In the American system, it is fairly easy to get in the courthouse door. Almost anyone willing to pay the filing fee, and many cannot do so, access to our civil judicial system. However, while the American system is relatively open to provide a litigant their “day in court,” the system developed a pretty strict set of rules that make sure that a party to a court case gets only one bite of the apple.
As a society, we determined that multiple, repetitive lawsuits serve little useful purpose. They are costly, duplicative, and in some cases, vengeful. On the criminal side, the Constitutional provision against double jeopardy is also an embodiment of the ideal that there should not be multiple serial judicial proceedings once there has been a final verdict and judgment in a case.
In the civil arena, the legal terms encompassing these principles are called res judicata and collateral estoppel. A rough translation of the former from Latin is “a thing adjudged.” The basic concept is pretty simple.
If someone brings a court case against another party and that case is finally resolved, usually on the merits. Still, sometimes not, then that party is deemed to have had their “bite of the apple.” They cannot bring another case against the same party arising out of the same transaction or any other matter which could have been litigated in that case. Like many things in the law, there are exceptions, but that rule of res judicata is an accepted part of the fabric of the judicial system.
Collateral estoppel or issue preclusion is a related concept which speaks to discrete issues rather than entire cases. For example, if a suit is brought and damages are determined to be $50,000, then the Plaintiff may well be estopped to claim that the damages were really $100,000 because they have already been judicially determined to be $50,000 in the earlier proceeding.
However, because Defendant Number Two was not a party to the earlier litigation, they’re not bound by the earlier judgment. They, therefore, may be able to argue that Plaintiff’s damages are less than $50,000. The key is that the doctrine applies to parties to the earlier action, and in some instances, to their heirs and successors, but not to “strangers” to the earlier case.
Development in this area that seems to parallel the growth of the broad field of regulatory law applies these doctrines in the non-judicial administrative arena. An extreme example might be going to the local Code Enforcement Office for a building permit and being turned down. Sometimes, but not always, the correspondence denying the permit advises an applicant of their right to appeal to the local Board of Appeals.
What if the applicant doesn’t do so?
Will they be barred or estopped from coming back later and reapplying for that permit? The answer could well be “yes,” in an application of these doctrines. Another example would be an applicant for Social Security disability who applies and is turned down. The effect of the previous denial may at least limit a reapplication at a later time.
The rationale of judicial decisions that have upheld those denials later is that the applicant had a right and a route to appeal if they felt the denial was wrong and cannot return later and attempt to relitigate a case or issue already decided. Thus, some people, especially those who didn’t seek timely legal advice, find out to their dismay that they are barred or prevented from undertaking what they thought would be routine because of what they believed to be a low level and minor decision, which may well have been wrong at the time.
Stated another way, if a judicial or administrative decision becomes final, it cannot later be attacked or overturned even if it was a wrong decision. To complicate matters even further, there may be decisions deemed binding for some purposes but not for others. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently decided that a prior OUI conviction obtained without adequate legal representation at the time could not be used to enhance criminal charges.
Thus, they were stricken for that purpose. Those same convictions could form the basis for the Secretary of State’s determination of the person to be a habitual offender, which gave rise to a separate criminal charge under that law. These issues can be complex, even for lawyers.
Perhaps of more concern, they are not the type of problem that is always immediately apparent at the start of a civil or administrative matter. When someone realizes the problem and consults a lawyer, it may be too late to attack a prior judicial or administrative decision collaterally. Thus, consulting legal counsel sooner rather than later is one way to reduce the risk of an unwanted, unpleasant result.
Under present law, there is no requirement that a local, state, or federal government advise an applicant of these doctrines’ possible application and consequences. Thus, the average citizen is on their own to learn what could happen and how it could affect them down the road. Having timely legal advice could make the difference between success and failure.