Harrington v. Inhabitants of Town of Garland, Me., Civ. No. 78-19-B.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Court (Maine)
Citation551 F. Supp. 1371
Docket NumberCiv. No. 78-19-B.
PartiesMarjorie HARRINGTON, Plaintiff, v. INHABITANTS OF the TOWN OF GARLAND, MAINE, Defendant.
Decision Date09 December 1982

Bernard R. Cratty, Cratty & Cratty, Waterville, Me., for plaintiff.

Lawrence E. Merrill, Anderson, Merrill, Norton & Relyea, Bangor, Me., for defendant.


CYR, District Judge.

The present action under section 1983 challenges the constitutionality of a town tax lien foreclosure against real property jointly owned by plaintiff and her husband.1 The defendant Town moves to dismiss on the ground that all claims asserted by the plaintiff in the present action are precluded under the doctrine of res judicata.2


The plaintiff and her husband brought a state court action in 1975 against the Town and others to quiet title to certain parcels of land in Garland, including the parcels involved in the present action. Their state court complaint alleged "that the Town of Garland claims title for unpaid taxes against the plaintiffs ... but that the plaintiffs claim they have paid said taxes and that said tax liens should not be encumberances (sic) against their property." The Town counterclaimed for confirmation of its title to the parcels in question, on the strength of a tax lien foreclosure undertaken pursuant to 36 M.R.S.A. §§ 942-946 (1978).3 At trial the state court plaintiffs introduced evidence that plaintiff's husband had paid $1,400 to the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Garland on an alleged understanding that these monies would be applied toward the purchase price of certain unrelated tax-acquired property of the Town and toward plaintiffs' unpaid tax obligation to the Town on the real estate involved in the present action. The monies were not applied toward the unpaid taxes, however, and the Town's tax liens ripened into title. The state trial court found that the evidence of an oral agreement for the application of the $1,400 toward unpaid taxes was "far from convincing," and, in any event, that "plaintiff's reliance upon the selectmen is misplaced. The treasurer and tax collector was not a party to the discussion." State Trial Court Opinion and Order of July 28, 1976. The state trial court found for the Town and dismissed the complaint, with prejudice, thereby confirming the Town as the owner in fee simple of the real estate which is the subject of the present action. The state trial court denied a motion for new trial.

On appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court the plaintiffs raised for the first time the constitutional challenge upon which the instant action is predicated. See Harrington v. Inhabitants of the Town of Garland, 381 A.2d 639, 642 (Me.1978). The Law Court refused to consider the constitutional claim for failure to raise it before the trial court, id. at 642-43, because the trial court had not been afforded the opportunity to make critical factual findings. Id. The plaintiffs neither sought further appellate review nor requested extraordinary relief from the state trial court.4


Since it is clear that these constitutional claims were neither raised nor decided in the earlier action before the state trial court, the motion for summary judgment presents the narrow question discussed, but not decided, by the Supreme Court in Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 97 n. 10, 101 S.Ct. 411, 416 n. 10, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980). Allen v. McCurry involved a section 1983 action for damages resulting from an assertedly unconstitutional search and seizure. The federal action under section 1983 followed a state court criminal proceeding in which fourth and fourteenth amendment challenges to the admissibility of evidence seized in the course of the search had been raised unsuccessfully by the defendant. The United States Supreme Court held that the plaintiff in the section 1983 action was collaterally estopped from raising his constitutional claims by reason of the earlier state court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the search and seizure. 449 U.S. at 105, 101 S.Ct. at 420.

In its discussion of the applicability of the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel in actions brought under section 1983, the Court stated that "under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action." Id. at 94, 101 S.Ct. at 414 (emphasis added). The Court further explained that federal courts have generally accorded res judicata and collateral estoppel effect to state court judgments because these doctrines "not only reduce unnecessary litigation and foster reliance on adjudication, but also promote the comity between state and federal courts that has been recognized as the bulwark of the federal system," id. at 95-96, 101 S.Ct. at 415.

More to the present point, the Court said:

The Court has never directly decided whether the rules of res judicata and collateral estoppel are generally applicable to § 1983 actions. But in Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 497 93 S.Ct. 1827, 1840, 36 L.Ed.2d 439, the Court noted with implicit approval the view of other federal courts that res judicata principles fully apply to civil rights suits brought under that statute.... And nothing in the language of § 1983 remotely expresses any congressional intent to contravene the common-law rules of preclusion or to repeal the express statutory requirements of the predecessor of 28 U.S.C. § 1738....

