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The Naked Meaning of Res Judicata: Stripper Loses Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Some lawyers chose the legal profession for the money that clients toss at their well-shod feet. In that regard, they have something in common with strippers.

Occasionally, lawyers and strippers cross paths on a professional level. That's what we have in today's Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case, a doozy of a decision on res judicata.

Plaintiff Crystal Ludwig, an exotic dancer, filed a civil rights lawsuit to challenge the Van Buren Township nudity ordinances. The ordinance bans persons "appearing in a state of nudity" from frequenting, loitering, working, or performing in any establishment licensed or subject to licensing by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, reports CBS Detroit. Ludwig, claiming that nudity is a form of free speech, argued that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.

While we appreciate anyone who is willing to fight the good fight for strippers' rights, this wasn't the first lawsuit to challenge the ordinance.

Ludwig's employer, the Garter Belt, Inc., had unsuccessfully challenged the nudity ordinances in 2000, and lost.

In 2002, Samantha Bates, another Garter Belt dancer, filed her own civil rights lawsuit against the Township to challenge the nudity ordinances. The district court held -- and the Sixth Circuit affirmed -- that Bates' action was barred by res judicata.

At the time of Garter Belt I and Bates, Ludwig was not employed or associated with Garter Belt. When she sued in 2007, Van Buren moved for summary judgment under the theory that Garter Belt I precluded the action and Ludwig's suit -- indistinguishable from Bates -- should be dismissed on res judicata.

Ludwig argued that Bates was distinguishable because Ludwig was not yet employed as an exotic dancer when Garter Belt I was decided. Ludwig further argued that the dismissal of her case would violate due process. The district court disagreed, holding that Michigan's res judicata doctrine, under Adair v. State, barred Ludwig's claims.

Michigan broadly construes res judicata to bind parties "so identified in interest with another party that the first litigant represents the same legal right that the later litigant is trying to assert." While the U.S. Supreme Court's warned in Richards v. Jefferson that "extreme" application of res judicata could violate due process, the district court held that barring Ludwig's challenge to the ordinance -- which was almost identical to Garter Belt's challenge -- was not an extreme application.

Here, because the prior action was decided on the merits, both actions involved the same parties or their privies, and the matter in the later case was, or could have been, resolved in the first, res judicata precluded the claim.

While Ludwig is probably disappointed right now, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals outlined an alternative for her lawsuit: If Ludwig changes employers to dance at a club that hasn't litigated the nudity ordinances and challenges the nudity ordinances again, res judicata would not apply.

It sounds like Michigan lawyers will now have a "professional reason" to go see a stripper.

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