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DUCKETT v. FULLER, NO. 15-6568

Decided: April 25, 2016

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In April 2013, Plaintiff, Lewis Duckett, and 15 other inmates at Kershaw Correctional Institution sued the South Carolina Department of Corrections and others, alleging that the food served to him was so deficient as to violate his Eighth Amendment rights.  The “Class Action Complaint” alleged that the prison authorities “failed to serve food satisfying recommended minimum daily amounts of vitamins and nutrients; that they served insufficient portions; and that they misrepresented food as beef when it was actually made from ground poultry offal and organs.”  The district court ruled that the case be severed into sixteen separate actions.  After the severance of the action, Duckett paid the filing fee and supplemented his claim.  The district court dismissed Duckett’s complaint on the state defendant’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion, concluding that Duckett was barred by the doctrine of res judicata even after the magistrate judge’s recommendation “‘that neither res judicata or collateral estoppel bar[red] the plaintiff’s complaint.’”  The court concluded that Duckett’s complaint was essentially the same as a 2010 complaint that had been dismissed on the merits and that Duckett was in privity with Plaintiff McFadden in the prior case.  The district court explained “The claims are at their core identical, and thus qualify as the same cause of action.  To allow this claim to go forward would mean relitigating the same issues this court litigated in [the earlier suit].  This goes against the principles behind res judicata.”

On appeal, Duckett argued that he was not bound by the 2010 suit because he was not a party to it, he never had his day in court, and he had no meaningful way of participating in the 2010 suit.  Generally, a person is precluded from relitigating the claim if he has had the opportunity to litigate the claim.  “The doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, is applied to bar a suit in light of a prior judgment when three elements are demonstrated: (1) that ‘the prior judgment was final and on the merits, and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of due process’; (2) that ‘the parties are identical, or in privity, in the two actions’; and (3) that ‘the claims in the second matter are based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding’ i.e., the claims ‘arise out of the same transaction or series of transactions, or in the same core of operative facts.’”  Taylor v. Sturgill stated that a person is not bound by the judgment of another claim if the person was not a designated party.  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the 2010 suit did not bind Duckett because he was not a party to the 2010 suit and he had not been served in that action.  The Court noted Duckett could be bound by the 2010 judgment if he fit into one of the exceptions in Taylor.  The Taylor court identified six exceptions to the general rule:  (1) “a nonparty who agrees to be bound by a judgment in an action ‘“is bound in accordance with the terms of his agreement”’”; (2) “a nonparty may be bound by a judgment ‘based on a variety of pre-existing substantive legal relationships’ between the nonparty and a party in the action, such as ‘preceding and succeeding owners of property, bailee and bailor, and assignee and assignor’”; (3) “a nonparty may be bound by a judgment when the nonparty was adequately represented in the action by a party with the same interests, such as in ‘properly conducted class actions, suits brought by trustees, guardians, and other fiduciaries’”; (4) “a nonparty is bound by a judgment if the nonparty ‘“assumed control” over the litigation in which that judgment was rendered’”; (5) “‘a party bound by a judgment may not avoid its preclusive force by relitigating through a proxy,’ making preclusion ‘appropriate when a nonparty later brings suit as an agent for a party who is bound by a judgment’”; and (6) “‘in certain circumstances a special statutory scheme may “expressly foreclose successive litigation by nonlitigants . . . if the scheme is otherwise consistent with due process.”’”  The Court concluded that Duckett did not fit within exception 1, 3, 4, or 6 because there was not evidence that Duckett agreed to be bound by the 2010 judgment, that McFadden represented Duckett, that Duckett assumed control over McFadden’s 2010 suit, or that Duckett’s action implicated a special statutory scheme limiting relitigation.  The Court also concluded that exception 2 did not apply because there was no evidence that there was a substantive legal relationship between Duckett and McFadden.  Finally, the court concluded that exception 5 did not apply because Duckett paid the filing fee and supplied the court with his own account of the nature of his personal injuries.  Therefore, Duckett was not bound by the 2010 judgment and Duckett was not precluded from pursuing his own similar claims in this action.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris