Law School Case Brief
Estate of Dito - 198 Cal. App. 4th 791, 130 Cal. Rptr. 3d 279 (2011)
Res judicata describes the preclusive effect of a final judgment on the merits. It prevents relitigation of the same cause of action in a second suit between the same parties or parties in privity with them. Under the doctrine of res judicata, all claims based on the same cause of action must be decided in a single suit; if not brought initially, they may not be raised at a later date. A claim raised in a second suit is based on the same cause of action as one asserted in a prior action if they are both premised on the same primary right. The plaintiff's primary right is the right to be free from a particular injury, regardless of the legal theory on which liability for the injury is based. The scope of the primary right therefore depends on how the injury is defined. A cause of action comprises the plaintiff's primary right, the defendant's corresponding primary duty, and the defendant's wrongful act in breach of that duty.
Respondent Elenice Dito was the housekeeper of spouses Frank and Rosana Dito. After the death of Rosana, decedent Frank married respondent Elenice. The parties contracted a pre-nuptial agreement wherein they stated that both parties waived their right to alimony, maintenance, or spousal support in the event of divorce, death, or dissolution of marriage. When Frank died, Elenice filed a petition seeking her share of Frank's estate as an omitted spouse, a determination that the prenuptial agreement is unenforceable, and a determination that the surviving spouse's waiver in the prenuptial agreement is unenforceable. The trial court ruled that Elenice was the surviving spouse of Frank and was entitled to receive a share of his estate. This ruling was affirmed by the Supreme Court of California. Appellants Barbara, the daughter of the decedent and deceased spouse Rosana, and George Merritt filed the petition entitled “Petition to Determine Entitlement to Receive Omitted Spousal Share.” Appellants alleged that Elenice committed financial elder abuse against Frank. Appellant alleged that Elenice paid her friends amounts totaling at least $19,357 from her joint account with Frank. Respondent Elenice filed a demurrer to the petition on the ground of res judicata, among others. The trial court granted the demurrer without leave to amend as the spousal share of Elenice was already determined and affirmed on appeal.
Was the action for financial elder abuse barred on the ground of res judicata by virtue of a prior case for the determination of the status of the wife as an omitted spouse?
The court concluded that the claims in appellants' petition were not identical to the issues litigated in the prior proceeding. Among the issues the parties contested in the prior proceeding were the validity of respondent’s marriage to the decedent and the validity of a spousal waiver contained in a prenuptial agreement. It was necessary to resolve these issues to determine the primary right asserted by respondent - i.e., her status as an omitted spouse entitled to receive a share of the decedent's estate under Prob. Code, § 21610 et seq. The primary right at issue in appellants' petition was different from that considered in the prior proceeding. Appellants sought a finding that respondent Elenice committed financial elder abuse against the decedent. The financial elder abuse allegations had no bearing upon the determination of whether respondent was an omitted spouse. Because the primary right at issue in appellants' petition was different from the one at issue in the prior proceeding, appellants' petition was not barred as a matter of law on the basis of res judicata. Nevertheless, the demurrer should have been sustained on other grounds in the demurrer even if it was not taken up by the trial court.
The court modified the order of the trial court to specify that it was a judgment of dismissal as to appellants' petition. The trial court was directed to enter a new and different order sustaining the demurrer with leave to amend.
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