This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 05-005552
Jill Clark, Jill Clark, P.A.,
Frederick E. Finch, Matthew J. Franken, Bassford Remele, P.A., 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 3800, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Wright, Judge; and Ross, Judge.
Appellant Shelley Hanson challenges the district court’s dismissal of her negligence suit against respondents Friends of Minnesota Sinfonia and Jay Fishman. Because the district court correctly concluded that Hanson’s claim is barred under the doctrine of res judicata, we affirm.
Appellant Shelley Hanson is a professional clarinet player. Respondent Friends of Minnesota Sinfonia is a non-profit corporation that hires musicians to perform concerts. Hanson contracted to perform with Sinfonia. Respondent Jay Fishman is a co-founder of Sinfonia and serves as its executive director, artistic director, and conductor.
At a Sinfonia rehearsal on March 16, 1999, a light fixture that Fishman placed on a utility table fell on Hanson, injuring her. Hanson participated in a few Sinfonia concerts after the incident but then took a medical leave, claiming that the effects of the accident impaired her judgment and her performing ability. In May 1999, while she was on leave, Hanson received a letter from Fishman rescinding Sinfonia’s offer of summer work and suggesting that she contact Sinfonia when her recovery was complete.
August 2000, Hanson filed a lawsuit in federal court against Fishman and Sinfonia
alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).
Hanson also asserted other state-law claims, including negligent
infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, defamation, interference
with prospective business relations, breach of contract, and promissory estoppel. The court granted summary judgment in favor
of respondents on the
Hanson then brought
suit in February 2002 against respondents in state court, asserting state-law claims
for disability discrimination under the MHRA, negligent infliction of emotional
distress, invasion of privacy, defamation, interference with prospective
business relations, breach of contract, and promissory estoppel. The complaint’s factual allegations—describing
the March 16, 1999 rehearsal and appellant’s injury—were lifted verbatim from Hanson’s
earlier federal complaint. Respondents
moved for summary judgment on all claims.
Hanson’s memorandum in opposition to summary judgment argued, with
respect to her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, that she
“was physically injured by the light pole as a result of the negligence of
Fishman . . . .” The
district court granted respondents’ motion, and we affirmed. Hanson
v. Friends of
In March 2005, Hanson brought a suit in negligence against respondents again in state district court. The complaint’s factual allegations—describing the March 16, 1999 rehearsal and Hanson’s injury—were taken verbatim from the complaints filed in Hanson’s prior federal and state suits against respondents. The complaint asserted that because of respondents’ negligence, Hanson “suffered damages, including but not limited to the loss of income, physical injury, emotional distress and mental anguish, pain and suffering, medical bills, and other harm.” Respondents moved to dismiss Hanson’s claim pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e) (failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted), arguing that the claim was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The district court granted the motion. This appeal follows.
challenges the district court’s decision to dismiss her third lawsuit for
failure to state a claim. In reviewing a
dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under
Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e), we consider de novo whether the complaint sets forth
a legally sufficient claim for relief. Barton v.
court dismissed Hanson’s claim after concluding that it was barred by res
judicata. “The doctrine of res judicata
bars a claim where litigation on a prior claim involved the same cause of
action, where there was a judgment on the merits, and where the claim involved
the same parties or their privies.”
judicata, “[a] judgment on the merits constitutes an absolute bar to a second
suit for the same cause of action, and is conclusive between parties and
privies, not only as to every matter which was actually litigated, but also as
to every matter which might have been litigated therein.” Youngstown
Mines Corp. v. Prout, 266
1. Did the earlier claim involve the same cause of action?
that her earlier lawsuit did not involve the same cause of action as her
present suit. We cannot agree. This prong of the res-judicata test derives
from the principle that “a plaintiff may not split his cause of action and
bring successive suits involving the same set of factual circumstances.” Hauser
v. Mealey, 263 N.W.2d 803, 807 (
The “common test
for determining whether a former judgment is a bar to a subsequent action is to
inquire whether the same evidence will sustain both actions.” McMenomy
v. Ryden, 276
The record before us establishes clearly that Hanson’s February 2002 state-court complaint (asserting, among other things, negligent infliction of emotional distress) involved the same cause of action as her current negligence claim (filed in March 2005). The factual allegations of the earlier claims concerning the circumstances of Hanson’s injury are repeated verbatim in the 2005 negligence claim. The operative facts giving rise to the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress are plainly identical to those giving rise to the negligence claim. Hanson conceded as much in her memorandum in opposition to summary judgment in her earlier case when she claimed damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress because she “was physically injured by the light pole as a result of the negligence of Fishman . . . .”
