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If at First You Don't Succeed ... Res Judicata Applies

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

In life, persistence often pays off. In an appeal, it can result in costs and damages.

In today's Third Circuit appeal, we have an eager litigant who couldn't escape the scourge of a res judicata ruling, but narrowly avoided sanctions thanks to a "colorable argument."

For 10 years, Andrew J. Bullock IV owned a home that was managed by the Main Street Village Homeowners' Association. Several incidents occurred during that time period, ultimately ending with the foreclosure and Sheriff's sale of Bullock's home. As a result, Bullock filed his first complaint against 56 defendants, asserting federal and state law claims. The district court dismissed the federal claims for failure to state claim upon which relief could be granted, lack of standing, and because three of them were criminal in nature.

Bullock's encore act was another lawsuit -- this time against 45 of the same defendants from his previous case -- alleging substantially the same facts and claims as before, along with a derivative claim on behalf of the Association. The defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing that Bullock's complaint should be dismissed under the doctrine of res judicata. The district court agreed.

Three elements must be established to prevail on a motion seeking to invoke res judicata: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action. Res judicata "bars not only claims that were brought in a previous action, but also claims that could have been brought."

In his first case, Bullock alleged that certain parties committed a fraud upon the state court that prompted the Sheriff's sale of his home. Though the district court did not specifically mention "fraud upon the court" in its ruling, it dismissed the claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In the second case, Bullock alleged that the same parties perpetrated the same fraud based on the same set of facts. Again, without specifically naming the claim, the district court dismissed Bullock's case.

On appeal, Bullock told the Third Circuit that res judicata did not apply because "fraud upon the court allows any court to treat any previous case as a nullity," and the "fraud upon the court" had never been addressed. The Third Circuit, disagreed, finding that res judicata barred Bullock's claim

The outcome could have been worse for Bullock. Though two of the defendants asked the Third Circuit to impose Rule 38 sanctions on Bullock for filing a frivolous appeal, the appellate court denied the request because Bullock had "at least a colorable argument in favor of his appeal." The court, however, taxed costs against Bullock under Rule 39.

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