Kruckenberg v. Harvey

Decision Date14 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2003AP1813.,2003AP1813.
Citation694 N.W.2d 879,279 Wis.2d 520,2005 WI 43
PartiesLawrence A. KRUCKENBERG, Plaintiff-Appellant-Petitioner, v. Paul S. HARVEY, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the plaintiff-appellant-petitioner there were briefs by William H. Gergen and Gergen, Gergen & Pretto, S.C., Beaver Dam, and oral argument by William H. Gergen.

For the defendant-respondent there was a brief by Jim D. Scott and Wood Law Offices, LLC, Oxford, and oral argument by Daniel G. Wood.

¶ 1. SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, C.J.

This is a review of a published decision of the court of appeals1 affirming a judgment and order of the Circuit Court for Green Lake County, William M. McMonigal, Judge. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Paul S. Harvey, dismissing plaintiff Lawrence A. Kruckenberg's action alleging trespass and conversion and seeking a declaratory judgment regarding the location of the boundary line between their respective properties. The circuit court's order denied reconsideration of the judgment. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment and order of the circuit court.

¶ 2. The issue presented is whether the doctrine of claim preclusion bars the plaintiff's action. The prior action brought by the plaintiff's predecessor in title against the defendant was for failing to provide lateral support; the defendant had dug a ditch. The prior action ended in a judgment of dismissal on the merits. The plaintiff's present action against the defendant is for trespass and conversion (the cutting and taking of trees) and for a declaratory judgment regarding the location of the boundary line between the plaintiff's and defendant's land.

¶ 3. We conclude that the case at bar presents a special circumstance to which the doctrine of claim preclusion will not apply, namely, when a prior action between parties or their privies does not explicitly determine the location of a boundary line between their properties, claim preclusion will not bar a later declaratory judgment action to determine the location of the boundary line.2 Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand the cause to the circuit court for proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.

I

¶ 4. For purposes of deciding how to apply the doctrine of claim preclusion to the present case, we set forth the following facts derived from the record on the motion for summary judgment.

¶ 5. The question of claim preclusion in the present case arises from a lawsuit brought by Donald A. Czyzewski, the plaintiff's predecessor in title, against the defendant in 1982. According to the 1982 complaint, the defendant dug a ditch along the northern boundary of his property, altering the topography and natural watershed, causing Czyzewski's soils and trees to collapse, causing the line fence to collapse,3 and causing the water level of Czyzewski's pond to subside. ¶ 6. Czyzewski's 1982 complaint alleged that the defendant breached a duty of lateral support and a duty to maintain a line fence and that his conduct was contrary to Wisconsin Statutes4 §§ 844.01-.21, relating to physical injury to or interference with real property; § 101.111 relating to protection of adjoining property and buildings during excavation; and chapter 90 relating to fences. For the alleged violations, Czyzewski requested: (1) restoration of the line fence, (2) restoration of the eroded portion of his property, (3) restoration of the water level, and (4) $10,000.

¶ 7. The defendant's answer to the 1982 complaint admitted that the defendant and Czyzewski owned adjoining parcels and that the defendant had dug the ditch along the northern boundary of his property. The defendant denied all other allegations of the complaint.

¶ 8. On April 6, 1983, on stipulation of the parties, the circuit court entered an order dismissing the Czyzewski suit on its merits. The defendant agreed to pay Czyzewski $1,500 and plant rye grass along the drainage ditch to prevent erosion.

¶ 9. Czyzewski's sale of his parcel to the plaintiff was completed after the 1982 lawsuit was dismissed, and the plaintiff claims he did not know about the lawsuit.

¶ 10. The plaintiff had his land surveyed in 2000 and learned that the "line fence" was not on the boundary line; the fence was 16 feet north of his property's southern boundary. In other words, the survey showed that the plaintiff's property included a strip of about 16 feet wide that was previously thought to belong to the defendant and on which the defendant had dug a ditch.

¶ 11. Peace between the parties was disturbed in "late winter and early spring of 2001" when the defendant decided to harvest some trees on the south side of the fence; according to the 2000 survey, the trees were on the plaintiff's property. The plaintiff asked the defendant not to cut the trees.

