Tennessee Supreme Court Delivers Fatal Blow to Mutuality Requirement of Collateral Estoppel

A convicted rapist may not contest his guilt in a subsequent civil proceeding arising out of the same assault for which he was convicted, the Tennessee Supreme Court held in a unanimous decision. In Doe v. Arnold, (No. M2015-00762-SC-R11-CV – Filed September 29, 2016), the Court determined that it was irrelevant whether the plaintiff, the parent of a victim of sexual assault by the Defendant, had any relationship with the state, when she moved to prevent the Defendant from arguing in court that he did not commit the assault.

The legal principle relied on by the plaintiff is called “collateral estoppel,” which essentially means that a party cannot relitigate an issue that has already been decided in a prior legal action. Typically, in order for collateral estoppel to apply, five factors must be present: (1) the issue is identical to an issue decided in an earlier proceeding, (2) the issue was actually raised, litigated and decided on the merits in the earlier proceeding, (3) the judgment in the earlier proceeding was final, (4) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted (here, the defendant) was a party or had a relationship with a party in the earlier proceeding, and (5) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity in the earlier proceeding to contest the issue. If all five of these factors are present, then the party cannot attempt to relitigate the issue and the prior determination by a court or jury acts as an indisputable fact. The law in Tennessee prior to this decision also required that there be some mutuality between the previous case’s and the present case’s parties, meaning that a prior judgment would preclude re-litigating an issue only if both parties had also been parties to the prior proceeding or had a relationship with a party in the prior proceeding. The victim of a crime is not a party to a criminal trial, and so under the traditional rule, the victim would not be allowed to assert collateral estoppel against a convicted criminal defendant.

Tennessee was in a minority of jurisdictions still using this mutuality requirement for collateral estoppel, which had even been partially abandoned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971. But Tennessee’s use of the minority approach has now ended.

The facts in Doe are straightforward. The defendant was convicted of molesting a child he mentored through a volunteer youth mentorship program. The child’s parent sued the defendant, and moved for partial summary judgment arguing “based on his criminal convictions, [the defendant] was collaterally estopped from relitigating in the civil lawsuit the issue of ‘whether he raped and sexually battered’ John Doe.” The trial court granted the partial summary judgment in favor of the boy’s mother, which was appealed and ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court. The defendant adamantly maintained his innocence.

The Court upheld the summary judgment, which had the practical effect of barring the Defendant from maintaining his innocence in the civil suit.  The Court relied on several rationales in reaching its decision to abandon the mutuality requirement.

First, “in light of the scarcity of judicial time and resources, the repeated litigation of issues that have already been conclusively resolved by a court carries a considerable price tag in both money and time.” Additionally, relevant to the Court was the fact that a civil jury has a much lower standard of proof in reaching its decision than a criminal jury. In a criminal case, the jury must reach its decision “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas a civil jury need only find that the evidence preponderates on the side of guilt. On the same note, a criminal proceeding presents many more procedural safeguards than a civil proceeding. Therefore, the Defendant not only had a fair opportunity to defend himself in the criminal proceeding, he had all the protections afforded to him by the constitution, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, and the requirement that prosecutors divulge exculpatory evidence, which is far more than is available in a civil trial.

The Court did limit the decision as necessary to prevent parties from taking advantage of this new position when certain facts present themselves. For instance, the prosecution in a criminal case still may not use collateral estoppel in a criminal case to establish an essential element of a criminal offense. Also, an acquittal in a criminal proceeding does not protect the defendant from liability in a subsequent civil action related to the same conduct.

If you need assistance with a case in which collateral estoppel may be an issue, contact Meridian Law at (615) 229-7499 or info@meridian.law.