Peterson v. Newton (CA1 8/27/13)

Does res judicata apply to a small-claims judgment? The court says “yes.”

Plaintiff took judgment against defendant in the small-claims division for injuries sustained in a car accident. For $2500 whole dollars. Apparently realizing her mistake, she then filed the same claim in Superior Court, so that court dismissed it.

On appeal she argued that res judicata shouldn’t apply to the small-claims division. The court says in ¶8 that she didn’t cite any authority, then beginning at ¶11 discusses for a couple of pages the authority she cited, Clusiau (2010), holding that under the facts of that case collateral estoppel didn’t apply to small claims. But collateral estoppel has different elements and so the court determines that Clusiau doesn’t apply. The general rule – the court cites the Restatement of Judgments and, what else is new, cases from such helpful jurisdictions as Connecticut, Missouri, and Idaho – is that res judicata does apply to courts of limited jurisdiction.

Plaintiff also argues that small claims couldn’t award the full amount of her damages. But filing there was voluntary – “we emphasize [her] intentional decision to initially [sic] pursue her case in small claims court” – it might have been a tactical decision, for example to get some money more quickly – and so she is bound by it.

Although the parties said “res judicata” the court is careful to say “claim preclusion” and offers a cite for it — a 2006 opinion from the Arizona Supreme Court that mentioned “claim preclusion, formerly referred to as res judicata” (sic, i.e., not italicized). Strange that our appellate courts have have used “res judicata” in  269 cases since then. We wonder over whom Judge Brown is announcing his intellectual superiority – you and me or the judges in those 269 cases. He also says “issue preclusion” when discussing Clusiau even though that case itself – from the old, dark days of 2010 – said “collateral estoppel.” He’s apparently too busy to have read this, since we can’t think of another good reason not to.

(link to opinion)