¶ 12. After the defendant removed the trees, the plaintiff, armed with his new survey, sued the defendant for trespass and conversion (cutting and taking the trees), failure to provide lateral support (failing to plant rye grass continually to prevent erosion), and a declaratory judgment regarding the location of the boundary line between their properties. The defendant denied many of the allegations of the complaint, asserted the doctrines of res judicata and estoppel, and counter-claimed on the ground that the defendant and his predecessors in title had acquired title by adversely possessing the disputed 16 feet for the requisite period of time.

¶ 13. The circuit court granted summary judgment in the defendant's favor and dismissed the action. The circuit court ruled that the plaintiff could not challenge the location of the line fence as not being the boundary line because of the doctrine of claim preclusion. The circuit court found that the line fence was an issue in the 1982 lawsuit and in effect placed the boundary line at the line fence. The circuit court also ruled that the issue of lateral support was litigated in 1982 and that the doctrine of issue preclusion therefore barred this count.5

¶ 14. A divided court of appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment of dismissal, also on the ground that the lawsuit was barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion.6 The dissent reasoned, in part, that the application of claim preclusion to Kruckenberg, given the facts of this case, was unfair.7

II

[1]

¶ 15. This court reviews a grant of summary judgment using the same methodology as the circuit court.8 A motion for summary judgment will be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Wis. Stat. § 802.08(2) (2001-02).9

¶ 16. In the present case no genuine issue of material fact exists.

[2]

¶ 17. The only question presented is one of law, namely whether the defendant is entitled to judgment on the ground of claim preclusion. This court determines this question of law independently of the circuit court and court of appeals, benefiting from their analyses.10

III

¶ 18. To decide this case we must determine the application of the doctrine of claim preclusion.11

[3, 4]

¶ 19. The doctrine of claim preclusion provides that a final judgment on the merits in one action bars parties from relitigating any claim that arises out of the same relevant facts, transactions, or occurrences.12 When the doctrine of claim preclusion is applied, a final judgment on the merits will ordinarily bar all matters "`which were litigated or which might have been litigated in the former proceedings.'"13 ¶ 20. Claim preclusion thus provides an effective and useful means to establish and fix the rights of individuals, to relieve parties of the cost and vexation of multiple lawsuits, to conserve judicial resources, to prevent inconsistent decisions, and to encourage reliance on adjudication.14 The doctrine of claim preclusion recognizes that "endless litigation leads to chaos; that certainty in legal relations must be maintained; that after a party has had his day in court, justice, expediency, and the preservation of the public tranquillity requires that the matter be at an end."15

[5]

¶ 21. In Wisconsin, the doctrine of claim preclusion has three elements:

"(1) identity between the parties or their privies in the prior and present suits;

(2) prior litigation resulted in a final judgment on the merits by a court with jurisdiction; and

(3) identity of the causes of action in the two suits."16

¶ 22. In effect, the doctrine of claim preclusion determines whether matters undecided in a prior lawsuit fall within the bounds of that prior judgment.17

[6]

¶ 23. The parties do not dispute, and we agree, that the first two elements of claim preclusion have been satisfied in the case at bar. The identities of the parties or their privies are the same in the present and the prior suits. The plaintiff was the successor in interest to the property owned by Czyzewski, and the two are in privity for the purposes of claim preclusion.18 The 1982 litigation resulted in a final judgment on the merits by a court with jurisdiction, satisfying the second element of claim preclusion.19

¶ 24. The parties' disagreement focuses on the third element of the doctrine of claim preclusion, namely, the requirement that there be an identity of the causes of action or claims in the two suits.

[7]

¶ 25. Wisconsin has adopted the "transactional approach" set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Judgments to determine whether there is an identity of the claims between two suits.20 Under the doctrine of claim preclusion, a valid and final judgment in an action extinguishes all rights to remedies against a defendant with respect to all or any part of the transaction, or series of connected transactions, out of which the...

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