THE BORING BUT CONSEQUENTIAL WORLD OF CIVIL PROCEDURE
The Croneys of Bigelow, Arkansas, bought a place on Taylor Loop Road, and — apparently being NIMBY enthusiasts — immediately sued the city to keep it from making their residential road any bigger or better. The court told them they had to name all the other landowners as parties to the suit. They did not, and the court threw the case out.
This was 1998, and the Croneys thereafter probably got busy with Y2K or the dot-com bubble or maybe just going to see There’s Something About Mary. Whatever the reason, they didn’t pursue it. But when the City started to bury new utilities on the road in 2005, the Croneys sued again.
This time, the City complained that the suit was barred by res judicita, a doctrine that prevents parties from litigating the same issues over and over, sort of a “one bite of apple” doctrine. After all, the City complained, the Croneys tried this lawsuit once before and got thrown out. What’s more, when the Croneys added some neighbors to the suit, the neighbors were dismissed as defendants and the Croneys were told to pay their legal fees. The trial court agreed.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case. It concluded that when your case gets thrown out for failure to join necessary parties, you’ve not had a fair chance to litigate the issue. The heart of res judicata is that the plaintiff gets one bite of the apple before the apple’s taken away. Here, the apple was snatched away before the Croneys got their first chomp.
Also, the Court of Appeals was a bit miffed that the trial court said the Croneys’s claims against the few neighbors they did include as defendants to the suit were meritless. The trial court could hardly complain on one hand that the Croneys had no claims against the neighbors and complain on the other that the neighbors were necessary to be included as defendants in the case.
This may seem to be a dry-as-toast civil procedure issue, but on such technicalities serious neighbor law issues may founder.
Croney v. Lane, 99 Ark.App. 346, 260 S.W.3d 316 (Ark.App., 2007). In 1998, the Croneys bought property on Taylor Loop Road. They sued to enjoin the City of Bigelow and Perry County from improving Taylor Loop Road. The trial court ordered them to clearly specify the relief sought and to join in the lawsuit “all landowners that may use the subject road to access their property.” They didn’t do, so the trial court dismissed their complaint.
In July 28, 2004, the Croneys again sued to quiet title to their property, subject to a public easement by prescription across Taylor Loop Road, and to enjoin the City from installing utility lines under the roadway. In response, the City argued the Croney’s lawsuit was barred by the doctrine of res judicata.
The Croneys amended their petition to allege that neighbor Buddy Lane destroyed their trees and was continuing to trespass on their property, and to allege that other neighbors, the Hootens, owned the land. The trial focused primarily on the width of Taylor Loop Road and the uses to which the City has made of it, but there was also testimony regarding the lack of records in the clerk’s office indicating how the road has been used, about the ever-increasing width of the road, and about the City’s placement of culverts and water lines under the road. At the close of the testimony, both defendant Lane and the Hootens moved for directed verdicts. The motions were granted.
The court entered an order dismissing Croneys’ complaint for failing to join all of the landowners on Taylor Loop Road, and because the action was barred by res judicata because appellants had previously filed suit against the City on the same issues and that the previous suit had been dismissed with prejudice. Finally, the court declared Taylor Loop Road a public road.
Croneys appealed, arguing the trial court erred in summarily dismissing their complaint on the basis of res judicata, that the City had no right to bury utilities under, or to widen, Taylor Loop Road, that the Croneys were entitled to a decree describing the City’s easement with specificity, and that the trial court erred in dismissing Croneys’ petition to quiet title.
Held: The trial court’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded. The Court said that the purpose of the res judicata doctrine is to put an end to litigation by preventing the re-litigation of a matter when a party has had one fair trial on the matter. The test to determine whether res judicata applies is whether matters raised in a subsequent action were necessarily within the issues of the former suit and might have been litigated there.
The key question is whether the party against whom the earlier decision is being asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in question. Here, the Court said, the Croneys did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate their case, because it was involuntarily dismissed pursuant to the rules of civil procedure for failure to add necessary parties and to clearly specify the relief sought. The fact that the trial court specified that the dismissal was “with prejudice” didn’t matter, because the trial court had had the option to make it without prejudice, and the rules prevent declaring a case as dismissed with prejudice the doctrine of res judicata should not apply.
The Court of Appeals said that dismissal of the case for failure to join indispensable parties was improper, because nothing in the record showed that the nonjoined property owners could not be joined to the lawsuit. As a predicate to dismissing a case pursuant for nonjoinder, a trial court must determine that the indispensable, nonjoined parties cannot be made parties to the litigation. Consequently, before dismissing appellants’ case, the trial court was required to determine that the nonjoined parties who relied on Taylor Loop Road to access their properties were not amenable to process. Here, the Court said, nothing in the record indicated that these other parties could not be joined.
The trial court had dismissed Lane and the Hootens as defendants because the Croneys presented no evidence establishing that Lane had destroyed their trees or was continuing to trespass on their property. The trial court awarded Lane and the Hootens fees after concluding that the actions against them were “totally lacking a justiciable issue of law or fact, as permitted by Ark.Code.Ann. §16-22-309(a)(1). This offended the Court of Appeals, which complained that the trial court erred, on one hand, in finding that Croneys were required to join all of the adjacent property owners in the suit while, on the other hand, finding that their claim against the only adjacent property owners who had been added was lacking merit.
Although the arguments made against the Hootens were weak, the Court said, the Hootens were nonetheless indispensable parties whom appellants were required to join for a complete adjudication of the road issues. Consequently, the trial court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to the Hootens. As for Lane, he was not an indispensable party, and Croneys presented no evidence establishing the merit of their claims against him. The trial court was permitted to assess fees against the Croneys for Mr. Lane.