This article is written by Anushka Tripathi, pursuing BBA LLB from NMIMS School of Law, Bangalore. This article deals with the concept of res judicata and its scope.
What happens if a plaintiff has various grounds to claim relief that they could have taken in a suit, but did not take them all at the time of the suit, or if a defendant fails to present one of his grounds for defence in a suit? Is it possible for them to file suit after suit for every ground of claim or defence that they come up with or can they challenge a court’s judgement over an issue by filing the same suit again in another court?
The doctrine of res judicata has the answer to all these questions. The main objective of this doctrine is to prevent a party from being harassed multiple times over the same issue and also establish the finality of judicial rulings.
Res judicata is made up of two words- res meaning “subject matter” and judicata, meaning “decided”. So, the literal meaning of the doctrine of res judicata is any matter which has been finally decided by a court.
The principle of Res Judicata is believed to have its roots in the ancient legal systems of various countries. According to the ancient Hindu law, res judicata was termed as “Purva Nyaya” by the Hindu lawyers. The Roman perspective divided the concept of Res judicata further into two- issues; preclusion and claim preclusion.
The doctrine of Res Judicata emerged in England and later became an integral part of the English common law system and later was adopted by the Indian legal system. In the U.S. Constitution, the doctrine of res judicata is found in the Seventh Amendment. It recognises the finality of a judgement after a fair trial.
The doctrine aims to prevent the re-litigation of the same case between the same parties over the same issue in two different courts.
Meaning of res judicata
The doctrine of Res judicata is based on three Latin maxims
- Interest Republicae est sit finis litium– It is in the interest of the State that litigation should come to an end.
- Nemo Debet Bis Vexari Pro Una Et Eadem Causa– No person or party shall be vexed more than once for the same cause of action.
- Res judicata pro veritah seliptor– This maxim says that any and judicial decisions must be accepted as correct.
Essentials conditions of res judicata
- The matters must be civil in nature.
- There must be two suits- a prior suit followed by a subsequent suit.
- The parties in both the suits must be the same or litigating under the same title.
- The court which has decided the prior suit must have competent jurisdiction over the matter.
- The subject matter of both the suits must be similar, either directly or substantially. Here, directly means that any matter that is directly related with an issue while substantially means that the fact that is essential for deciding the issue in the prior suit.
- The matter must be heard and conclusively decided in the former suit.
Exceptions to res judicata
- The original judgement is found to be a fraud.
- The cause of action is different in both the suits.
- Lack of Jurisdiction of the court deciding the original suit.
- Change or amendments in the law, and these new laws give new rights and defences to the party.
Scope of res judicata
Res judicata consists of two concepts-
1. Claim preclusion- Claim preclusion bars litigation of all issues that were or could have been litigated in the original action under the original claim.
2. Issue preclusion- It is also known as collateral estoppel which means that the same parties cannot sue each other over the issues that have been already litigated after a conclusive judgement has been reached based on merits in civil litigation.
Lucky Brand Dungarees, Inc. v. Marcel Fashions Group, Inc. (2020)
Marcel and Lucky Brand both sell jeans and other apparel. Marcel has a trademark registered for the phrase “get lucky” while Lucky Brand has a registered trademark “Lucky Brand”, under which it sells its apparel. Both these entities use the word “lucky” in their trademarks.
This similarity between their trademarks has led to trademark litigation that has spanned over decades. This series of lawsuits began in 2001, where Marcell, the plaintiff, filed a suit against Lucky Brand, the defendant, over its use of the phrase “get lucky” in their advertisements.
The parties agreed to settle in 2003, with Lucky Brand agreeing to no longer use the phrase “get lucky” and Marcel releasing any claims it may have had with relation to Lucky Brand’s use of its own registered trademarks.
The 2005 lawsuit
Round two of lawsuits commenced in 2005, where Lucky Brand filed a suit against Marcel, alleging that Marcel was copying Lucky Brand’s designs and logos in their new clothing line. Marcel countersued on the grounds of Lucky Brand’s continued use of the “get Lucky” phrase and thus violative of the settlement agreement of 2003. It also alleged that Lucky Brand’s use of the phrase “get lucky” along with “Lucky Brand” was confusingly similar to the “get lucky” phrase used and owned by Marcel. However, Marcel’s countersuit did not allege any infringement of trademark for the marks owned by Lucky Brand that did not include the “get lucky” phrase.
Lucky Brand then moved to get Marcel’s counterclaims dismissed because they were barred by the release provision of the settlement agreement. But after the initial motion for dismissal was denied without prejudice by the District Court, Lucky Brand stopped pursuing this defence.
This round was concluded in two parts.
a. District court permanently enjoined Lucky Brand from using, copying, or imitating the “get lucky” phrase and,
b. The jury decided against Lucky Brand on Marcel’s counterclaims that alleged the use of “get lucky” alongside “Lucky Brand” of trademark infringement.
The 2011 lawsuit-
The third round of litigation began in April 2011, with Marcel filing an action, again, against Lucky Brand, alleging that it was violating the judgement issued in the 2005 suit by the continued infringement of Marcel’s “get lucky” mark by using its own trademarks, many of which had the word “lucky” in it. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a summary judgement to Lucky Brand, asserting that Marcel’s counterclaims in 2005 and its claims in 2011 were essentially the same and the ruling from the 2003 agreement barred Marcel from bringing any further claims against Lucky Brand.
