United States v. Mendoza

Decision Date10 January 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-849,82-849
Citation78 L.Ed.2d 379,104 S.Ct. 568,464 U.S. 154
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Sergio Elejar MENDOZA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent, a Filipino national, filed a petition for naturalization under the Nationality Act of 1940, as amended, asserting that he had been denied due process of law by the Government's administration of the Act with regard to the naturalization in the Philippines in 1945 and 1946 of noncitizens who had served in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II. The naturalization examiner recommended denial of the petition, but the Federal District Court granted the petition without reaching the merits of respondent's constitutional claim. The court held that the Government was collaterally estopped from litigating the constitutional issue because of an earlier, unappealed Federal District Court decision against the Government in a case brought by other Filipino nationals. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The United States may not be collaterally estopped on an issue such as the one involved here, adjudicated against it in an earlier lawsuit brought by a different party. Pp. 158-164.

(a) Under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision is conclusive in a subsequent suit based on a different cause of action involving a party to the prior litigation. However, the doctrine of nonmutual offensive collateral estoppel, under which a nonparty to a prior lawsuit may make "offensive" use of collateral estoppel against a party to the prior suit, is limited to private litigants and does not apply against the Government. Pp. 158-159.

(b) The Government is not in a position identical to that of a private litigant, both because of the geographic breadth of Government litigation and also, most importantly, because of the nature of the issues the Government litigates, frequently involving legal questions of substantial public importance. A rule allowing nonmutual collateral estoppel against the Government would substantially thwart the development of important questions of law by freezing the first final decision rendered on a particular legal issue, and would require substantial revision of the Solicitor General's policy for determining when to appeal an adverse decision, a policy that involves consideration of a variety of factors, such as the Government's limited resources and the crowded court dockets. Pp. 159-162.

(c) The conduct of Government litigation in the federal courts is sufficiently different from the conduct of private civil litigation in those courts so that what might otherwise be economy interests underlying a broad application of nonmutual collateral estoppel are outweighed by the constraints which peculiarly affect the Government. Pp. 162-163.

672 F.2d 1320 (9th Cir.1982) reversed.

Kenneth S. Geller, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Donald L. Ungar, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1978 respondent Sergio Mendoza, a Filipino national, filed a petition for naturalization under a statute which by its terms had expired 32 years earlier.1 Respondent's claim for naturalization was based on the assertion that the government's administration of the Nationality Act denied him due process of law. Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ever reached the merits of his claim, because they held that the government was collaterally estopped from litigating that constitutional issue because of an earlier decision against the government in a case brought by other Filipino nationals in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. We hold that the United States may not be collaterally estopped on an issue such as this, adjudicated against it in an earlier lawsuit brought by a different party. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The facts bearing on respondent's claim to naturalization are not in dispute. In 1942 Congress passed the Nationality Act, § 701 of which provided that non-citizens who served honorably in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II were exempt from some of the usual requirements for nationality. In particular, such veterans were exempt from the requirement of residency within the United States and literacy in the English language. Congress later provided by amendment that all naturalization petitions seeking to come under § 701 must be filed by December 31, 1946. Act of December 28, 1945, Pub.L. No. 79-270, (c), 59 Stat. 658 (1945). Section 702 of the Act provided for the overseas naturalization of aliens in active service who were eligible for naturalization under § 701 but who were not within the jurisdiction of any court authorized to naturalize aliens. In order to implement that provision, the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1943 to 1946 sent representatives abroad to naturalize eligible alien servicemen.

Respondent Mendoza served as a doctor in the Philippine Commonwealth Army from 1941 until his discharge in 1946. Because Japanese occupation of the Philippines had made naturalization of alien servicemen there impossible before the liberation of the Islands, the INS did not designate a representative to naturalize eligible servicemen there until 1945. Because of concerns expressed by the Philippine government to the United States, however, to the effect that large numbers of Filipinos would be naturalized and would immigrate to the United States just as the Philippines gained their independence, the Attorney General subsequently revoked the naturalization authority of the INS representative. Thus all naturalizations in the Philippines were halted for a nine-month period from late October 1945 until a new INS representative was appointed in August of 1946.

Respondent's claim for naturalization is based on the contention that that conduct of the government deprived him of due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, because he was present in the Philippines during part, but not all, of the nine-month period during which there was no authorized INS representative there. The naturalization examiner recommended denial of Mendoza's petition, but the District Court granted the petition without reaching the merits of Mendoza's constitutional claim. The District Court concluded that the government could not relitigate the due process issue because that issue had already been decided against the government in In re Naturalization of 68 Filipino War Veterans, 406 F.Supp. 931 (N.D.Cal.1975) (hereinafter "68 Filipinos "), a decision which the government had not appealed.2

Noting that the doctrine of nonmutual offensive collateral estoppel has been conditionally approved by this Court in Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 99 S.Ct. 645, 58 L.Ed.2d 552 (1979), the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court had not abused its discretion in applying that doctrine against the United States in this case. Mendoza v. United States, 672 F.2d 1320, 1322 (CA9 1982). The Court of Appeals rejected the government's argument that Parklane Hosiery should be limited to private litigants. Although it acknowledged that the government is often involved in litigating issues of national significance where conservation of judicial resources is less important than "getting a second opinion," it concluded that litigation concerning the rights of Filipino war veterans was not such a case. Id., at 1329-1330. For the reasons which follow, we agree with the government that Parklane Hosiery's approval of nonmutual offensive collateral estoppel is not to be extended to the United States.

Under the judicially-developed doctrine of collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision is conclusive in a subsequent suit based on a different cause of action involving a party to the prior litigation. Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153, 99 S.Ct. 970, 973, 59 L.Ed.2d 210 (1979). Collateral estoppel, like the related doctrine of res judicata,3 serves to "relieve parties of the cost and vexation of multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and, by preventing inconsistent decisions, encourage reliance on adjudication." Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94, 101 S.Ct. 411, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980). In furtherance of those policies, this Court in recent years has broadened the scope of the doctrine of collateral estoppel beyond its common law limits. Ibid. It has done so by abandoning the requirement of mutuality of parties, Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Illinois Foundation, 402 U.S. 313 91 S.Ct. 1434, 28 L.Ed.2d 788 (1971), and by conditionally approving the "offensive" use of collateral estoppel by a non-party to a prior lawsuit. Parklane Hosiery, supra.4

In Standefer v. United States, 447 U.S. 10, 24, 100 S.Ct. 1999, 2008, 64 L.Ed.2d 689 (1980), however, we emphasized the fact that Blonder-Tongue and Parklane Hosiery involved disputes over private rights between private litigants. We noted that "[i]n such cases, no significant harm flows from enforcing a rule that affords a litigant only one full and fair opportunity to litigate an issue, and [that] there is no sound reason for burdening the courts with repetitive litigation." Ibid. Here, as in Montana v. United States, supra, the party against whom the estoppel is sought is the United States; but here, unlike in Montana, the party who seeks to preclude the government from relitigating the issue was not a party to the earlier litigation.5

We have long recognized that "the Government is not in a position identical to that of a private litigant," INS v. Hibi, 414 U.S. 5, 8, 94 S.Ct. 19, 21, 38 L.Ed.2d 7 (1973) (per curiam), both because of the geographic breadth of government litigation and also, most...

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