Friday, March 10, 2017

There's No Intra-Case Res Judicata

Samara v. Matar, No. B2657525 (D2d7 Feb. 15, 2017)

P brings a dental malpractice claim against Dentist and against Dentist’s Employer. Employer was sued both on a respondeat superior theory and for negligently retaining Dentist, who supposedly had some licensing issues. Dentist wins SJ on the alternative grounds of the statute of limitations and lack of causation. The court of appeal affirms on the SOL, but expressly doesn’t reach causation. On remand, Employer moves for SJ, arguing that the prior no-causation ruling is preclusive in a way that prevents vicarious liability based on Dentist’s conduct. Trial court grants the motion.

There’s a bunch of case law that says that non-mutual collateral estoppel can’t apply to an adverse finding that is appealed, but which the appellate court expressly declines to reach. The trial court here, however, tried to sidestep those cases by claiming that the issue here was res judicata, not collateral estoppel. (Viz., claim, not issue, preclusion). But the preclusive power of res judicata applies only to separate lawsuits. As the judgment against Dentist was entered within the same case, res judicata doesn’t apply. 

Which means if there’s going to be preclusion, it will have to come from collateral estoppel. But collateral estoppel only applies to issues that are actually decided. And the cases are pretty clear that an issue isn’t “actually decided” when it’s appealed but the appellate court expressly declines to reach it. 


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