A Court can Dismiss a Claim Pursuant to the Doctrine of Res Judicata Regardless of whether a Party Raises the Issue

A student asked whether in the United States a court can apply res judicata sua sponte.  In other words, if a party to the case does not argue that claim preclusion or issue preclusion should apply, can a court do so on its own?  The answer is yes. Although parties usually are the ones that invoke res judicata, there are a few cases in which courts applied res judicata on their own.  Why?  Because preventing parties from re-litigating issues and claims does not just protect parties, it also protects courts from wasting judicial resources.

Keep in mind that usually parties must raise their own defenses.  However, because res judicata benefits society and not just litigants themselves, courts will apply the doctrine on their own.




Review: What is Res Judicata?

The videos below will help you review res judicata, including issue preclusion and claim preclusion.  Res judicata is a doctrine that prohibits parties from litigating matters that have already been decided in other actions.  

Res judicata is important because it prevents parties from litigating matters decided in prior cases.  For example, if plaintiff sues a defendant in one trial court and loses, res judicata should prevent that plaintiff from commencing another suit against the same party hoping for a better result in another court.

Courts Hold that Judges can Apply Res Judicata on their Own Because Res Judicata Protects Courts, not Just Parties

In affirming that judges  have the power to apply res judicata to prevent parties from re-litigating issues and claims decided in prior cases, appellate courts explain that res judicata also protects the judicial system, not just litigants.  When a court applies res judicata, the court not only protects parties from re-litigating matters decided in other cases, the court also conserves its own time and expense.  Relitigating a case or issue that was decided in another action is not just onerous on parties, it can drain the resources of the court system.

Examples where Courts have Applied Res Judicata Sua Sponte


Muhammad v Oliver, 547 F.3d 874 (7th Cir. 2008)

The Seventh Circuit affirmed that it was not legal error for a judge to invoke res judicata even though defendants had not argued it. Quoting Arizona v. California, 530 US 392 (2000), the Court explained, the  doctrine of res judicata “is not based solely on defendant’s interest in avoiding burdens of twice defending a suit, but is also based on the avoidance of unnecessary judicial waste.”

Trzeciak v. Petrich, No. 2:10-CV-358-JEM, 2015 WL 13667570 (N.D. Ind. July 17, 2015)

A federal trial court sua sponte dismissed plaintiff’s case based on claim preclusion.  The court explained that res judicata is important only for parties.  “The benefits of precluding relitigation of issues finally decided run not only to the litigants, but also to the judicial system.” quoting Studio Art Theatre of Evansville, Inc. v. City of Evansville, Ind., 76 F.3d 128, 130 (7th Cir. 1996)


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