Howell v. Hodap (CA1 5/12/09)

This is a res judicata case that discusses the effect a federal action has on a state action.

Hodap was a member of the Flagstaff version of those paramilitary anti-drug police units. He and other officers broke into the Howells’ home but apparently didn’t find enough to support a drug charge. (Mr. Howell shot at the officers, which earned him charges for attempted murder and aggravated assault, which were eventually dismissed.) (The opinion lingers lovingly on the details of the break-in; it tells us, for example, about the “halogen tool on the lip of the security door.” We’re afraid to ask why anybody at the court thought that an important fact.)

The Howells filed suit in Yavapai County for violation of their state constitutional rights, state statutory rights, and various torts. They then filed suit in federal court for violation of federal constitutional rights and statues. The factual allegations in both cases were essentially identical.

In the District Court, the Howells lost summary judgment on some of their counts and lost a jury trial on the others.

The defendants then moved for summary judgment in the state court action based on res judicata and collateral estoppel, which motion the court denied. Some of the plaintiffs’ causes of action were thrown out by other motions; others went to trial. The jury found for defendants on all, except that they awarded Mrs. Howell $10,000 for false arrest.

On appeal , the defendants argued that the trial court should have granted their res judicata motion. The Court of Appeals agreed.

The parties agreed that the two cases involved the same parties and that the federal case had gone to judgment on the merits. That left only one element of res judicata to be decided: whether the suits had involved the same claims and causes of action.

The conclusive effect of a federal case is, the court said, controlled by federal law. In the Ninth Circuit, claims are the same if they “arise out of the same transactional nucleus of facts.” For some reason, the court cites a Ninth Circuit case that sets out other elements as well, then cites still more Ninth Circuit cases to establish that the “transactional nucleus” test is the one that really counts. (How, you ask, does a “transactional nucleus” differ from a “nucleus?” We wish courts would ask – and answer – that sort of question.)

The plaintiffs argued that their state constitutional rights were broader than their federal rights. But res judicata depends not merely on what claims were brought but on what claims could have been brought. The state causes of action could have  been brought as pendant claims in the federal case, so the resolution of that case precluded the state claims as well.

This was an example of those two-headed cases – one opinion that’s published and one that isn’t. The unpublished opinion discusses interesting issues, some tied fairly closely to res judicata; it would be interesting to know why the court split one part of the analysis out as a separate opinion. The memorandum opinion also addresses to some extent the other issues raised by filing two lawsuits, which some lawyers appear to think clever.