Id. 449 U.S. at 96-98, 101 S.Ct. at 416.5

Notwithstanding its sweeping dicta as to the preclusive effect of state court judgments in subsequent section 1983 actions, the Allen Court expressly declined to decide whether a federal constitutional issue, which could have been, but was not, raised in a state court action, can be litigated in a later section 1983 action in federal court.6

The First Circuit has applied res judicata and collateral estoppel to bar federal actions under section 1983 where the constitutional claims had been raised and decided, Diaz-Buxo v. Trias Monge, 593 F.2d 153 (1st Cir.1979); Sylvander v. New England Home for Little Wanderers, 584 F.2d 1103 (1st Cir.1978), or could have been raised, Ramirez Pluguez v. Cole, 571 F.2d 70 (1st Cir.1978); Lovely v. Laliberte, 498 F.2d 1261, 1263 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1038, 95 S.Ct. 526, 42 L.Ed.2d 316 (1974), in earlier state court actions based on the same cause of action. See also Manego v. Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, 692 F.2d 174, at 177 n. 2 (1st Cir.1982) (dictum); Landrigan v. City of Warwick, 628 F.2d 736, 740 (1st Cir.1980); Fernandez v. Trias Monge, 586 F.2d 848, 854 (1st Cir.1978); Hernandez Jimenez v. Calero Toledo, 576 F.2d 402, 403-04 (1st Cir.1978); Griffin v. Burns, 570 F.2d 1065, 1070-71 (1st Cir.1978).

In Lovely v. Laliberte, 498 F.2d 1261 (1st Cir.1974), the First Circuit held that the plaintiff, who had been evicted pursuant to an earlier state court judgment, was barred from asserting in a later federal court action under section 1983 that his first amendment rights had been violated by the state court eviction proceedings. Although the plaintiff had not raised his first amendment claim in the state court proceedings, he could have done so. Id. at 1262.

Res judicata precludes even `perfect defenses ... of which no proof was offered.... A judgment estops not only as to every ground of recovery or defense actually presented in the action, but also as to every ground which might have been presented, ...'

Id. at 1263, quoting Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352-53, 24 L.Ed. 195 (1877).

The First Circuit has held that res judicata bars later litigation of a section 1983 constitutional claim arising out of "substantially the same facts" as an earlier state court action in which the federal constitutional claim was not, but could have been, raised. Ramirez Pluguez v. Cole, 571 F.2d 70, 71 (1st Cir.1978). See also Brown v. St. Louis Police Department, 691 F.2d 393 (8th Cir.1982); Rutledge v. Arizona Board of Regents, 660 F.2d 1345, 1351 (9th Cir.1981); Scroggin v. Schrunk, 522 F.2d 436, 437 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 1066, 96 S.Ct. 807, 46 L.Ed.2d 657 (1975); Spence v. Latting, 512 F.2d 93, 98 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 896, 96 S.Ct. 198, 46 L.Ed.2d 129 (1975). Cf. Almon v. Sandlin, 603 F.2d 503, 506 (5th Cir.1979) § 1983 due process claim "waived" by failure to raise it in state court action to quiet title.

The First Circuit further instructs that "where the state court rendering the judgment would give it preclusive effect, federal courts must give it such preclusive effect" in a later federal action asserting a constitutional claim. General Foods v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 648 F.2d 784, 786-87 (1st Cir.1981) (emphasis in original); accord, Brown v. St. Louis Police Department, supra, 691 F.2d at 395; New Jersey-Philadelphia Presbytery v. New Jersey State Bd. of Higher Educ., 654 F.2d 868, 876, 877 n. 15 (3d Cir.1981); Gresham Park Community Org. v. Howell, 652 F.2d 1227, 1241-43 (5th Cir.1981). Maine law extends res judicata effect to a final judgment involving the same "cause of action" between the same parties or their privies, so as to bar later litigation of any issue which was "tried or might have been tried" in the earlier action, Beegan v. Schmidt, 451 A.2d 642, 644 (Me.1982); Kradoska v. Kipp, 397 A.2d 562, 565 (Me.1979); Bray v. Spencer, 146 Me. 416, 418, 82 A.2d 794, 795 (1951), and accords with res judicata principles applied by the First Circuit in federal actions under section 1983, see, e.g., Ramirez Pluguez v. Cole, 571 F.2d 70 (1st Cir.1978); Lovely v. Laliberte, 498 F.2d 1261 (1st Cir. 1974).

Res Judicata precludes later litigation of any part of the same claim or cause of action, see, e.g., Landrigan v. City of Warwick, 628 F.2d 736, 740-41 (1st Cir. 1980); Beegan v. Schmidt, supra, between the same...

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