In her present brief,
Hanson argues that the earlier suit did not involve the same cause of action
because negligent infliction of emotional distress and simple negligence are different
torts with different elements, distinguishing the claims on the grounds that
they “do not litigate the same precise issue.”
At oral argument, Hanson’s counsel acknowledged that the two suits arose
from the “same incident,” but attempted to distinguish between an “incident”—understood
as a factual occurrence—and a cause of action, or legal claim. But the cause
of action, for the purposes of applying res judicata, refers not to the theory
of liability, but quite literally to the cause
of the action. That is, it regards the “group
of operative facts giving rise to one or more bases for suing.” Martin
ex rel. Hoff, 642 N.W.2d at 9. And
although Hanson may be correct that “different facts are necessary to prove the
two claims,” it is also correct that the same set of underlying facts give rise
to both claims regardless of whether Hanson would emphasize or include certain
of those facts, and omit others, in asserting different bases for
One purpose of res judicata is to prevent successive suits involving the same set of factual circumstances but which are based on different legal theories. See Hauser, 263 N.W.2d at 807; Porta-Mix Concrete, Inc. v. First Ins. East Grand Forks, 512 N.W.2d 119, 122 (Minn. App. 1994) (observing that “[a] change in theory of liability cannot be used to avoid the application of res judicata”), review denied (Minn. Apr. 28, 1994). Reviewing the allegations carefully, we conclude that Hanson’s negligence claim involved the same cause of action—the respondents’ involvement in the falling light fixture—as the earlier claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
2. Was there was a judgment on the merits?
The district court’s grant of summary judgment in the earlier state suit was entered into judgment in June 2003. This court then affirmed the district court’s judgment. Hanson forwards multiple arguments relevant, but unpersuasive, as to this issue. She argues that the earlier judgment was final only as to the merits of the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and not as to the merits of the simple negligence claim she now brings. She challenges as “flawed in several respects” the district court’s “notion that res judicata precludes any claim that ‘might’ have been filed” at the same time as other claims arising from the same set of facts. Specifically, Hanson contends that because res judicata is an equitable doctrine, it should not operate to unjustly bar negligence claims, such as her own, that were not previously brought by reason of the very injury allegedly caused by the negligence. She maintains that the simple-negligence claim was “not in fact litigated . . . due to the problems caused . . . by the injury itself.”
arguments are without merit. Her contention
that the earlier judgment disposed of a legally distinct cause of action for
the purposes of res judicata is contrary to precedent explicitly defining
“cause of action” as the “group of operative facts giving rise to one or more
bases for suing,” Martin ex rel. Hoff,
642 N.W.2d at 9, as opposed to the legal theory upon which a prior claim was
based. Also, it is well settled that res
judicata applies to claims that might
have been filed, not just to claims that actually have been filed. See, e.g.,
Youngstown Mines Corp, 266
3. Did Hanson have a full and fair opportunity to litigate the matter in the prior proceeding?
that she did not previously have a chance to litigate the issues related to her
present claims. Whether a party had a
full and fair opportunity to litigate a matter “generally focuses on whether
there were significant procedural limitations in the prior proceeding, whether
the party had the incentive to litigate fully the issue, or whether effective
litigation was limited by the nature or relationship of the parties.” State
v. Joseph, 636 N.W.2d 322, 328 (
Hanson chose not to assert her simple-negligence claim along with her other claims in 2002. Allowing that claim now would frustrate the policies underlying the doctrine of res judicata, including the interest in avoiding unnecessary litigation, the conservation of judicial resources, the establishment of certainty in legal relations, and the elimination of the expense, vexation, waste, and possible inconsistent results of duplicitous litigation. Wessling v. Johnson, 424 N.W.2d 795, 799 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. July 28, 1988). Res judicata prohibits Hanson from splitting her action into successive suits arising from the same allegedly negligent act.
We are unpersuaded by Hanson’s argument that equity requires that she have “her day in court” to assert the negligence claim and that barring her claim on res judicata grounds would “prejudice [her] and make technical defenses more important than the truth.” It is true that res judicata must be applied equitably. But where, as here, a claimant brings serial claims from the same event and injury, and simply relies on strategic considerations or has a mistaken appreciation for how the preclusive doctrine works, application of the doctrine is neither arbitrary nor unjust. See Gollner v. Cram, 258 Minn. 8, 13, 102 N.W.2d 521, 525 (1960) (observing that “[t]he policy requiring that every party be given his ‘day in court’ should not, of course, be defeated by an arbitrary application of the doctrine of res judicata”). We therefore agree with the district court’s decision to dismiss Hanson’s third lawsuit concerning these facts.