However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that Marcel’s claim in the 2011 suit was different from its claims in the 2005 suit. The court noted that winning one suit does not take away the plaintiff’s right to sue for the respondent’s similar subsequent violations.
Further on, Marcel’s request to hold Lucky Brand in contempt for violating the 2005 judgement, was rejected by the Second Circuit. The court noted that the issue at hand in the 2011 suit was Lucky Brand’s use of its own trademarks and not the use of the “get lucky” mark. The 2005 ruling prohibited Lucky Brand from using the phrase “get lucky” and not Lucky Brand’s own registered trademarks that happened to have the word “lucky” in them. The court vacated and remanded for further proceedings.
On remand to the District Court, Lucky Brand moved to dismiss because these claims were released by Marcel in the 2003 settlement. Marcel countered the dismissal by stating that Lucky Brand was barred from using release defence because Lucky Brand could have pursued this defence in the 2005 suit but had neglected to do so. The District Court ruled against Marcel and granted the motion to dismiss Lucky Brand, holding that Lucky Brand could use the release defence and that Marcel’s claims were indeed barred by the 2003 settlement agreement.
The Second Circuit disagreed and thus reversed the ruling by concluding Lucky Brand was prohibited from using the release defence as it neglected this defence during Marcel’s counterclaims in the 2005 suit.
The Second Circuit concluded that this “defence preclusion” doctrine barred defendants from raising a defence that could have been raised, but was not raised in the former suit (a) between the same parties, (b) decided based on merits, (c) the District Court, in its discretion, concludes that preclusion of the defence is appropriate.
- Whether, when a plaintiff asserts new claims, can federal preclusion principles bar a defendant from raising defences that were not actually litigated and resolved in any prior case between the parties.
The Supreme Court panel found each factor to be satisfactory and thus, vacated the District Court Judgement. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari (an order by which a case tried in a lower court is reviewed by a higher court), to resolve the differences among the circuits about the existence as well as the scope of the “defence preclusion” theory.
In a unanimous decision, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the court reversed the ruling of the Second Circuit and remanded the case. The Court held that Marcel cannot stop Lucky Brand from presenting new defence arguments in the case because the actions challenged in the prior litigations in 2003 and 2005 were different actions that involved different trademarks taking place at different times.
Scope of res judicata in the case
It was noted by Justice Sotomayor that “defence preclusion” is not some standalone version of res judicata but it exists, if at all, only as an example of either issue or claim preclusion. And hence, defence preclusion can only be raised when the essentials of the issue or claim preclusion are met.
In this case, the parties agreed that they could not apply issue preclusion, as none of the previous courts had ever ruled anything about the scope of Marcel’s release provision from the 2003 agreement. So, the only way to find that Lucky Brand was prevented from raising its release defence was by claim preclusion.
Judge Sotomayor, while referring to some of the academic commentaries, noted that there are valid reasons to challenge whether the principles of claim preclusion should ever prevent someone from raising a defence, stating that there can be multiple reasons why a certain defence couldn’t be raised, despite it being available. One of the essentials for the applicability of claim preclusion is that the suits must share a “common nucleus of operative facts” which was not the case in the current suit.
In the 2005 suit, the “get lucky” phrase being used by Lucky Brand in its advertisements was the core of all the claims, while in the 2011 suit, the core of all claims was the alleged infringement of Marcel’s trademark by Lucky Brand, through its own trademark. Another point of difference between the two cases was the different periods. The 2011 suit was interpreted as being restricted to the operations of Lucky Brand after the ruling for the 2005 suit was given.
These grounds, among others, concluded that claim preclusion could not bar Lucky Brand from using the release defence in the 2011 suit, regardless of whether it did or didn’t raise the release defence in the 2005 suit.
Other related cases
1. A landmark judgement was given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in State of Uttar Pradesh v. Nawab Hussian (1977), where a direct question came up before the Hon’ble Supreme Court whereby in this case a (Sub-Inspector of Police) was dismissed from the service by the DIG (Director General of Police). He challenged his dismissal order in the High Court in a writ petition stating that he was not given a reasonable opportunity of being heard by the authorities and later he took the additional grounds that he was appointed by the IGP (Inspector-General of Police) and he was removed by the DIG (Director General of Police). The latter has no authority to dismiss him.
The State argued that the additional ground taken by him is res judicata. The State High Court allowed the petition of the Sub-Inspector of Police. But the State of U.P. has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of India, whereby the Hon’ble Bench of Court said that suit Sub-Inspector of Police was barred by constructive res judicata, as the plea was within the knowledge of the plaintiff and could have been taken earlier.
2. In Bhagat Ram v. State of Rajasthan (1972), the court held that once a person is acquitted or convicted by the competent criminal court of law, then he can’t be tried once again for the same offence, as it is prohibited by the doctrine of res judicata.
The doctrine of res judicata prevents multiple judgements over the same issue between the same parties and avoids confusion. In the absence of such a principle, litigations would go on forever in circles and would waste the time and resources of both- the parties involved and the court. Res judicata does not, however, restrict the appeal process. The implication or scope of res judicata is quite wide and includes public interest litigations and writ petitions among other things. With time, the scope has widened even further with the Supreme Court broadening the extent of its judgements.
- LUCKY BRAND DUNGAREES, INC., ET AL. v. MARCEL FASHIONS GROUP, INC.
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