Law School Case Brief
Taylor v. Sturgell - 553 U.S. 880, 128 S. Ct. 2161 (2008)
The preclusive effect of a judgment is defined by claim preclusion and issue preclusion, which are collectively referred to as "res judicata." Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, a final judgment forecloses successive litigation of the very same claim, whether or not relitigation of the claim raises the same issues as the earlier suit. Issue preclusion, in contrast, bars successive litigation of an issue of fact or law actually litigated and resolved in a valid court determination essential to the prior judgment, even if the issue recurs in the context of a different claim. By precluding parties from contesting matters that they have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate, these two doctrines protect against the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and foster reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions.
Greg Herrick, an antique aircraft enthusiast seeking to restore a vintage airplane manufactured by the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation (FEAC), filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for copies of technical documents related to the airplane. The FAA denied his request based on FOIA's exemption for trade secrets. Herrick took an administrative appeal, but when respondent Fairchild, FEAC's successor, objected to the documents' release, the FAA adhered to its original decision. Herrick then filed an unsuccessful FOIA lawsuit to secure the documents. Less than a month after that suit was resolved, petitioner Brent Taylor, Herrick's friend and an antique aircraft enthusiast himself, made a FOIA request for the same documents Herrick had unsuccessfully sued to obtain. When the FAA failed to respond, Taylor filed suit in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Holding the suit barred by claim preclusion, the District Court granted summary judgment to the FAA and to Fairchild, as intervenor in Taylor's action. The court acknowledged that Taylor was not a party to Herrick's suit, but held that a nonparty may be bound by a judgment if s/he was "virtually represented" by a party. The D.C. Circuit affirmed, announcing a five-factor test for "virtual representation." The first two factors of the D. C. Circuit's test—"identity of interests" and "adequate representation"—are necessary but not sufficient for virtual representation. In addition, at least one of three other factors must be established: "a close relationship between the present party and his putative representative," "substantial participation by the present party in the first case," or "tactical maneuvering on the part of the present party to avoid preclusion by the prior judgment." The D. C. Circuit acknowledged the absence of any indication that Taylor participated in, or even had notice of, Herrick's suit. It nonetheless found the "identity of interests," "adequate representation," and "close relationship" factors satisfied because the two men sought release of the same documents, were "close associates," had discussed working together to restore Herrick's plane, and had used the same lawyer to pursue their suits. Because these conditions sufficed to establish virtual representation, the court left open the question whether Taylor had engaged in tactical maneuvering to avoid preclusion. The Court disapproved the doctrine of preclusion by "virtual representation" and held that the preclusive effects of a judgment in a federal-question case decided by a federal court should instead be determined according to the established six categories for nonparty preclusion. On appeal, the court of appeals reached beyond those six categories, and its definition of "adequate representation" strayed from the meaning that the Court attributed to that term.
Did the lower court err in precluding Taylor from filing a suit because he is bound to a judgment by virtual representation?
The United States Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the matter to give the lower courts an opportunity to determine whether petitioner, in pursuing the instant FOIA suit, was acting as his friend's agent. The Court refused to adopt an amorphous balancing test that was at odds with the Court's constrained approach to nonparty preclusion. In considering whether the result reached by the lower courts could be justified based on one of the six established grounds, the Court found that a remand was necessary to address the only applicable ground.
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