude a second lawsuit for the same occurrence under the doctrines of claim preclusion or issue preclusion?
Issue Preclusion & Collateral Estoppel
Minnesota Courts recognize the doctrine of Defensive Non-mutual Collateral Estoppel. This doctrine may be used to prevent a plaintiff from asserting a previously litigated claim against the defendant as laid out in Barth v. Stenwick, 761 N.W.2d 502 (Minn. App. 2009). The four requirements for application of collateral estoppel are: (1) the issues in the prior and present adjudications are identical; (2) there has been a final adjudication on the merits; (3) the estopped party was a party or was in privity with a party to the prior adjudication; and (4) the estopped party has been given a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the adjudicated issue. Haavisto v. Perpich, 520 N.W. 2d 727, 731 (Minn. 1994). In our case, the tenant who had his property destroyed might be precluded from suing the management company if it is decided that the management company and the maintenance man are in privity with each other. Minnesota courts have held that “The principal and agent relationships where privity is found involve a mutuality of legal interests. That is, the legal interests of the principal and agent, or the corporation and its officers, are similarly affected by the outcome of a legal proceeding.” Rucker v. Schmidt, 794 N.W.2d 114, 120 (Minn. 2011), reh’g denied (Mar. 3, 2011) In the case at hand, it is likely that, because of the doctrine of respondeat superior, the maintenance man and the management company would be in privity. The maintenance man is an agent of the management company. His actions could potentially bind the company into liability in certain circumstances. Thus, they share a mutual interest in the outcome of the action. The issue raised in the proposed second case would be whether or not the apartment management company can be held liable for an employee’s actions under the doctrine of Respondeat Superior. Generally, courts hold that an issue that could be brought up but voluntarily isn’t, is waived, and thus has been given a full and fair opportunity to have been heard on it’s merits. This issue would likely also be barred by the doctrine of Claim Preclusion.
Res Judicata & Claim Preclusion
Generally, a plaintiff who prosecuted an action against a defendant and obtained a valid final judgment is not able to initiate another action versus the same defendant where:
- The claim is based on the same transaction that was at issue in the first action
- The plaintiff seeks a different remedy, or further remedy than was obtained in the first action
- The claim is of such nature as could have been joined in the first action
SeeAllen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94, 101 S.Ct. 411 (1980) Again, this all hinges on the privity issue set forth above. Do we have here the “same defendant?” If it is found that privity exists, then yes.
Failure to Join a Necessary Party
Another seemingly likely bar to the plaintiff’s claim in our case would be laid out in in under Rule 19.01(b)(2) of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure. It says that “a person who is subject to service of process shall be joined as a party in the action if … the person claims an interest relating to the subject of the action and is so situated that the disposition of the action in the person’s absence may … leave any one already a party subject to a substantial risk or incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations by reason of the person’s claimed interest.” Here, under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the management company should have been joined in the first suit. The management company claims an interest relating to the subject of the action, because realistically, the company could have been liable had respondeat superior had been properly asserted. Secondly, if an action is successfully brought against the management company, this might allow the plaintiff a double recovery (or at least the potential for one).
Based on the example provided above, the management company, if it can show “privity” existed between the maintenance man and itself, has a very good argument to not be joined under the doctrines of Claim/Issue Preclusion and also under Rule 19.01(b)(2) of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure.
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