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Res Judicata applied to pet owners claim for compensation after resolution of due process claim.

Root v. County of Fairfax
No. 12-254 (October 10, 2013) (Unpublished)

by Gregory S. Emrick, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In December 2004, the County of Fairfax seized several of Louise Root’s companion animals. After the conclusion of the seizure hearings, the Court determined that Root was entitled to the return of the animals. By this time, the County had adopted out the animals. In 2008, Root brought suit against the County and the eight (8) individuals who had adopted her companion animals. In that action, Root sought return of her animals under State law and Fifth Amendment due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment, pursuant to 42 USC § 1983. The County removed the action to Federal Court and the § 1983 claims were dismissed against it. The case was remanded to State Court to determine Root’s entitlement to injunctive relief under the State law claims. Root appealed the dismissal and the County cross-appealed on the remand. The trial court’s holding was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit. Thereafter, the County was dismissed from the State court proceedings, and the complaint was amended to claim detinue against the four (4) remaining defendants whom had adopted five (5) of Root’s dogs. The Court determined that Root was entitled to the return of the animals, and the only remaining living animal was returned to Root.

Root brought a second suit in 2012 against the County of Fairfax, alleging that Root had not received just compensation for the taking of her personal property – the companion animals that were not returned to her due to their death. The County argued that this Fifth Amendment claim was barred by res judicata, as it arose from the same nucleus of facts that gave rise to the 2008 claims. Root argued that there was no previous judgment on whether there was a proper taking, which was different than the allegations in the 2008 action. Root argued her takings claim was not ripe until she learned of the animals’ death. The trial court, in a bench ruling, dismissed the case as barred by res judicata. Root appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the elements of res judicata, noting that “[a] party invoking res judicata must establish three (3) elements: (1) a previous final judgment on the merits, (2) identical parties in the two (2) actions, and (3) the claims in the later action are based upon the same cause of action in the earlier proceeding.” While Root claimed the issue of the Takings Clause did not have a final determination on the merits, the Court held the third prong was invoked as to whether the claim was new and not subject to a final judgment, or arose from the “series of transactions or operative core facts that were the same as those involved in the earlier proceeding.” The Court held that, while new factual or legal developments may give rise to a new cause of action, Root’s claim for “unconstitutional taking” did not accrue upon her learning of the dogs’ deaths, but arose when the County took the dogs initially. The animals’ deaths were unrelated to the County’s alleged Constitutional violations. As such, she could have, and should have, filed the claim in the 2008 action. Her failure to do so barred the claim and the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case.


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